Sometimes you really need to know when to let go. It has been over three months since India conducted an airstrike in Balakot and, in the ensuing confrontation, lost a plane and a pilot who was then quickly returned home. But the desire to claim victory in the face of the exact opposite is a strong one indeed, and despite being roundly questioned and in fact humiliated by international media, the Indian government and most of Indian media is still clinging to the story that – somehow, somewhere – a Pakistani F-16 was also shot down by India.
Forget that not a shred of credible evidence has been provided, forget that whatever ‘proof’ has been presented wouldn’t even be acceptable to the Keystone Kops, they are for the most part sticking to their stance. Pieces of wreckage are shown on television with red circles, arrows and captions, and are claimed to be part of a fallen F-16 and, in one TV show, the anchor had to face embarrassment when his expert guest proved that this was not the case.
But delusion is a hell of a drug and now the latest addition to this comedy of willing errors is a trail of smoke. Yes that’s right… a trail of smoke on which the outlines of an F-16 have been superimposed.
Because this is hard to explain, here’s a picture of what I’m talking about.
As for Balakot, in the absence of any proof that – beyond a few crows – any casualties at all were caused is also not relevant. While most – again including international media – have realized that the strike was largely without result, now an unsourced story by an Italian journalist who was not anywhere near the site and who never visited it is doing the rounds on Indian social media. Instead of commenting on it myself, I’ll leave you with what Ajai Shukla, a prominent Indian journalist and retired Indian army colonel has to say.
But it’s not just denial at work here; those intent on spreading misinformation are aware that in many cases, perception is more powerful than reality. In effect, you don’t have to be right, you just have to convince enough people that you are. And when you can’t convince them, just confuse them. If the stakes, and thus the scope of fake news, was high during and after Balakot, then that is nothing compared to how high the stakes are in the Indian election, where public perception can make or break powerful parties and politicians.
So, it is no surprise that as the political fever rose, so did falsehoods. Here are a few such examples taken from Indian fact-checking sites like Altnews, Scroll.in, Boom and SMHoaxSlayer.
The Abhinandan Who Was Not
So soon after Balakot, it was perhaps inevitable that the strikes and tea-loving Wing Commander Abhinandan would be used for political purposes. But many were surprised to see Abhinandan himself campaigning for the BJP while wearing a BJP scarf. This photograph went viral on Facebook with a caption reading: “Let the Jihadis and Congress know that they could never bring back any army personnel alive, but Abhinandan not only came back, he voted for BJP too. Abhinandan, you are most welcome.”
Except this wasn’t Abhinandan, but just someone who looks like him. In any case, Indian Air Force personnel are not permitted to participate in political activities.
Smoke Without Fire
It is also natural that in an atmosphere fraught with tension and in an election where religion is being openly exploited, much of the fake news would be aimed at inflating the already existing tensions. And that’s exactly what has happened in this election as well.
The majority of the fake news here targets Indian Muslims, painting them as intolerant and violent and seems to be aimed at helping the BJP consolidate Hindu votes by creating an illusion that Hindus are in danger. That certainly seems to be the case in Bihar, a battleground state currently ruled by the Janata Dal (United) party.
Targeting Bihar, a post recently went viral which showed photos of a young woman with deep cuts on her body and the caption reads: “Muslims in Goplaganj district attacked an intermediate student and punctured her body with knife. Everyone remained a mute spectator.
For how long will you let Muslims rape your sisters and daughters. Be ashamed of yourself.”
The images are real, and from Bihar, but the caption is a lie. According to local police the pictures are of a woman attacked en route to a temple in Gopalganj district but the attackers and the victim are both Hindus.
A similar campaign can be seen in West Bengal, where a coalition government under Mamata Banerjee rules.
Here a video was circulated showing a crowd of people thrashing a man dressed in white and the commentary claimed that this was a Brahmin who was attacked by a group of Muslims because they were offended by the sounds of bells coming from his house during pooja. This video has been making the rounds since about 2017, and according to local police the man was a Hindu priest beaten for allegedly molesting a girl. But of course as usual that clarification is lost among the chaos.
While the vast majority of such fake captions are like this, this doesn’t mean that the right-wing is not often on the receiving end. For example, another video was circulated showing a mob strip a woman naked and parade her in the streets, with the claim that these are RSS members attacking a Dalit or Christian woman. Again, as horrible as the incident was, it was not a case of religious hatred but an instance of mob violence sparked by the death of a 19-year-old boy in Bhojpur district.
Fake Pictures and Politics
Apart from incitement to violence, liberal use of Photoshop and fake news also targets prominent politicians with the main focus being on the Gandhi family. Some of these are just too silly to be believed, but apparently there are still a lot of people willing to believe them.
Like this picture of Rahul Gandhi eating biryani with Prime Minister Imran Khan, which is actually a badly Photoshopped picture in which Khan was sharing a meal with his ex-wife Reham Khan.
But it’s not just denial at work here; those intent on spreading misinformation are aware that in many cases, perception is more powerful than reality. In effect, you don’t have to be right, you just have to convince enough people that you are. And when you can’t convince them, just confuse them.
Or then there is the picture in which Sonia Gandhi is seen sitting on the lap of the former Maldivian President Abdul Gayoom. Again, this is a crude Photoshop of a picture taken during the actual 2005 visit of Gayoom to India.
And once in a while Modi also finds himself on the receiving end of such tricks, as we can see in this Photoshopped picture in which he seems to be touching Sonia Gandhi’s feet.
And then there are stories that no one in their right mind should ever believe, like this one post showing ‘fake fingers’ meant to be used in the elections to cast bogus votes again and again. In actuality, these are prosthetic fingers made for the Yakuza, Japanese gangsters who cut off their own fingers 'to atone for serious offences'.
While this last item may seem funny, there is nothing funny about the damage fake news can cause. Take what’s happening in Sri Lanka right now, where viral forwards are claiming (falsely) that Muslim tailors are spraying clothes with a chemical that causes sterility and that Muslim restaurants are adding sterilization pills to their food in order to destroy the Sinhalese population. As insane as these may sound, enough people believe them to use it as a reason to target local Muslim communities and businesses.
The writer has worked extensively in Pakistan's print and electronic media and is currently hosting a talk show on a private TV Channel.
E-mail: [email protected]
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