Case study: politically charged pro-India hashtags amid Kashmir’s digital blackout

The accounts, some of them inauthentic, spread #KashmirWelcomesChange and #KashmirWithModi hashtags at the start of the ongoing blackout

(Source: @DFRKaul/DFRLab via Bannersnack )

This is part one of a two-part case study examining hashtag use as a means of artificially amplifying provocative political narratives, looking back at Indian and Pakistani Twitter accounts deploying competing hashtags in August 2019 regarding the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir.

In August 2019, days after the start of the Indian government’s still ongoing digital blackout of internet and mobile services in Jammu and Kashmir, social media accounts in both India and Pakistan took to Twitter to amplify a series of politically charged hashtags, including some accounts that were inauthentic.

Social media platforms in both countries have become hotly contested spaces, with political organizations and interest groups in both nations seeking to leverage the growing domestic user base on platforms such as Whatsapp, Facebook, and Twitter to amplify politicized and misleading narratives around ongoing political developments. The coordinated use of hashtags, including by inauthentic or automated accounts, that are directly associated with a particular political party or perspective is often undertaken to amplify a particular viewpoint, making it appear more popular than it actually is.

In early August 2019, Indian accounts amplified a pair of hashtags #KashmirWelcomesChange and #KashmirWithModi — a reference to Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi — to minimize reports of civil unrest in the state and express support for recent changes to Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which governs the special status of Jammu and Kashmir. Other Indian users employed the hashtags to further misleading content that showed locals reacting favorably to the government’s actions.

#KashmirWithModi

The hashtag #KashmirWithModi first appeared on Twitter on August 3, 2019, two days before the Indian government’s formal announcement of the changes to its relationship with its northernmost state following the political decision of revoking the region’s special status, a move that, while legal, was nevertheless highly controversial.

An Indian account uploaded a tweet containing multiple hashtags that were related to Kashmir and critical of Pakistan, one of which was #KashmirWithModi. As of October 2019, the tweet showed only a single retweet in terms of engagement.

The initial tweet amplifying the hashtag #KashmirWithModi, alongside other hashtags that asserted Indians’ ownership over the state and accused Pakistan of sponsoring terror groups in the region. (Source: @viramit/archive)

The hashtag gained further traction four days later when @TimesNow, a major Indian domestic media outlet with over 9 million Twitter followers, used the hashtag alongside a photograph of National Security Advisor Ajit Doval meeting members of the Indian security forces.

@TimesNow tweet amplified the hashtag alongside a photo of Ajit Doval, a senior government official, meeting Indian security service personnel. (Source: @TimesNow/archive)

Despite the relatively low engagement garnered by the post, Times Now is a major Indian domestic media network with 9.2 million followers on Twitter and over 68,400,000 followers on Facebook. The amplification of #KashmirWithModi in a post by a mainstream media outlet lent the hashtag credibility while also potentially exposing it to a large domestic audience on either platform.

CrowdTangle analysis of @TimesNow Twitter handle showing that the platform also enjoys a large audience on Facebook. (Source: @Dfrkaul/DFRLab via CrowdTangle)

After @TimesNow’s post, @DVATW, the official account for David Vance, a Northern Irish political commentator and former general election candidate from Belfast, also used the hashtag. On August 8, 2019, Vance posted multiple tweets using the hashtags alongside provocative statements attacking Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, as well as accusing Pakistan of being of a sponsor of terrorism.

Vance’s tweets amplifying the hashtags. (Source: @DVATW/ archive, top; @DVATW/archive, bottom left; @DVATW/archive, bottom right)

Vance’s tweets gained significant traction, cumulatively gaining 21,000 retweets and 52,400 likes by the time of analysis, predominantly from Indian users. @DVATW uploaded his initial post at 4:34 a.m. IST on August 8, coinciding with a spike in mentions of the hashtag #KashmirWithModi. Subsequently, the hashtag appeared more than 144,900 times on the platform over the following four days, indicating that Vance’s use — more than @TimesNow’s — was a more likely driver of the hashtag’s initial popularity.

Sysomos graph showing the growth in popularity of the hashtag #KashmirWithModi in the four days following @DVATW’s initial post. (Source: @DfrKaul/DFRLab via Sysomos)

#KashmirWelcomesChange

The hashtag #KashmirWelcomesChange first appeared on Twitter on August 7, 2019. The first significant amplifier of the hashtag was @republic, a right-wing Indian media outlet with more than 690,000 followers. The account posted the hashtag alongside a link to a video produced by the outlet purporting to show National Security Advisor Doval, who was previously referred to in the @TimesNow tweet, interacting with Kashmiri locals in South Kashmir. @republic’s tweet, however, did not receive significant engagement, with only 20 retweets and slightly more than 150 likes as of October 2019.

@republic’s tweet amplifying the hashtag #KashmirWelcomesChange with a story purporting to downplay reports of civil unrest in the state. (Source: @republic/archive)

A day later, the hashtag picked up traction after it was amplified by Indian users with large followings on the platform, including @SwamiGeetika, an unverified account that espouses highly provocative Hindu nationalist views. The account employed the hashtag alongside a video that purportedly showed Kashmiri locals celebrating the government’s decision regarding the special status of the state and claimed that, while “seculars are sulking at the abrogation of Article 370, an average Kashmiri is celebrating the integration with Mighty India.”

@SwamiGeetika’s tweet amplified the hashtag alongside an old and misleading video allegedly showing the locals celebrating in reaction to the constitutional amendments. (Source: @SwamiGeetika/archive)

The video was swiftly debunked by BoomLive, a local fact-checking outlet, which published a story highlighting that the video had been taken from an April 2019 rally of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

BoomLive replied to @SwamiGeetika’s tweet, highlighting a link to its story debunking @SwamiGeetika’s claims regarding the video. (Source: @boomlive_in/archive)

Despite BoomLive’s debunking the video, @SwamiGeetika’s tweet garnered significant traction, gaining 34,400 views, 828 retweets, and 2,100 likes; it remains live at the time of publishing. Meanwhile, BoomLive’s tweet linking to its story received a paltry 24 likes, once again showing that efforts to debunk a falsehood often garner less attention than the falsehood itself.

Sysomos graph showing the growth in popularity of the hashtag #KashmirWelcomesChange over the four days following its amplification by Indian accounts with large followings. (Source: @DfrKaul/DFRLab via Sysomos)

Amplified by a diverse range of accounts

The hashtags were also amplified by a range of anonymous accounts that exhibited suspicious and bot-like tendencies, such as anonymity, a suspiciously high volume of activity, and frequent amplification of other users. Two of the most notable examples were @sir_jenishpatel and @dairymiilk.

Both @sir_jenishpatel and @dairymiilk employed the hashtags in a series of tweets accompanied by messages mocking Pakistani authorities for preventing the Indian government from imposing major political changes in Kashmir, as well as expressing support for Prime Minister Modi. Other anonymous users used the hashtags to share misleading and old video clips that called on Pakistani citizens to reflect on their government’s sponsorship of terror groups in the region and that attacked Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani human rights activist.

A Google reverse image search of @sir_jenishpatel’s profile picture revealed it to be an image of Kamal Sadanah, a retired Bollywood actor. The use of Sadanah’s photo was a clear violation of Twitter’s rules regarding misrepresenting the identity of an account.

Profile picture for the Twitter account @sir_jenishpatel compared with a photograph of retired former Bollywood actor Kamal Sadanah. (Source: @sir_jenishpatel/archive, top; The Indian Express/archive)

According to open source analysis tool Twitonomy conducted in September 2019, @sir_jenishpatel posted an average of 449 tweets per day. The DFRLab views over 72 posts per day for an extended stretch of time as suspicious and over 144 per day as highly suspicious. The majority of @sir_jenishpatel’s activity at the time was retweets, which represented 80 percent of the account’s total activity on the platform. (At the time of publishing, @sir_jenishpatel’s average tweet rate remains unusually high at 317 times per day, while its retweet rate has not fluctuated since September.)

Twitonomy’s September 2019 readout of @sir_jenishpatel showed a suspiciously high frequency of tweets per day, as well as ratio of retweets versus original tweets. (Source: @DfrKaul/DFRLab via Twitonomy)

@dairymiilk also demonstrated similar inauthentic behavior to @sir_jenishpatel. A Google reverse image search of @dairymiilk’s profile picture revealed it to be an image of Anushka Sharma, a popular Bollywood actress.

Profile picture of @dairymiilk compared with the same photograph of Indian actress Anushka Sharma on a website that collects images of Bollywood actors. (Source: @dairymiilk/archive, top; actorsdp/archive, bottom)

As with @sir_jenishpatel, @dairymiilk also posted a high average of 245 tweets per day, according to a Twitonomy search conducted in September 2019. @dairymiilk’s activity also consisted primarily of amplifying other users’ content, with retweets representing 93 percent of its activity. A high proportion of retweets indicates that an account is acting to boost the signal or messaging from other users, which is a common function of automated accounts. (As of January 2020, the account’s activities remain suspicious, though somewhat less so, with an average of 107 tweets per day and an 80 percent retweet rate.)

September 2019 Twitonomy readout for @dairymiilk also showed a suspiciously high frequency of tweets per day, as well as ratio of retweets versus original tweets. (Source: @DfrKaul/DFRLab via Twitonomy)

From August 7–9, 2019, both @sir_jenishpatel and @dairymiilk used the hashtags in a series of provocative tweets on the unfolding crisis in Jammu and Kashmir. @sir_jenishpatel criticized Pakistan and the Muslim-majority residents of the Kashmir Valley and expressed support for Modi’s assertive stance toward the region.

@sir_jenishpatel tweets of the hashtags voiced support for the Indian authorities’ detention of local politicians and called on other Indian users to post on Kashmir, because “this country is also yours.” (Source: @sir_jenishpatel/archive, left; @sir_jenishpatel/archive, middle; @sir_jenishpatel/archive, right)

Meanwhile, @dairymiilkemployed the hashtags in a tweet targeting Pakistani human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousufzai, claiming that she “is a scam.” Using the rhetoric technique commonly referred to as whataboutism, the tweet referenced figures published by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) on the forced conversion of women belonging to the Hindu minority community residing in Pakistan’s Sindh province. @dairymiilk highlighted the figures to accuse the activist of highlighting alleged injustice against Muslims in Indian administered Kashmir while ignoring the plight of Hindu minorities in Pakistan.

@dairymiilk’s tweet targeted Pakistani female rights activist Malala Yousufzai, accusing her of engaging in hypocrisy, turning a deaf ear to the ethnic persecution of Hindu-minorities in Pakistan while attempting to highlight alleged injustices in Jammu and Kashmir. (Source: @dairymiilk/archive)

Conclusion

As ordinary Kashmiris found themselves removed from the outside world by way of a comprehensive physical and digital blockade, accounts seemingly operated from other parts of India, including some that exhibited inauthentic behavior, deployed political hashtags in support of the BJP-led government’s decision to abrogate of Article 370 of the Indian constitution.

Simultaneously, between August 3–11, 2019, Pakistani Twitter accounts also undertook similar hashtag campaigns, this time targeting India. Those campaigns are covered in part two of this report.


Ayushman Kaul is a Research Assistant, South Asia, with the Digital Forensic Research Lab and is based in India.

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