The Blame Game, Part 2: Pakistan

Pakistani social media users spread false information blaming India for the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka

The Blame Game, Part 2: Pakistan

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Pakistani social media users spread false information blaming India for the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka

(Source: @Dfrkaul/DFRLab via Bannersnack)

This is the second of a two-part series looking at the use of social media in India and Pakistan in the aftermath of the Easter 2019 terror attack in Sri Lanka.

In the wake of the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka, both Indian and Pakistani social media users disseminated sectarian content designed to reinforce preexisting biases on the basis of one another’s ethno-religious identity.

While Indian social media users used the attack as a pretext to attack Pakistan and the Muslim faith in general, Pakistani social media users put out an opposing narrative that placed the blame for the Easter bombing attack on the Indian intelligence services. Accordingly, Pakistani users sought to portray the coordinated bombings as a false-flag operation carried out by India as a means of discrediting the wider Muslim community.

This fight for dominance in the the Indo-Pak information space is only the latest example of real-world events taking partisan form online. Part 1 of this series examined Indian social media users’ “Us” vs. “Them” narrative; Part 2 focuses on Pakistani social media users’ opposing narrative.

Reacting to Anti-Muslim Rhetoric

In response to the anti-Muslim rhetoric disseminated by a subset of Indian social media users in the days following the attacks, a number of accounts belonging to individuals based in Pakistan attempted to characterize the Sri Lanka attack, as well as Indian social media users’ subsequent response to it, as a false flag operation supposedly carried out by the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s foreign intelligence agency.

To construct this narrative, some users shared a video that allegedly showed a Buddhist Sri Lankan man disguised as a Muslim woman. In the video, the man can be seen removing a burqa while being arrested by the police. The caption on the video claims that the individual was “one of the rogues involved in the Sri Lanka bombing.”

Three days after the attack, a social media account claiming to belong to a retired Pakistani Army major shared a tweet that included the same video of the arrest of the Sri Lankan man in a burqa. The tweet also claimed that the individual being arrested was one of the suicide bombers who later participated in the Easter attack. This user’s account had 11, 586 followers.

The Pakistani user’s tweet sharing the old video. As of May 14, the tweet had been retweeted 1,276 times and garnered 1,642 likes. (Source: @marifthahim/archive)

Indian fact-checking website AltNews debunked the video. After searching the website NethNews, the website that had posted the video, AltNews discovered that the video had been uploaded in August 2018. Consequently, the claims that it was taken just before the suicide attack in April 2019 and that it showed one of the suicide bombers were incorrect. Following the AltNews investigation, the Facebook page associated with NethNews uploaded a clarification that the video in question was a year old.

Other users with large followings on Twitter posted tweets that mirrored the charged “civilizational conflict” narrative furthered by Indian users. These tweets made emotive appeals to Muslims living in India and the West to highlight the rising injustices suffered by their religious community and stand up in defense of Islamic values. For example, @ZaidZamanHamid, a verified Twitter account belonging to a Pakistani social media user whose profile describes him as a veteran of the Soviet-Afghan war and a founder of BrassTacks, a self-described “Advanced Threat Analysis Think Tank,” posted another inflammatory tweet on the day of the attack. The April 21 tweet blamed the attack on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) militant group and referred to the group as a “monster of death” created by the Indian intelligence agency RAW. The LTTE, more commonly known as the Tamil Tigers, played a central part in Sri Lanka’s two-and-a-half-decade civil war.

The same user further contended that the Easter bombings represented “RSS Hindu violence” raising “its ugly head again.” RSS — The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh — is a right-wing volunteer organization that is closely aligned with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India.

The tweet by @ZaidZamanHamid linked India’s intelligence agency to the Easter bombing, claiming it carried out the attack via the LTTE. As of May 14, the tweet had been retweeted 707 times and had garnered 1,504 likes. (Source: @ZaidZamanHamid/archive)

A second tweet by the same user made a similar claim two days later, in which he referred to the bombings as “a pure RAW operation.” The tweet also alleged that the attack itself was an attempt to “punish” Sri Lankans while simultaneously “[b]laming Islam,” as well as an effort to “nail Pakistan through disinformation.”

The user’s second tweet alleging that the Indian intelligence service was behind the Easter bombing attack. The tweet provided no evidence for any of its claims. As of May 15, the tweet had been retweeted 493 times and had garnered 1058 likes. (Source: @ZaidZamanHamid/archive)
Sysomos analysis showing a relatively steady increase in followers for @ZaidZamanHamid both before and after the Easter bombings. (Source: @Dfrkaul/DFRLab via Sysomos)

Despite the engagement around its inflammatory posts, according to a Sysomos scan, the verified @ZaidZamanHamid Twitter account saw normal growth — as opposed to accelerated growth — following its posts on the bombings. Created in 2010, the account had more than 230,000 followers at the time of this analysis, making it nevertheless a robust amplifier of false information.

As with the previous claims made by Indian social media users — claims covered in Part 1 of this analysis — the DFRLab could not find any indication of a direct link between Indian or Pakistani intelligence agencies and the suicide bombing. Moreover, the Islamic State subsequently claimed responsibility for the attack. Like the claims linking the Easter attack to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, the tweets linking the bombings to the RAW were uploaded on the day of the attack, before any investigation or official attribution had been completed by the Sri Lankan authorities.

In two other tweets posted on April 22 and April 23, @ZaidZamanHamid appealed to Muslims living in India and the West to rise up against Indian and Western attempts to damage their reputation as a community. The earlier of the two tweets warned the Indian Muslim community that they “should know what’s coming to them” and went on to assert that “even the Lankan blasts are being attributed to Muslims,” despite the fact that “they can be sure that RAW is behind those blasts as well.”

Instead of providing any credible evidence to support either statement, the tweet also included a link to an article about Islamophobic comments made by BJP leader Ranjeet Bahadur Srivastava on the campaign trail during the ongoing Indian elections, wherein Srivastava asked a crowd attending a rally in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh to “Vote for PM Modi if you want to destroy the breed of Muslims.”

The tweet made an appeal to Indian Muslims, warning them of reprisal attacks by the Hindu community while also furthering a narrative of “civilizational conflict.” As of May 15, the tweet had been retweeted 363 times and garnered 580 likes. (Source: @ZaidZamanHamid/archive)

Two days after the Easter bombing attack in Sri Lanka, @ZaidZamanHamid issued a second tweet that sought to make an appeal to “Muslims living in Western countries” who faced “multiple levels of abuse and harassment.” The tweet also attempted to attribute the March 15 terrorist attacks on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, to what the account holder characterized as growing levels of persecution faced by Muslims living in the West at the hands of “Islamophobic gangs” as well as state-led persecution targeting their “entire Islamic identity and Islamic values.”

By furthering a conception of world events centered on “civilizational conflict,” these tweets risked further aggravating sectarian sentiment and amplifying the same ethno-religious narrative that international terror groups seek to instill by attacking minority communities’ places of worship.

The tweet made an emotional appeal to Muslims living in the West. As of May 15, it had been retweeted 234 times and had garnered 552 likes. (Source: @ZaidZamanHamid/archive)

Echoing these allegations, @AfreedeH, a Twitter account whose profile states that the operator is a Pakistani woman based in Chelyabinsk, Russia, posted a tweet on April 28 alleging that Sri Lankan authorities had found that India was “directly involved in #Easter attacks.” The tweet also alleged that the Sri Lankan intelligence agencies had “collected the proof” and had “sent a dossier to the UN.” While a majority of the accounts identified in the analysis claimed to based out of Pakistan, the user @AfreedeH instead claims to be based in Russia.

The user’s tweet furthered the same erroneous claims identified by The Economic Times. The language of the user’s text mirrored that of the accounts identified in the article, including the spelling mistakes. At the time of this analysis, Sri Lankan authorities have made no statements on these claims, nor have any local or international media outlets reported on such a dossier.

As of May 15, the tweet had been retweeted 157 times and garnered 402 likes. (Source: @AfreedeH/archive)

A Deadly Cocktail

The Easter 2019 attacks in Sri Lanka demonstrated that, despite suffering devastating territorial losses at the hands of the U.S.-led international coalition in the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State continues to pose a serious security threat in South Asia and beyond. The prevalence of disinformation and misinformation on social media in the wake of such attacks further undermines security and stability. False content, in inflaming preexisting majoritarian and religious biases, ultimately contributes to terror groups’ objectives to incite violence based on ethno-religious identity.

International media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal and CNN later reported on a reprisal attack, during which a largely Catholic mob vandalized Muslim-owned shops and a vehicle in the village of Porutota near Negombo, one of the Sri Lankan towns bombed in the Easter attack. In another incident, a mob attacked several mosques, shops, and homes owned by Muslims in the Kurunegala District, forcing authorities to institute an island-wide curfew in order to prevent further violence.

Both of these reprisal attacks on the Muslim community in the wake of the coordinated Easter bombings highlight a growing security threat. The combination of a physical attack followed by aggressive information warfare can sufficiently destabilize even the most notionally secure communities, so its presence in an already politically turbulent location such as the Indo-Pak conflict is particularly potent.

The debate over the most effective means of understanding and responding to that threat requires an objective evaluation of the risks posed by the use of social media to disseminate terrorist propaganda. Simultaneously, decisionmakers must also find an effective mechanism to counter the use of decentralized terror networks as well as local proxy groups to carry out attacks.

Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.