New Delhi: The three-day sequence of events between India’s air strikes on the Jaish-e-Mohammed camp in Pakistan’s Balakot and the joint press conference by the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force was a reminder that in today’s world, an information war is very important.
In the 60-plus hours between the strikes and the press conference, a lot of doubts and counter-narratives had already crept in before the Indian authorities woke up to the fact that Pakistan was outsmarting them on this front.
First movers’ advantage
Exactly 87 minutes after India struck Balakot, the Pakistani military’s publicity wing Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) broke the news on Twitter, albeit with a twist.
ISPR chief Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor tweeted at 0512 hours on 26 February saying “Indian Air Force violated Line of Control. Pakistan Air Force immediately scrambled. Indian aircrafts gone back. Details to follow.”
Indian Air Force violated Line of Control. Pakistan Air Force immediately scrambled. Indian aircrafts gone back. Details to follow.
— Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor (@OfficialDGISPR) February 25, 2019
This tweet became the single source of information for Indians and Pakistanis that something was amiss, as the militaries of the two countries were put on high alert, in the aftermath of the 14 February Pulwama attack which killed 40 CRPF personnel.
As journalists began trying to find out the details of the action that took place when most were asleep, Ghafoor followed up with another tweet, saying Indian aircraft intruded from the Muzaffarabad sector. He said as the Pakistan Air Force challenged them, they “released payload in haste”, which fell near Balakot, which lies beyond Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
On this side, there was deafening silence from the Indian Air Force, with no one confirming or denying the information that was being tweeted by the ISPR. It was after 8 am when information started trickling in from “government sources” about strikes having taken place.
Before more information could come out, ISPR tweeted pictures purportedly showing where the bombs fell.
By the time India used a formal press statement through Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale just before noon, social media was already abuzz with many Pakistani handles tweeting pictures and information about the attack to showcase that the strike was a failure.
Even after the briefing, there was not much clarity on whether the Balakot that the ISPR had referred to was the one in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, or another place with the same name in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. ThePrint was among the first to report that it was the one in KPK, which housed the JeM camp.
The ISPR is said to operate 20,000 fake social media handles, according to sources in the Indian military intelligence. These handles, coupled with social media influencers in Pakistan, managed to rule the narrative early on.
A number of videos were also shared in which locals claimed that the bombs fell in jungles and caused destruction to only trees.
To top it all, the Pakistan Army organised carefully-crafted media trips of local channels, followed by foreign publications, to the forest area where they claimed the bombs were dropped.
Most journalists who went to the spot did mention that a JeM madrasa was close by but none were allowed to go and visit the place as the roads were blocked by the Pakistan Army.
The dead crow
The high point of the propaganda was when a top Pakistani TV anchor did a show from the spot, and showed a dead crow to claim it as the only casualty of the air strikes. He even said the ‘qaatil’ (killer) of the crow was the IAF.
Meanwhile, in India, even on the first day, there was no off-record or on-record briefing by the military on the subject, except to state the fact that the Balakot camp in KPK was the target and that 200-300 terrorists were believed to have been in the JeM camp.
None of the pictures and videos shot prior to the Pakistani anchor’s shoot had shown or mentioned any dead crow.
The second day
The next day was a bigger disaster for India as far as information warfare was concerned.
The India-Pakistan news cycle on 27 February began after 1000 hours IST with news coming in of a plane crash in Jammu and Kashmir’s Budgam. Immediately, more news came in about air space violation by Pakistani fighter jets in the Nowshera sector.
Even as facts were being ascertained and the IAF could give any info, Pakistani handles on social media started talking about the shooting down of IAF jets and the arrest of two-three Indian pilots.
The news led to a scramble, and news agency Press Trust of India even ran a news alert quoting “defence sources” as saying that all Indian pilots and aircraft were accounted for.
Minutes after that, the first video of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman surfaced. Maj. Gen. Ghafoor also issued a statement, saying Pakistan had taken two Indian pilots in custody, and one of them had been admitted to a hospital.
What followed was proper psy-ops by the Pakistani establishment. It released multiple videos showing Abhinandan being treated well and praising the Pakistani military.
It was only late in the night on the day that Pakistan finally admitted it had only one Indian pilot in custody.
By then, many handles and even former ambassador and well-known commentator Zafar Hilaly claimed that an Israeli pilot used by the Indian Air Force was in custody. No matter how preposterous his information sounds, it was widely consumed by the Pakistani population, who continue believe that the 26 February Balakot strikes were repelled by their fighters, and that they managed to shoot down two Indian aircraft.
The F-16 question
Another piece of Pakistani propaganda that gathered steam was the ISPR claiming that no F-16s were used, and that none of its aircraft was shot down. However, sources in the Indian establishment continued to maintain that an F-16 was shot down.
Pakistan was quick enough to credit the shooting down of Abhinandan’s MiG-21 Bison to a fighter pilot, and videos emerged of him getting down from a JF-17 fighter aircraft, which Pakistan had claimed was the only type of aircraft it used. The video intended to back up the claims that no F-16s were used.
However, this has been clearly established as a lie. Indian authorities have recovered parts of an AMRAAM missile, which can only be fired by F-16s among the aircraft in Pakistan’s inventory.
Parts of the missile fell in an area east of Rajouri in J&K, injuring a civilian on the ground.
India finally sets facts straight
It was only late in the evening on 28 February that, in a rare joint press conference, the three services came together to set facts straight and answer questions on the record.
It signalled the Indian military’s formal entry into the communication war, putting to rest all speculation, but not before Pakistan had managed to create some doubt with its disinformation.
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