Post-Truth Diplomacy: Fifty Shades Of Propaganda On Social Media
Pakistan’s ISPR, with its brilliant PR, outshined its arch nemesis. However, there are a few important lessons to be learnt.
The 1999 Kargil war was dubbed as “first Indo-Pak televised war” – when the images from Kargil were broadcast by Indian news channels. For millions of Pakistani and Indian citizens, the primary source of information was tuning onto Doordarshan or Zee news with dish antennas. It gave India an opportunity to control the war narrative and the news cycle. Fast forward to 2019, the Balakot attack and the capture of Indian Air Force (IAF) Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman: The first news break came from the official twitter account of DGISPR and the government of Pakistan.
Back in 1999, Pakistan did not have a flourishing electronic media. It had a state-run TV – PTV (Pakistan Television) and Pakistanis were mostly receiving information from neighbouring India through satellite antennas, BBC, DW and VOA radio broadcasts. It took Pakistan losing a war to understand the importance of free and independent private media. A media that is credible enough to share its own side of the story to an international audience. The then president Pervez Musharraf opened the waves and Pakistan witnessed a boom in electronic media as multiple newsrooms and channels flourished.
As the ongoing crisis somehow comes to a temporary standstill, DG ISPR and his team are leading the war narrative and winning at it while the Indian side seems rather ill prepared to handle this. Even the Indian officials are quoting news sourced from Pakistan. To my utter surprise, the first briefing by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) quoted the tweet of Major General Asif Ghafoor, spokesperson of Pakistan armed forces, and mentioned how Major General Asif Ghafoor changed his tweet informing: “not two but one pilot being captured”. Until then Indian citizens were relying on information coming from Pakistan’s social media that had already shared videos of pilot Abhinandan millions of times. ISPR could have waited a little, vetted the information before sharing it on social media. Apparently, their social media team didn’t realise the effectiveness of their tweets. Many a social media warrior tweeted away without fact-checking with immediate superiors.
Probably, the best and most successful video stunt so far has been the video where Abhinandan can be seen sipping Pakistani chai, slurping it in a typical South Asian way that unites both nuclear-armed nations with fundamental similarities.
Another problematic issue was sharing of a raw video in which Abhinandan could be seen blindfolded and bleeding. It could have led to embarrassment for Pakistan at the United Nations. Already, a debate is brewing about whether he as a PoW was treated humanely by Pakistan’s officials. Social media chatter revolved around the pilot receiving adequate food and medical care.
Amateur videos were released to downplay the effects of first videos and to prove how the Pakistani army jawans saved their Indian guest from a mob. Probably, the best and most successful video stunt so far has been the video where Abhinandan can be seen sipping Pakistani chai, slurping it in a typical South Asian way that unites both nuclear-armed nations with fundamental similarities.
Meanwhile, the Indian government tried to hold the tide and #PakFakeClaim started trending from India’s social media warriors but eventually withered off by late evening and #BringBackAbhinandan replaced it with fervour.
On the Pakistani side #SendAbhinandanback and #MakeChaiNotWar with a reference to his slurpy chai drinking video started trending.
As the day unfolded, the Indian IT ministry directed YouTube on Wednesday to take down 11 videos showing Wing Commander Abhinandan. The Indian Home Ministry claimed that YouTube had swiftly complied but one could still view videos coming from the Pakistani side.
Many Indian citizens are also exhausted by ranting and loud anchors who are reliving the 1999 war and glorifying it. An average Indian citizen is now more digital savvy, be it a 70-year-old granny or a 10-year-old school girl. They don’t wait for Indian channels to broadcast since they have Twitter just a click away.
It is no surprise that no Indian channel broadcast the press conference of Pakistani DG ISPR Ghafoor about the capture of Indian pilot. Earlier two Indian channels ABP News and Tiranga TV received show cause notices for airing February 22, 2019’s press conferences of Gen. Ghafoor.
Within Pakistan, it seems that the right-wing Indian hating voices did not find the usual traction. One sees pictures of #SayNotoWar and #AmanKiAsha going viral instead of burning of the Indian flag. Young politicians like Faisal Vawda, and war-loving anchors on Pakistani side were mocked and shamed down for their hate against humanity. This shows that Pakistan may not have won the war with India but has definitely taken over the war of narratives in a post-truth era.
The author is a journalist.