Editor’s Note: Ravi Krishnani is a Mumbai-based writer who often writes about environmental issues, internet and technology, and human rights. Working with NGO Aarambh India’s program on internet safety, he has conducted numerous workshops on fake news, misinformation, and digital privacy across India. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
After 40 Indian paramilitary soldiers were killed by a suicide attack earlier this month in Indian-controlled Kashmir, a poignant cartoon started doing rounds on Indian social media: It showed an armed Indian soldier, pressed back-to-back with a group of civilians. The civilians, giggling over their phones, appear to be pushing the soldier into battle.
It was symbolic of the power being exercised on social media: calls for blood for blood, attack for attack. With elections a couple of months away, India’s ruling party BJP needs to show its strength.
Now, as tensions escalate between India and Pakistan, two nuclear-armed states, even more pressure is being applied by commentators on both sides on Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp.
On February 14, a bomb attack killed 40 Indian paramilitary soldiers in Indian-controlled Kashmir. Local media reported that Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed responsibility for the deaths in an online video statement, the authenticity of which CNN has not independently confirmed. India also accused Pakistan of having a “direct hand” in the attack, which Pakistan vehemently denies.
Two weeks later, India conducted air strikes on what it described as the group’s “terror infrastructure” in Pakistan’s territory, though Pakistan denied that the strikes hit any terror targets.
As Indians woke up to the news of the airstrikes in the early hours of February 26, a nationalist hype machine online kicked into high gear. Bollywood stars, politicians, media houses and everyone who had been baying for blood since the initial attack celebrated the strikes.
“Mess with the best, die like the rest,” tweeted actor Ajay Devgn. “Quiet no more!,” tweeted actor Akshay Kumar. Former actor and politician Paresh Rawal weighed in with a tweet thanking Indian prime minister Narendra Modi for “A truly beautiful good morning.”
Amid all this, a glimmer of light did emerge online, in the form of the pacifist hashtag campaign #SayNoToWar. But while people on both sides have appealed for peace and sanity, they risk being outshouted by India and Pakistan’s internet-savvy ultra-nationalists. A young widow in the city of Howrah, who lost her husband in the February 14 attack, says she was attacked on social media after she told the Times of India that “war cannot solve every problem.” Another commentator who tweeted, “#SayNoToWar is not cowardice” was met with vile abuse – and the hashtag #SayYesToWar.
Slogans resounded on social media as a sort of digital chest-thumping: Hashtags such as #SurgicalStrike2 (a reference to a previous retaliatory strike in 2016), #IndiaStrikesBack #TerroristanPakistan, #IndiasRevenge circulated widely on Twitter.
With the hashtags came fake videos, unverified pictures, and other false claims that India’s most vitriolic digital nationalists could find to suggest their country’s upper hand. Clips from video games, falsely labeled as depicting the Indian strike in Pakistan, were widely shared on Indian and Pakistani Facebook groups, Twitter and WhatsApp groups – even members of my family who do not participate in the political commentary online ended up receiving these videos.
Both rhetoric and action escalated on February 27, when Pakistan claimed that it had shot down two Indian fighter jets and captured an Indian pilot. While Indian social media derided the news with #PakFakeClaim, the capture of Abhinandan Varthaman was confirmed by the Indian government.
By this time the gloating had jumped the border. On social media, Pakistani nationalists were quick to launch hashtags like #PakistanStrikesBack, #PakistanZindabad and #PakistanAirForceOurPride. And just as their Indian counterparts shared unconfirmed reports and fake imagery, Pakistani social media users shared videos of a different pilot, who was injured in last week’s Bengaluru’s Aero Show, with claims that he was the captured Indian Air Force pilot.
Since the partition in 1947, tensions have always been high between the two neighbors. India and Pakistan have since been involved in three wars, numerous conflicts, cross-border strikes and stand-offs. For decades, diplomats and special envoys have held talks behind closed doors, but animosity has only grown with India’s belief that Pakistan protects jihadi groups, and Pakistan’s belief that Indian agencies are supporting anti-government elements in its territory.
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous line “War is young men dying and old men talking” is often brandished in these situations. But this time it’s the “internet warriors” whose talk risks driving soldiers into conflict. And the “old men” in politics are well aware that they can milk the situation: Karnataka state chief BS Yeddyurappa, of Indian ruling party BJP, said on Wednesday that India’s air strikes in Pakistan had “enthused youths” and would help his party win seats in the state.
One-fifth of the world’s population lives in India and Pakistan. From a glance at social media, a troublingly large number of them are all too eager for two nuclear powers to start a battle that will be hard to stop.