Since the advent of social media, it is the first the time the tension between India and Pakistan has escalated into an armed conflict. The medium in a way has pushed up the temperature in the room.
As in all wars, truth is always the first casualty. This time however, social media — on which fake news thrives — amplified and weaponised it.
In their desperate craving for likes, shares and retweets, social media warriors dug up old videos and images and repurposed them. Even video game clips were used to satisfy confirmation biases in the aftermath of the February 26 Balakot airstrike.
Social media influencers, especially journalists and media organisations, made it worse by pushing unverified information.
At times, some of the erring parties in India turned around and pointed a finger at their Pakistani counterparts without any sense of irony.
Traditional media too, seemed to be caught in the nationalistic storm; broad strokes were used to tar all of Pakistan’s media organisations and blame them for the mistakes of a few.
The pushback to fake news came mostly from those who have already been fighting it. Fake news buster and fact checker altnews.in has done 15 stories on the India-Pakistan conflict since February 26; this does not take into account the stories published on the organisation’s Hindi platform.
Fact checking website boomlive.in has done nine stories; news media critique platform Newslaundry took stock of how journalists did not do their due diligence after the Balakot airstrike.
The fact-checking arms of traditional media organisations waded in, with mixed results. The dedicated fact-checking website of the International news agency Agence France-Presse has published a total of nine stories from its India and Pakistan teams – some of them, joint efforts.
The Times of India’s fact-checking arm did some things right but had to retract a piece contradicting the Congress after acting “prematurely.” The episode showed how complicated fact-checking is and the pitfalls of fact-checkers getting their facts wrong.
There were some innovative efforts at countering fake news, too. The Dawn newspaper, on its website, attached a disclaimer to some of its stories that seemed to suggest that it had accepted fake news was an inevitability: “This is a developing story that is being updated as the situation evolves. Initial reports in the media can sometimes be inaccurate.”
Over the course of Wednesday, Faye Dsouza, Editor of Mirror Now news channel stepped in to make critical interventions against fake news. She said that her team would slow down news updates in an attempt to better verify them. She would later deliver a monologue on her channel on the responsible dissemination of information. “This battle is being fought on information being circulated on Social Media & WhatsApp. Do not forward information from unreliable sources, especially if it’ll cause panic. Verify & cross-check every information before you act upon it,” tweeted Mirror Now.
Mirror Now announced that it would not publish the name and photograph of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman. That policy changed shortly after Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that his country would be releasing the pilot on Friday.
The news media in Chennai seemed to fall into a few potential information potholes when it came to reporting on the pilot’s city-based family. The Indian government had released only the pilot’s first name; the name tape on his uniform merely said Abhi. However, his surname soon leaked: it came to be widely known that he was the son of a retired Air Marshal living in Chennai.
A story from the Indo-Asian News Service indicated that Abhinandan was a married man. A tweet from The Lede identified the family’s location and had to be deleted. “We apologise for erroneously identifying the residential colony of the retired Air Marshal in an earlier tweet. We have deleted that tweet. If anyone has a screenshot, request them not to circulate. The Lede is committed to ethical journalism,” said a tweet from The Lede.
Soon, the relevance of such information would become apparent. A video of an interrogation of Abhinandan by his Pakistani captors was released. Among the questions he was asked were the place of his origin in India and his marital status.
The episode has proved that fake news is an organic part of a social media-driven news environment. Social media requires moderation but it looks like traditional media is ill-equipped to do the job. It was heartening to see traditional newsrooms thinking on their feet, but they were few and far between. Fact-checking, therefore, will emerge as a sought-after journalistic specialisation in the days to come.