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KARACHI: As a communications blackout imposed by New Delhi continues in India-held Kashmir, a deluge of misinformation has turned social media into a virtual battlefield.

Since Aug 5, when India annexed the disputed territories of Jammu and Kashmir, several hashtags — such as #Article370Scrapped, #KashmirIntegrated and #StandwithKashmir — have been trending on Twitter in India and Pakistan. The thousands of tweets generated from the hashtags have triggered an unabated exchange of barbs from both sides of the divide.

The flare-up is accompanied by the unleashing of a fierce propaganda machine that has spread half truths, false news and old images and videos, and persistently tried to distort history.

“Since Aug 5, an edit war is raging on the Wikipedia surrounding the status of Kashmir and the debate is far from over. We have locked down over 30 Kashmir-related pages, which means users cannot make any edits to the existing information,” Saqib Qayyum, Pakistan’s Wikipedia editor, told Dawn.

A number of pages — a list is available with Dawn — such as those about Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, Line of Control, Article 370 of the Constitution of India, Human rights abuses in Kashmir and India-Pakistan skirmishes (2019), have been protected from edits.

Over 30 pages related to the dispute locked on Wikipedia

“We are witnessing unprecedented traffic on some of these pages. For instance, Article 370 of the Constitution of India page used to get an average of 30/40K hits daily, but on Aug 5 it got 2.5 million views,” Qayyum said.

“On Monday, when the Rajya Sabha (the upper house of Indian parliament) passed the bill to reorganise Jammu Kashmir into two union territories, various unregistered editors started changing the status of Kashmir from ‘state’ to ‘union territory’ on any page where Jammu and Kashmir was mentioned,” Kautilya, an Indian Wikipedia editor, told Dawn by email.

“Even when the pages are protected from editing, there is a barrage of edit requests to change its status... requests saying that it should be changed,” he said.

According to the Wikipedia editors, “persistent disruption” in editing led to the pages getting locked. “If more than three users or IPs engage in disrupting editing, we lock the page,” they explained.

Besides a wave of edit requests, the editors at Wikipedia are faced with the growing challenge of putting out correct information in the digital age. “New and unregistered editors generally add wrong or poor quality information, nine out of 10 times,” Kautilya pointed out.

“At Wikipedia, we don’t rely on social media for information. We don’t make a change until we see a Gazette notification from the government. Even though we normally take newspapers to be reliable sources, in controversial matters such as the Kashmir conflict, we don’t depend on news sources,” he said.

While old pages continued to be revived, Qayyum said, history was being documented as they created new pages to place the annexation on record. “Pages such as ‘International reactions to the annexation of Jammu and Kashmir by India’ and ‘Jammu and Kashmir (union territory)’ are some of the new pages we have created in the recent days,” he added.

Fact-checkers decry blackout This is not the first time the disputed region is witnessing an information war.

In February, Pakistan and India flirted with war and fought a dogfight in the skies over Kashmir. The conflict was amplified by fake news, lies and waves of misinformation.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before — the scale of fake content circulating on one story,” tweeted Trushar Barot, a former journalist Facebook hired to head its anti-misinformation efforts in India months before the country held its national elections.

As a result of the India-Pakistan conflict, fact checkers are left grappling with a deluge of misinformation once again. “This time the major difference is that [Jammu and] Kashmir does not have internet access. There is no information coming from there,” said Pratik Sinha, co-founder of Alt News, an Indian website that aims to debunk fake news.

“As a fact-checker, I don’t know what communication the people in Kashmir are subjected to. We don’t know what the local rumours are. And if the locals want to verify information, there is no means for them to do that,” he said while speaking to Dawn.

That is why in the information age, he added, a connected world is better than a disconnected world.

Twitter said that it cared “deeply about the issues of misinformation as well as disinformation”, and added that so far the company did not have an official policy to handle fake news on its platform.

“We do not allow platform manipulation on our service, regardless of the political views expressed. This means that the spread of disinformation at scale are all violations of our policies,” a Twitter spokesperson said in a statement.

Facebook, which has hired eight fact-checking partners in Pakistan and India, said it was “closely monitoring the situation in Kashmir as it develops”.

“We work with one fact-checking partner in Pakistan (AFP) and seven fact-checking partners in India — all of whom we are in close contact with at the moment, and have been helping us to identify and reduce the distribution of Kashmir-related misinformation over the last few days,” a company spokesperson told Dawn.

“Platforms are not doing enough. Disinformation is being ‘weoponised’ for political purposes. It is no longer just a hoax or a fun way of expressing things. It has led to 31 lynching incidents in India in the past two years,” said Asad Baig, who recently launched a fact-checking project called Khabar Sachee in Pakistan.

“Social media companies cannot absolve [themselves of] this [huge] responsibility by just hiring fact-checkers. There is already a wide lack of trust on the platforms,” he added.

According to Baig, however, the internet is not the only tool responsible for propagating false news and disinformation. “There is a blackout in Kashmir but mainstream media on both sides of the border are propagating fake news. We all are equally responsible,” he regretted.

Published in Dawn, August 10th, 2019