22/09/2016 1:44 PM IST | Updated 23/01/2017 11:04 PM IST

In War Season, Beware Of Disinformation Campaigns

Kuch bhi.

Mukesh Gupta / Reuters

It's war season again. Like 26/11 or the 2013 border skirmishes in which an Indian soldier was beheaded, we will see a lot of stories and counter-stories, all quoting sources that are Anonymous and Top. We need to take all such stories with large doses of salt.

At the best of times, the Indian media is pro-establishment--particularly on foreign policy. In matters of National Security, the media goes a step further and allows itself to become a mouthpiece of the government.

The only problem is, the government is not a monolith. The political establishment is trying to save its skin from public outrage, the army and intelligence agencies are trying to blame each other, the security establishment inside the government is debating different approaches. All of these silos need the media to put out stories that will benefit that particular branch of the Government of India.

As the Modi government found itself falling under the weight of its own promises of giving it back to Pakistan in the same coin, a Whatsapp forward started doing the rounds since early morning yesterday. Indian special forces, it claimed, had crossed the Line of Control in Uri and killed 20 Pakistani terrorists.

Journalists who received the Whatsapp forward called up the Indian Army spokesperson, who denied it. But even if it was a covert operation the Army can't own up to, Pakistan wouldn't stay silent over it. It is logical that Pakistan would make a lot of noise, protest across the world, say India was provoking a war, and yes, retaliate. That is how it has been in the past.

The Whatsapp forward was obvious disinformation campaign to assuage Indian public outrage that has been demanding exactly such a response. While the defence experts told us that such a response could escalate, it seems it hasn't elicited so much as a whimper from Pakistan. Obviously, the story is fake.

But the Whatsapp forward soon became a story in The Quint. "Two units of the elite 2 Paras comprising 18-20 soldiers flew across the LoC in the Uri sector in military helicopters and carried out an operation that killed at least 20 suspected terrorists across three terror camps in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK)," it said. Beyond this, the story has a lot of conjecture to substantiate its claim. Oh this is why the Pakistanis must have closed down airspace in northern areas for civilian aircrafts, and so on.

When many on Twitter doubted the story, The Quint said they had reconfirmed it.

We can now debate whether or not this story, emanating from a Whatsapp forward, is true. Even a half-credible story like this is good news for the Modi government. Modi supporters can now say look this happened, but the government can't own up to it because it was a covert operation. The focus now shifts away from the Modi government's lack of options to whether or not this story is true.

Where are the body bags?

That's not the only story causing confusion.

To show us that that Uri strike was an exception, there are now a spate of stories telling us of infiltration bids that are being foiled. The media can't go and verify on the Line of Control whether some men were trying to come through to this side and the Indian Army rebuffed them. However, when it is claimed the army gunned down such infiltrators, we should ask the simple question: where are the bodies?

Quoting anonymous army sources, the Press Trust of India and the Indo-Asian News Service put out stories that claimed 8-10 infiltrators were killed near Uri, apart from a jawan.

Now they have put out stories that two days after this alleged encounter, the army is still looking for bodies! If the army hasn't even found bodies in 48 hours, how did PTI and IANS know 8-10 terrorists were killed? It also stretched credulity that Pakistan will attempt infiltration on the same sector, Uri, after Indian alertness there would be at its peak.

Officially, the army continues to be tight-lipped about this claim. Some news channels, meanwhile, upped the claim to 15-20 infiltrators.

Made in La La Land

Various media outlets, including Doordarshan, said the day after the Uri terrorist strike that the weapons found on the slain terrorists bore Pakistani markings. The Indian Expresssaid in a story, quoting unnamed NIA sources, that in fact there were no Pakistani markings on the weapons.

An angry Director General of Military Operations responded that the army had made no such claim. They were right: only the media had.

In other words, the media was used to give the impression that there was conclusive evidence of the Pakistan hand, which, as The Indian Express story suggests, there wasn't.

Who is putting out such big claims in the media, which no officials are willing to back? What is such disinformation campaign achieving?

Another rare critical story, in the Hindustan Times, asked what was the hurry to bury the terrorists. In other terror strikes, bodies of terrorists are reserved for some time, and have even been offered to Pakistan to take back. In fact, the army has said they were foreign terrorists, not Pakistani terrorists. The only GPS handset that survived is being sent to the US to take out its data. The Indian Express story suggests that there isn't yet conclusive evidence that the terrorists crossed the Line of Control.

Is there anything in the news you can believe?