Case study: the Pakistani side of politically charged hashtags amid Kashmir’s digital blackout

Pakistanis amplified the hashtags #IndiaUsingClusterBombs and #KashmirUnderThreat

(Source: @DFRKaul/DFRLab via Bannersnack )

This is part two 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.

As the Indian government imposed a digital blackout on Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019, Pakistan-based Twitter accounts amplified two competing hashtags: #IndiaUsingClusterBombs and #KashmirUnderThreat. These two campaigns resembled counterpart efforts by India-based Twitter accounts, which deployed their own hashtags in an attempt to shape the online conversation.

Particularly when public interest in an issue runs high and local social media traffic is obstructed through throttling or outright blockage, credible facts from the area of interest may be sparse. In this environment, coordinated hashtag campaigns can be used to inject bias or disinformation into an information vacuum. As with the hashtags furthered by Indian accounts, the hashtags furthered by Pakistani users sought to stoke the anger of Pakistani citizens by furthering unverified and false accounts of human rights violations by Indian security forces in Jammu and Kashmir. Like their Indian counterparts, the Pakistani Twitter campaigns emphasized the manner in which political parties and interest groups are increasingly leveraging large domestic user bases on social media platforms to further politically fraught narratives with the aim of manipulating popular perception.

The Pakistani hashtags and the accompanying messages cast a dismal, and sometimes exaggerated, portrait of civil unrest in Kashmir, often invoking broader Muslim identity as a means to galvanize the public in the Indian-administered portion of the region. The DFRLab previously reported on contrasting and misleading narratives in the region during the same period.

#IndiaUsingClusterBombs

The first of the hashtags amplified by Pakistani users, #IndiaUsingClusterBombs, first appeared on Twitter on August 3, 2019, two days before the Indian government’s formal announcement of changes to the autonomy and administrative status of the Indian-administered portion of the disputed Kashmir and Jammu region. Pakistani accounts amplified the hashtag as a means of drawing attention allegations of the use of banned and illegal cluster bomb munitions by Indian armed forces in shelling along the Line of Control (LOC), the de facto border dividing the Indian and Pakistan-administered portions of the disputed region.

Map showing the LOC, a highly militarized border dividing the Indian and Pakistani governed portions of the disputed region. (Source: Library of Congress)

The hashtag first appeared in a tweet from the account named @arif_hayat1, which called on the “international community” to act on the Pakistani Inter Service Public Relations’s (ISPR) allegations of human rights violations by Indian security forces. Later that day, the same account posted another tweet with the hashtag alongside photographs of an unspecified explosive device and alleged depictions of the civilian casualties endured by shelling. The account accused the Indian Armed Forces of using cluster munitions to target civilians living along the Line of Control deliberately. (The account has since been suspended.)

The use of such munitions constitutes a violation of international law following the adoption of the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) in 2008, a United Nations-mandated treaty that prohibits the use, transfer of, or stockpiling of such weapons. The photographs appeared to have been lifted from an official press release by the Pakistan ISPR on August 3. Reuters reported that the incident took place on July 30–31, 2019. Indian officials have denied the accusations.

@arif_hayat1 amplified the hashtag alongside photographs taken from an ISPR press release regarding human rights violations by Indian security forces. (Source: @arif_hayat1/archive, top; @arif_hayat1/archive, bottom)

The hashtag gained further traction when it was amplified in tweets from the verified accounts of prominent Pakistani public figures, including Hamza Khan Abbasi, a Pakistani actor with strong links to the current ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) Party; Murad Saeed, the current Federal Minister for Communications and Postal Services; and Asif Ghafoor, who at that time was Director-General of Pakistan ISPR.

Tweets by prominent Pakistani public personalities amplified the hashtag #IndiaUsingClusterBombs alongside messages targeting the Indian authorities. (Source: @iamhamzaabbasi/archive, left; @MuradSaeedPTI/archive, middle; @peaceforchange/archive, right)

Cumulatively, the three accounts had over 4,497,000 followers on Twitter, making them significant amplifiers of the hashtag. The hashtag appeared more than 197,000 times over the following subsequent four days, according to a scan using social media monitoring tool Sysomos.

Sysomos graph showing the growth in popularity of the hashtag #IndiaUsingClusterBombs over the four days following use by public figures. (Source: @DfrKaul/DFRLab via Sysomos)

#KashmirUnderThreat

The second hashtag, #KashmirUnderThreat, first appeared on Twitter on August 2, 2019. @ibnebattuta, an anonymous account with 18,100 followers at the time allegedly belonging to a local from the city of Srinagar, used the hashtag in a series of tweets criticizing the Indian government’s imposition of severe restrictions limiting physical movement, public congregation, and digital communications in the state. (The account has since been deleted.)

@ibnebattuta claimed that the Indian central government viewed the remaining locals living under the blockade as “cannon fodder.” A minute later, the account posted again, claiming that marriage halls in the state were “likely to be occupied by Indian paramilitaries.” Both tweets were subsequently deleted.

@ibnebattuta’s tweets using the hashtag #KashmirUnderThreat. (Source: @ibnebattuta/archive, top; @ibnebattuta/archive, bottom)

Like #IndiaUsingClusterBombs, #KashmirUnderThreat originated from a lesser known account and was subsequently amplified by multiple verified accounts belonging to prominent public figures in Pakistan. These included actor Hamza Khan Abbasi, who also amplified #IndiaUsingClusterBombs; Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir; and Pakistani actress Veena Malik.

Abbasi used the hashtag in a short Twitter thread on August 4, in which he called on Pakistani public figures with large number of social media followers to highlight the Indian government’s restrictions on Jammu and Kashmir. He described the actions as an example of “zulm [“injustice” in Urdu] on a mass scale in our very backyard.” He also invoked religion, declaring that public figures who remained silent on the matter would be “answerable for this silence” before God.

@iamhamzaabbasi used the hashtag in a tweet thread on August 4. The thread gained significant traction on the platform, accruing more than 4,500 retweets and 21,500 likes at the time of analysis. (Source: @iamhamzaabbasi/archive, top; @iamhamzaabbasi/archive, middle; @iamhamzaabbasi/archive, bottom)

A few hours later, Mir used the hashtag in a tweet alongside a written message relaying a plea allegedly from Syed Ali Shah Geelani, a hardline Kashmiri separatist leader in Indian-administered Kashmir, to the wider Muslim community. Like Abbasi, Mir invoked religion, claiming (according to a Google translation from Urdu): “If we [Kashmiris] were all killed and you did not come to our aid, then what would you say to Allah in the next world?”

@HamidMirPAK amplified the hashtag in a tweet that also invoked religious language. (Source: @HamidMirPAK/archive)

Lastly, Malik also used the hashtag in a tweet warning that (according to a Google translation from Urdu) “the whole of India will be engulfed by the fire that India is setting in Kashmir.” In addition to #KashmirUnderThreat, Malik included #GhazWaeHind (“Holy War against India”), a phrase from Islamic religious texts referring to a major battle in India that leads to the conquest of the subcontinent by Muslim fighters. The tweets gained significant traction, accruing more than 3,600 retweets and 20,100 likes combined, predominantly from other Pakistani accounts.

@iVeenaKhan’s tweet issued a hyperbolic and provocative warning to India. (Source: @iVeenaKhan/archive, bottom)

Taken together, the three accounts are followed by 8,733,000 users on Twitter, making them significant vectors for the spread of the hashtag on the platform. In the days following the posts, the hashtag was used by a range of Pakistani users, appearing more than 282,000 times, according to a scan using social media monitoring tool Sysomos.

Sysomos graph showing the growth in popularity of the hashtag #KashmirUnderThreat over the four days, following its use by prominent Pakistani public figures. (Source: @DfrKaul/DFRLab via Sysomos)

Conclusion

The DFRLab has previously examined the manner in which the informational vacuum created by the digital blackout of Kashmir allowed false and distorted information to circulate unchecked. Along with the narrative distortions, targeted hashtag campaigns generated significant traffic on both sides of the India-Pakistan border.

The amplification of these hashtags by prominent social media influencers, politicians, and mainstream media publications raised questions about the role of these entities as sources of information, especially in furthering politically charged narratives around ongoing events or crises, particularly when those directly affected — in this case, 8 million Kashmiri locals — are removed from the conversation.

Additionally, the manner in which the hashtags gained traction also highlighted the role social media influencers play in information dissemination and consumption. This, in turn raised important questions regarding the growing responsibility of those users, who are capable of exerting tremendous influence in shaping public perception, to ensure they do not perpetuate hyperbolic narratives aimed at inflaming public sentiment, particularly when discussing unfolding political developments where other sources of credible information are not available or trusted.


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

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