Pakistan is not normally noted as a high-tech innovator. Nevertheless, Pakistani and Bangladeshi terrorist groups have developed a new application for social media: Cyberterrorism.
The story begins in the northeastern Indian state of Assam.
A local communal conflict turns into a countrywide panic
Conflict over the control of land, immigration, and political power between the indigenous Bodos tribe in the northeastern Indian state of Assam and Muslim settlers from neighboring Bangladesh exploded in violence in July and early August. An escalating cycle of violence soon resulted in the looting and burning of entire villages. The Bodos said illegal Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh were streaming into the state and taking over vacant land. Muslims said the Bodo wanted to drive out Muslim residents. 78 people had been killed in the conflict, 14,000 homes had been burned, and 300,000 people became refugees.
In mid-August, Muslims staged a large protest in Mumbai, on India’s west coast. Two people were killed and 55 wounded when 10,000 protestors rioted. At this point, a wave of fear began to spread through India’s migrant worker community, fed by rumors of revenge attacks by angry Muslims. The fear turned into panic and spread across India. By Aug. 16, thousands of migrants from India’s northeastern states had jammed into train stations in a mass exodus. An estimated 30,0000 people poured into train stations in Bangalore and Chennai alone.
What started as a local, if vicious, communal conflict in a remote area became a mass panic across India. How did this happen?
False reports spread by social media created mass panic
False rumors of Muslim revenge attacks were fueled by threats posted on social media websites and spread through text messages. Misleading cellphone text messages and other social media messages began circulating on Aug. 15, with warnings that Muslims would attack students and migrants from northeastern India. Threatening text messages also warned that northeastern Indian migrants would face reprisals if they had not left the area by the start of the Muslim festival of Eid al Fitr, which had just begun. Assam’s Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi said rumors spread “like wildfire” over social media and mobile telephone text messages. “New technology is responsible for spreading rumors. It moves faster and reaches more people,” Gogoi stated. The messages spread panic among the northeastern minorities who were already fearful following recent clashes.
Panic was also fueled by false news reports, including reports of mass killings. Edited photographs on Pakistani news websites used pictures of Tibetan earthquake rescue workers walking among dead victims to falsely depict Burmese Buddhists standing among the bodies of Bangladeshi Muslims they had supposedly killed. Other false claims include rape, kidnapping, and intimidation.
Where did these false reports come from?
False reports spread by Pakistani terrorist groups
“After checking and verifying, we are saying, with responsibility, that the bulk of text messages spreading rumors had come from Pakistan,” Home Secretary R. K. Singh said, accusing websites in Pakistan of spreading the false rumors. He said investigators had found that most of the websites had, in an attempt to spread fear of revenge attacks, used pictures of people killed in cyclones and earthquakes and passed them off as Muslims killed in violence. He said that most of the picture were uploaded from Pakistan.
Indian domestic security officials called on the Pakistani government to investigate the claims that groups based in Pakistan had orchestrated a fear-mongering misinformation campaign using text messages and social media. Pakistan denied involvement. Describing Indian claims as “cooked up,” a Pakistani official said, “Instead of indulging in mudslinging and the blame game, it’s time for India to address its internal issues.”
A new social media app: Cyberterrorism
The Telegraph reports:
B Raman, a security analyst and former senior official in India s RAW intelligence agency said the attack had been part of a psychological jihad to cause chaos and communal clashes in India.
“Previously it was acts of terrorism, now it’s a psychological attack creating differences between millions of Hindus and Muslims and people from the north-east and the rest of India. It’s an alarming development which our intelligence agencies were not able to understand we do not have the capability to foil a psychological attack”
He said he believed militant groups allied with the Pakistan Taliban were behind the campaign, but there was no evidence of Pakistan government support.
To take Mr Raman’s analysis a step further; disinformation is not a new tactic for terrorists, but the wider reach that social media enables for the dissemination of disinformation is new. The events described here can be seen as the “proof of principle” that the tactic works. This new development in terrorist tactics has implications that will extend beyond the region. Given the success of the Assam campaign, these methods will probably be used again. And given the worldwide availability of social media, they are likely to be used in many more places than just India or Pakistan.
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