Fake news amidst national tragedy: The CRPF's second massive security challenge after the Pulwama attack

By Rema Rajeshwari IPS and Dr Suneem Ahmad Khan

 |  5-minute read |   20-03-2019
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On that cold wintry afternoon of February 14, 2019, filled with some strange clouds packing in the sky, this terrible news flew in — a gory attack on a convoy of vehicles carrying security personnel on the Jammu Srinagar National Highway, by a vehicle-borne suicide bomber at Lethpora (near Awantipora) in the Pulwama District, Jammu and Kashmir, India.

The attack resulted in the instant deaths of 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel on the spot. Responsibility for the attack was claimed by the Pakistan-based Islamist militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). The attacker was Adil Ahmad Dar, a local from Pulwama district — and a member of the notorious terror outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed.

Just a few hours into the heart-wrenching incident having inflicted a deep laceration on the soul and the psyche of the valiant force, a team of CRPF personnel was huddled up in an office in Delhi, closely monitoring the photos and videos flooding their computers and smartphones. These images and videos were captioned with text conveying varied contexts — most of them, provocative and inimical to the idea of internal public order and tranquillity of the country.

The maintenance of internal public order remains the celebrated core mandate of the force.

“It was just like salt on our deep wound,” said M Dinakaran, DIG and Chief Spokesperson of the CRPF. “Some of the posts almost amounted to delivering an utter insult towards the supreme sacrifice of our jawans — they did not just lay down their lives so that their death could become the cause of communal strife in the country. We knew we had to step in and do something” he further stated.

The thought led to the inception of a fact-checking team formulated by the CRPF.

Being stationed in New Delhi and a few other regional headquarters, these information warriors have — since the unfortunate Valentine’s Day of 2019 — debunked and busted at least five provocative, baseless and fake posts a day.

The approach was filled with impeccable clarity. The target was identified and visible to the naked eye. The strategy adopted was — “monitor, analyse and debunk”.

main_pulwama_031919080614.jpgThe chaos of fake news, right after the enormous body blow of the  Pulwama tragedy, is what the CRPF had to deal with. (Photo: Reuters)

All personnel and civilian contacts were sensitised to identify and send over any images or posts that they would deem as false or provocative amidst the given scenario. Ocular and auditory vigils at regional offices across the country were heightened, with the induction of more oriented personnel to monitor content on social media platforms. Photos and posts which could be debunked using plain and optimum research were done away with ease. There were posts and material for which men and machinery were deputed on the ground to collect contextual real time veracity.

The falsely hyped martyrdom of 13 sniffer dogs in the attacks is one such hoax that was debunked in a timely way.

In a disturbing post from Buldhana, some body parts in a bucket were falsely claimed to have been of martyred jawans, it being claimed this was how the mortal remains were handed over to the respective next of kin. An advisory issued by the CRPF on its official Twitter handle was a firm “final assault” on the ever-proliferating cancer of such fake news.

Lies spread more rapidly than attempts to expose them. In the absence of a comprehensive study of the Indian social media space, it is hard to say if this misinformation epidemic is an offshoot of automated amplification by bots — or because of the sheer cognitive laziness of people who don't bother overly much about the veracity of information, as long as it suits their biased beliefs.

The experience post-Pulwama has proved yet again that Indians would rather go by the volume rather than the veracity of facts.

This is ascertained by some recent studies, which have shown that people tend to fall for messages that are forwarded by many. This is because they think that if everyone is talking about something, then it must be true. Filippo Menczer, co-author of a study published in Nature Communications, attributed this phenomenon to "social bias" — the human tendency to pay more attention to things that seem popular. Another study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) also concluded that "false stories travel farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information."

When social media influencers, celebrities and mainstream leaders join up on the bandwagon of spreading falsehood, it becomes a different challenge altogether.

A closer look at the nature of misinformation and fake news spread in the aftermath of the Pulwama terror attack points towards the "confirmation bias" — which gets amplified when the low-credible content reaffirms people's pre-existing beliefs. If we continue to allow online social systems to manipulate human rationality, it won't be long before they undermine the credibility of esteemed institutions, like the CRPF in this case.

It was this unfortunate situation that the brave information warriors of the CRPF had to tackle — even as they grieved for their colleagues. 

Having been the peacekeepers of the nation, and truly living up to its ethos of ‘service and loyalty’, the brave warriors have yet again valiantly fought a demon to uphold national integrity and communal harmony in the middle of the most turbulent moment in the recent past that the nation and force was reeling through.

Social media has become a battleground of sorts for competing narratives and common, ill-informed citizens have become its cyber warriors, with or without an agenda. Digital platforms must effectively police these 'buzzer teams' which amplify falsehoods and create a buzz of myths and lies via social media. Fact-checking and concerted efforts to counter malicious content must form an integral part of our policies if we want to uphold the dignity of our institutions and restore the faith of a commoner in the system.

Also read: Pulwama attack aftermath: Why it's a moment of reckoning for WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and Google

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