Indian media trumpeting about Pakistani fake news should look in the mirror first

The proxy conflict.
The proxy conflict.
Image: REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro
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The ongoing border conflict between India and Pakistan has brought to fore the massive misinformation problems festering in both countries’ media.

Yesterday (Feb. 27), hours after the south Asian rivals’ air forces each shot down at least one of the other’s jets, the Indian TV channel Times Now ran a segment that showed how certain Pakistani channels had been using a 2016 photo of a crashed Indian jet, trying to pass it off as an image from the day’s conflict.

But just a day earlier, hours after India carried out an airstrike against a militant camp in Balakot, Pakistan, the same channel had itself shared fake news. Fact-checking site AltNews reported that, along with several other Indian outlets, Times Now had posted a video clip of a Pakistani jet from 2017, presenting it as footage of the day’s strike. Pakistani media outlets also posted the same video with a different narrative—saying it showed that the country’s air force had managed to “retaliate” against India.

Times Now is no stranger to fake news: it has been called out for spreading misinformation many times, including eight times in an AltNews compilation post from last year.

Indian media also shared other pieces of fake news on Feb. 26, including a year-old video of soldiers dancing, which a Telugu TV channel passed off as a post-Balakot celebration. A Hindi media outlet even shared a grainy clip from a video game, claiming it was “exclusive” footage of the strike.

In many cases, pieces of misinformation seem to have been circulated widely on social media before being picked up by news outlets.

While the bulk of the Indian media’s misinformation seemed to have been shared on the day of the Balakot strike, most of the Pakistani media’s was carried the next day (Feb. 27), after the jets were shot down and an Indian wing commander was taken hostage. For example, besides sharing the old Jodhpur footage (which Times Now and others pointed out), Pakistani media outlets did the same with an old image of a jet crash in Odisha, as well as an old photo of an injured aerobatics air force pilot, who they claimed had been taken hostage.

This fake-news arms race is taking place in an atmosphere where government authorities have failed to be forthcoming with details of the actual military operations. Some journalists have criticised the Indian media, in particular, for not asking enough questions on the government’s (largely unsubstantiated) narrative on Balakot. Meanwhile, ground reporting by international media outlets such as the BBC (Urdu), Reuters, and Al Jazeera seems to have cast a major doubt on the scale of casualties India is claiming occurred.

“Unfortunately mainstream media organisations both in India and Pakistan have failed to play their roles responsibly. They have been playing to galleries, giving information from dubious social media accounts and also actively using ultra-nationalistic rhetorics,” Ashok Swain, a professor of peace and conflict research at Sweden’s Uppsala University, told Quartz. “On Tuesday, it was Indian media which went for over-the-top reporting of the highly doubtful success of Indian Air Force attacks on Pakistan’s terror training camp, and on Wednesday, it was the Pakistan media’s turn to pay it back over the reporting of arrest of the Indian pilot.”

But there may yet be an upside to the polarisation in media coverage. “Paradoxically, the over-zealous Indian media and cowed Pakistani media may help prevent escalation of conflict,” Sadanand Dhume, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told Quartz. “Indian TV is happy to run giddy stories about ‘hundreds’ of terrorists killed. Pakistani journalists won’t question their army’s claim that nothing much was hit. Everyone gets to save face, and in south Asia face matters—a lot.”

Read Quartz’s coverage of the 2019 Indian general election here.