Pakistan’s New Weapon of War: Disinformation in Cyberspace

India, with no offensive cyberspace strategy and in the absence of a dedicated information warfare section, has been waging a losing battle.
Keywords: Cyberspace | Information warfare | Covid | Pakistan | ISI | ISPR | Disinformation | Weapon | Kashmir | Article 370 | Fake news | Imran Khan | Modi | Delhi Violence | CAA
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As the world witnesses the ever-increasing scope of cyberspace – the virtual environment where communication occurs over mobile phones and the internet – information and disinformation become powerful weapons. Disinformation in cyberspace possesses the potential to inflict hurtful consequences to the country’s national security and foreign relations. In this article, I have analysed how India’s internal security as well as relations with other countries are being influenced because of the use of ‘Information Warfare’ (IW) in cyberspace by rival countries. India’s success in foreign relations was often unrecognized or squandered because policymakers refused to recognize ‘fake news’ and ‘disinformation campaigns’ in cyberspace as a new and dangerous weapon’. Although the Indian Army has a dedicated branch to deal with IW, in the absence of its civilian counterpart, its efficacy is clouded and it yields mixed outcomes.

Kashmir as the Old Battle Ground of Disinformation Warfare 

During the Second World War, Adolf Hitler’s Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels said, ‘A lie told once remains a lie but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth’. Pakistan speaks brazen lies, part of its broader disinformation campaign, even from an officialinternational platform. Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s Representative to the United Nations during a speech at the UN General Assembly on 24 September 2017 had shared photographs of victims of pellet gun attacks purportedly taken in Kashmir. In reality, the picture was that of a Palestinian girl injured by strikes in Gaza, taken by photographer Heidi Levine in 2014.

Picture Description: Pakistan’s UN Representative Maleeha Lodhi showing a Palestinian Girl’s Poster at the UN General Assembly faking it as one from Kashmir

India’s response in Kashmir since 5 August 2019, where special provisions made underArticle 370 were abrogated by the Indian parliament, produced desired results – peace in Kashmir. Bloodshed in the Kashmir Valley has been sharply reduced and communications blackout, that was intended to block social-media incitement to more violence, waseffective. Since the internet was blocked, Pakistan’s information warfare arms, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), which function under the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) could not reach the vulnerable citizens of Kashmir to wage its disinformation campaigns.

After the abrogation of Article 370, Imran Khan called Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to ask India to ‘stop killings in Kashmir’ and urged China to bring a motion against India at the United Nations. In between 5 August 2019 until 10 March 2020, China tried thrice to include the Kashmir issue on the Council’s agenda only to taste successive failures. Imran Khan even repeated nuclear threats against India and compared Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Adolf Hitler and repeated the lie many times that the Indian Prime Minister may commit “genocide”.

The ISPR has become an efficient disinformation tool with a historic ‘India obsession’. It had Tweeted a total of 90 times from 5 August to 31 December 2019, out of which 37 Tweets or 41.11 percent were about Article 370. The civilian leaders in Pakistan cannot go against the military dictate either. Prime Minister Imran Khan Tweeted 239 times between 5 August 2019 to 31 December 2019 out of which 107 Tweets or 44.76 percent were purposefully about Article 370.  Although Pakistan has a full-time Foreign Minister, the country’s foreign policy is virtually run by the army, which has a historical fixation on Kashmir. Shah Mehmood Qureshi, the Foreign Minister of Pakistan Tweeted a total of 94 times from 5 August to 31 December 2019 out of which 51 Tweets or 54.25 percent were dedicated to Article 370. 

Disinformation and CAA

Considering the massive infiltration of social media into the daily life of most people across the globe, Google and Facebook became the most powerful distributors of news and information in human history, accidentally unleashing a historic flood of misinformation in the process. A government in today’s world could ignore the impact of social media only at its own peril.

Ever since the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act (2019) by the Indian parliament on 11 December 2019, mandating the state to provide citizenship to persecuted minorities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, there was a vested disinformation propaganda blitzkrieg spearheaded by ISI. The propaganda was so powerful that it led to street violence in New Delhi when the then US President Trump was on a state visit to India on 25 February 2020. 

With the aid of fake contents, there was a clear attempt to shift the narrative from anti-CAA protests to communal violence and then to claims state-sponsored genocide of Muslims. Over 78% of the original 220 uploaders of discerned fake content originated from foreign countries out of which over 72% originated from Pakistan and Iran.

The result of this deliberate misinformation campaign achieved its goal in Iran, a traditional friend of India. Within eight days after the last reported violence in Delhi on 5 March 2020, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a statement using the ISPR sponsored hashtag #IndianMuslimsInDanger. Iran was the first big diplomatic casualty driven by a disinformation campaign.

As a coincidence, the same day India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar informed the world that a team of Indian doctors arrived in Qom near Tehran to establish the first COVID19 clinic. India reduced oil imports from Iran to zero ever since the US waiver ended on 2 May 2019. Therefore, Pakistan immediately tried to take advantage of the severing of the oil trade between India and Iran.

Coronavirus Pandemic and Disinformation Campaign

The ISPR had created a narrative that India’s response to the Coronavirus pandemic is lopsided and anti-Muslim. While the root of the problem was an unauthorized Tablighi Jamaat congregation in New Delhi, the prevalent narrative was about India’s alleged state persecution of Muslims. The aforesaid Tablighi Jamaat congregation was held without permission in the midst of a pandemic in New Delhi from 13 to 15 March 2020. The religious congregation gathered 3000 Muslims out of which 960 belonged to foreign countries, who flouted visa norms, participated in religious meetings and unwittingly brought Coronavirus inside India.

When Indian authorities initiated action against the unauthorized Tablighi Jamaat’s super spreader event, ISPR spearheaded a coordinated attempt to create an anti-India narrative in Middle Eastern countries like Kuwait, Oman, UAE and Saudi Arabia. ISPR aimed to stoke anger against reported ‘Islamophobia in India’ and victimization of Muslims by other Indians. 

The reality on the ground was, however, starkly different from the disinformation spread by ISPR sponsored disinformation campaigns. On 29 April 2020, India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare reported that out of the 14378 Coronavirus infections reported in the country at the time, 4291 cases or 29.8 % of cases in 23 States and Union Territories were linked to the Tablighi Jamaat event held in New Delhi in March 2020. 

These three different ‘blitzkriegs’ of tweets and FB posts had various degrees of social media outreach. Since a social media propaganda campaign is costless, crossesinternational borders and is available everywhere with unlimited range and durability, ISPR has been using this mode of attacks against India’s national interest with absolute impunity.

India, with no offensive cyberspace strategy and in the absence of a dedicated information warfare section, has been waging a losing battle. No matter how many corrective measures the government may adopt, the damage once done by disinformation cannot be undone. Ensuring timely identification of disinformation and timely removal of such content are merely defensive mechanisms – the traits of a lost battle. Without creating a cyber command, India cannot match the information warfare unleashed by Pakistan. 

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Dr Saroj Kumar Rath

Dr Saroj Kumar Rath teaches at the University of Delhi.

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