The year 2019 has seen two major terrorist events striking South Asia. The first one was the 14 February attack where a convoy of vehicles carrying security personnel in Pulwama, Jammu, and Kashmir was attacked by a vehicle-borne suicide bomber claiming allegiance to Jaish-e-Mohammad. The second one was the 21 April Sunday Easter blasts in Sri Lanka that killed more than 250 people, the responsibility of which was claimed by the Islamic State. These two incidents have led to heightened media and citizen activism on terror threats in India. At times laudable, it is also notorious in perpetuating misinformation, sharing of fake news, false posts, images, and videos on social media.
Just after the Pulwama attack, an image of Congress President Rahul Gandhi appeared standing alongside the suicide bomber. Fact checkers debunked the image in no time, but by then it had been shared widely on social media. In days following the Lanka blasts, a lorry driver, an ex-serviceman in India reported into a police control room that “major cities in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Pondicherry, Goa, and Maharashtra will be hit by terror attacks.” He further stated that “19 terrorists were stationed at Ramanathapuram in Tamil Nadu” and could target trains. The lorry driver who claimed to have a “vision” of the attacks was promptly arrested by the Karnataka police. However, the call led to authorities putting these states on alert. These alerts strictly meant for internal security agencies’ consumption somehow managed to find their way into social, print, and electronic media and ended up creating nervousness among the general populace. According to reports, the number of hoax calls received at airports has more than doubled in the wake of these two incidents. On average, 5-6 hoax calls are being received every month, compared to just two a few months ago.
Hoaxes on social media and nervousness among people leading to overenthusiastic calls are one thing. However, there has been an increasing trend of mainstream media houses publishing overzealous news and even photoshopped photos. After the Pulwama attack, several news organization carried a photoshopped image of the terrorist in combat uniform. Social media also shared widely a poster image from pro-IS Telegram Channel saying “Shighroi Aschhe” (Coming soon). This news was taken up by several newspapers intimating suspicion that a big attack might be in the planning stage in Bangladesh or West Bengal. It was the Intelligence Bureau that dismissed the poster as baseless. While these reports are not of much consequence, a worrying trend is that such assertions are spread without any checks. Moreover, journalists contesting such news are quickly dubbed ‘anti-nationalists.’
Law Enforcement Responses
These alerts come at a time when security and intelligence agencies are already concerned about the existence of sleeper cells on Indian soil. This has led to several arrests and close monitoring of groups such as the Jamatul Mujahideen (NewJMB) in Bangladesh which is also said to be affiliated to the IS. JMB operatives have been known to frequent Kolkata and other parts of West Bengal and neighboring states for recruitment and establishing hideouts. Agencies are prompt and taking alerts seriously and cracking down on suspected handlers. There are forces deployed in sensitive areas, religious places, markets, malls, shopping plazas, multiplexes, airport, railway station, inter-state bus terminal, and public places to prevent an untoward incident. The police are holding meetings with stakeholders to assess their preparedness for dealing with any unforeseen incident or attack. Karnataka Police, for example, is working intensely for the enforcement of the Karnataka Public Safety (Measures) Enforcement Act, 2017. Under the act, surveillance cameras, metal detectors, baggage scanners, and check points for frisking the people to minimize the risk of any attack have become mandatory. Particular attention is being paid to cosmopolitan cities like Delhi, Mumbai, and Bengaluru that have global firms, government departments, defense organizations, aerospace industries, business conglomerates state-run research and development institutes. Security in tourist attractions such as Goa, Rajasthan, Mysuru, etc. have also been enhanced.
Authorities at times take the step of curbing the spread of fake news by blocking social media. For instance, post the Lanka bombings, the island nation blocked access to Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp, Viber, and YouTube in order to stabilize the situation in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. In the past, Sri Lanka has struggled to contain the viral nature of misinformation, which in some cases has led to protests, looting, and violent riots, often with a sectarian or religious element to them. Blocking of social media somewhat helped to stop the spread of misinformation, debunk fake news, and avoid rumors that could have led to more chaos and possible cases of religious intolerance.
In the run-up to the 2019 Indian Parliamentary elections, Facebook took upon itself to block accounts using artificial intelligence (AI) identifying abusive, inauthentic, or violent content. Posts that violate Facebook’s community guidelines, including hate speech or content that could incite violence, were deleted. Google partnered with fact-checkers to train 10,000 journalists this year to better tackle fake news. WhatsApp has launched newspaper and radio campaigns to deter the spread of misinformation. Several media organizations such as BBC have a dedicated WhatsApp number where posts can be flagged for further checks. Facebook is also planning to hire digital-era journalists and news publishers to tackle fake content. Whatsapp’s Checkpoint Tipline helps people verify if any information they receive is true or false. It is aimed at creating a database of rumours.
However, there is no silver bullet to fight misinformation. Even when content is removed, modified versions of the same can escape detection and spread further. Any terrorist attack leaves the nationalistic sentiments running high. Therefore, it is the combined role of political parties, media, and the general populace to not give any space for false terror chatter. Media particularly has a responsibility to play due to its reach and perceived credibility. Fake news not only dents that credibility but can lead to further fracturing of communities and raising of ground temperatures.
*** The author is currently an independent analyst of geopolitical issues, was earlier associated with Bangalore-based NIAS, and was also a Fulbright Adjunct Faculty at American University, Washington DC ***