Information wars, fake news, propaganda, and fact and fiction: all of which have become a foggy mess in the digital age. Fact-checking is unimportant and fake news is rampant. In times of uncertainty and political turmoil, information wars take centre stage to win hearts and minds of the people in order to win support and implement changes in policy and human lives.
The current farmer protests in and around Delhi and across India by farmers and agricultural workers are at a crucial juncture. As I write this piece, the protests are at their 26th day with no end in sight. Numerous meetings have been held with more to follow with the government, but an impasse is in place, as neither side wants to renounce their demands. The farmers want a complete repelling of the new 3 laws, which deregulate the sale of farming produce, allow storage of crops for longer periods and when involved in disputes with buyers over their produce, strip them of their civil recourse (this is a very simplistic summary. This article will focus on other issues). BJP, the Indian government’s ruling party, has recently announced a national programme of 100 press conferences and 700 meetings with farmers[i] to further clarify why the laws benefit the farmers and should remain as they are.
Information wars will now take place are central to the protests, receiving backlash from the Indian national media, maligning the protestors as:
- simple-minded, as they do not realise that the laws will benefit them;
- led by opposition political parties to destabilise the current government.
The ante will be upped in the coming days as the protests continue. It is a frightful scenario to be fighting a citizen-led information war against an Indian state: a powerful entity and known to have invested significant resources into fake news and IT cells to affect all platforms of social media. So, from the perspective of the citizens and protestors, what are they up against?
Recently, a 15-year-old campaign of disinformation was uncovered by the EU Disinfo Lab in which they found 750 fake media outlets created to serve Indian interests. This included manufacturing quotes from a dead professor and resurrecting defunct organisations, all with the aim of discrediting Pakistan internationally and influencing decision-making at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), European Parliament and the EU. The headlines of the research report, ‘Indian Chronicles’[ii], are:
- 10+ UN Human Rights Council accredited NGOs, mostly resurrected;
- The resurrection of Prof. Louis B. Sohn, a prominent figure in human rights, deceased in 2006;
- Several identity thefts, including the name of Martin Schulz, former president of the European Parliament or the photo of James Purnell, a former UK Government minister;
- 750+ fake media outlets, covering 119 countries;
- 550+ domain names registered.
There is no evidence linking the above network to the Indian government, but it serves the political interests of India. New Delhi based business association, the Srivastava Group, is said to have run the network. This is what Indian citizens are up against and the farmers’ protest when fighting their information war. Sharing memes and news in English and Punjabi will not suffice: campaigns in all languages of India are required. This requires considerable resource and activists have homed in on those languages, continuously posting, sharing and commenting on information about genuine concerns against the corporatisation of farming.
India is ranked 142nd in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index[iii] and Reporters Without Borders who compile the ranking said, ‘…there have been constant press freedom violations, including police violence against journalists, ambushes by political activists, and reprisals instigated by criminal groups or corrupt local officials.’ More powers to the ‘Ministry of Information and Broadcasting’ of the Indian state have increased fears of further censorship.[iv] The ministry already regulates and censors print newspapers, television, films and theatre but will now also regulate all online news, social platforms and video streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime.[v] Sikh activists are all too weary of the increasing censorship of their posts on social media and within India, with many URL’s banned across the country and legal notices against posts that supposedly violate Indian law increasing day-by-day. [vi]
The BJP’s IT cell is oiled and ready to work for their party and government as reported by the Print https://theprint.in/opinion/pov/indians-are-fighting-against-coronavirus-and-bjp-it-cell-is-fighting-against-indians/395058/. This article highlights the incredulity of the movement but also fits the bill for what we have observed with the farmers’ protest through social media, which has seen high profile figures making disparaging inaccurate comments about protestors but also popular propaganda of how the protestors are wealthy, entitled and supposedly hostile towards national India. Complaints of pizza being served as Langar and elderly protestors receiving foot massages have led the onslaught on social media, rather than the proof of peaceful protestors being attacked with tear gas and water cannons, sleeping on cold roads in harsh winter conditions. In January 2020, 18,000 twitter accounts were found to be spreading fake news for the BJP and 147 for the Congress party.[vii]
In August 2019, the Modi government revoked Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status and implemented an internet shutdown for over 7 months – the longest known internet shutdown for a ‘democratic’ nation.[viii] Growing fears concerining the sight of internet jammers at the Singhu Delhi border protests is based upon recent past experience of how the Indian government has suppressed democratic voices of its own citizens.
Tell the truth. Spread the truth. Be the voice of the oppressed. Draw distinct lines between fake and factual news. The lines have been drawn, and we must actively support farmers and agricultural workers of India, so they can go back to farming, supplying crops and feeding and nourishing the nation.
Nobody wants to see conflict after peaceful protests. No one wants to be vilified for trying to earn an honest living. Can the Indian republic meet the genuine demands of the ‘peasant farmers’ or will they rail-road another authentic voice for worker’s rights? Only time will tell.
It is imperative that we continue to campaign to bring the protest to an end and serve the needs and requirements of farmers. Now the imposition of national agricultural laws has superseded previous state-specific legislation. The previous legal framework, whilst imperfect, worked for Punjab and Haryana. All the protestors want, is a return of their rights. As the Sikh diaspora, anxiously watches on, we can only hope India reinstates worker’s rights for its citizens, farmers and labourers. God bless the people of India.