Internet outages and communication shutdowns are not a new phenomenon. This year alone, countries like Venezuela and Sudan have suffered their consequences.
“Governments do this to control information, to control the ability of individuals in a particular area to share information and to organize for the purpose of legitimate, peaceful protest,” said Professor David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Freedom of Opinion and Expression.
However, in a region like Jammu & Kashmir, one of the most sensitive in the world where tensions are incredibly high, internet outages can be incredibly serious.
The disputed territory has long been a flashpoint between two nuclear-armed neighbours – India and Pakistan. Both countries administer areas of Kashmir but claim the region in full. This disagreement has been the focus of periodic conflict for almost 70 years.
“When they are not exchanging guns and shelling each other on the borders, they are exchanging verbal barbs and propaganda against each other,” said Anuradha Bhasin, the Executive Editor of the Kashmir Times.
A communications shutdown
The stakes were raised further in August, when the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stripped the region’s special status, removing the right to frame its own laws.
Anticipating unrest, India imposed a near-total communications shutdown across Kashmir. Telephone lines, internet and television networks were blocked and restrictions were put in place on movement and assembly.
Monitoring organisation NetBlocks observed that connectivity fell from 100% to roughly 9% of nominal levels in Srinagar, the day before Kashmir was stripped of its special status.
‘This time it was a deafening silence’
Anuradha Bhasin told Euronews it had been incredibly difficult for local journalists to get any information across.
“For the first ten to twelve days [after the shutdown], there was virtual silence. It’s not the first time that information has been impacted and affected but this time it was a deafening silence.”
The Kashmir Times was unable to file a single report, or make any contact with their own staff, either at the bureau office in Srinagar or their reporters in the other remote districts of Jammu & Kashmir. Bhasin has filed a petition to the Indian Supreme Court to remove the curfew because of these difficulties.
During the shutdown, security forces in Indian-administered Kashmir have been accused of carrying out beatings and torture. These allegations have not been verified with officials. The Indian army has called such claims "baseless and unsubstantiated".
The United Nations has called on India to end the communications shutdown, telling Euronews that it “appears to be inconsistent with international law obligations of the government of India.”
The threat of misinformation spreading
But while citizens in Kashmir have been unable to communicate, the rest of the world also relies on information online.
Instead of limiting misinformation, there are also fears that internet outages add to already tense geopolitical conditions. Kaye told Euronews that open access is “really critical” to deal with the threats of misleading reports.
“When you shut down communications, people are more willing to accept all sorts of information, in any form of video or text, because they are so hungry. They will perhaps even overlook some forms of information that might not be verifiable.”
NetBlocks said they have seen a number of examples of misinformation, relating to Kashmir, including “mass killings, or instances that really haven’t happened or aren’t happening at the moment.”
“The problem is that when you cut off the reliable sources of news, people fear the worst,” said NetBlocks founder, Alp Toker.
Through social media, reports and images, often graphic, have been shared worldwide, and it can be incredibly difficult to distinguish between what is true and what is misleading.
Euronews has been able to identify at least one example of this misinformation.
A misleading video
On August 18th, a video was posted to Twitter by Ali Haider Zaidi, the Pakistani Federal Minister for Maritime Affairs and a member of Pakistan’s National Assembly. It claimed to show the violent actions of the Indian government in Kashmir, as armed personnel used sticks to beat members of a crowd as they made their way through a residential street. Several people are also pictured lying injured on the ground during the first half of the video.
The video was shared on social media to Zaidi’s 750,000 followers and has been watched more than 200,000 times. But this is not a true representation of Kashmir in 2019 and Euronews has been able to prove that this video is dated and was actually taken in a different area of India.
The same video taken in 2017
Using home-source investigation tools to ‘reverse search’ screenshots and frames from the video, Euronews found identical videos uploaded to multiple social media platforms, with the same video appearing online in August 2017. This confirms the video uploaded to Twitter by Zaidi is around two years old at the very least.
Reading the descriptions on the other identical videos across social media, and several comments posted on Zaidi’s Twitter page, Euronews found many references which placed the video in a city called Panchkula.
Panchkula is located in the northern Indian state of Haryana, at least 200 kilometres outside of the state of Jammu & Kashmir. This is approximately the same distance between Amsterdam and Brussels.
Multiple news agencies have published reports of violence occurring in Panchkula in August 2017.
Fierce clashes erupted in India’s Haryana state after a court convicted the head of a social welfare and spiritual group of raping two women. Thousands of his supporters, who claimed he was innocent, took to the streets in anger across the region, and at least 29 people were killed in clashes with army soldiers.
Comparing frames from the video uploaded to Twitter by Zaidi to agency photos from these protests, Euronews also observed identical features. These included the clothing and insignia worn by the armed personnel.
This further indicated that the video was taken in Panchkula, India on 25th August 2017.
Geolocating the video to Panchkula
In the state of Haryana, home source tools such as Google Street View are unavailable, while many of the streets themselves are not even named. Using enhanced satellite images, Euronews investigated the area and verified the information with local knowledge from journalists in Panchkula.
Several local journalists including Rajesh Kumar, Naresh Narang and Mahinder Pal sent images and videos to Euronews via Whatsapp, which they claimed were taken on the same street as the one captured on the Pakistani minister’s upload.
Multiple sources made reference to an area of Panchkula in Sector 4, near the Senior Wing of Satluj Public School and a street called Ram Mandir Road. This was corroborated with news reports that violent clashes had indeed broken out in Sector 4 of Panchkula in August 2017.
Some of the photos from local journalists listed house numbers on a street in Inner Road, which matched descriptions of the Panchkula area. Euronews then used mapping tools to place addresses with these house numbers on Inner Road in Panchkula.
When we compared photos sent us to by local journalists to frames from the Twitter video, we saw clear similarities between identifiable markers, notably the shape and design of multiple buildings on the street. The same model of car was also observed parked outside the same house on Inner Road.
Additionally, one journalist filmed themselves walking down the street in Panchkula, to give a different perspective of the area. This video also contained identifiable markers to the video posted by Zaidi.
Using enhanced satellite images from Google Earth Pro, Euronews was able to further verify the location of the video, from street patterns, as well as the shape and layout of buildings on Inner Road.
Based on the shadows visible on an enhanced satellite image, Euronews found that the raised section of a pink-coloured building corresponded to a raised section of building on the street, with a smaller building to its left as it appeared on the video.
Similarly, three adjacent buildings, virtually the same size and height were located and verified further along Inner Road. Each of these had partially open spaces on the top floor, which could also be seen on the journalist’s video.
Beyond these three buildings, the road opened out, with a much smaller roof visible except for one raised area on the front, right corner. This also matched the video sent to Euronews.
Moreover, the orientation of parked cars in spaces in front of the houses and the location of telegraph poles and trees along Inner Road matched frames from the journalist’s video.
When analysing GIS satellite imagery, a similar colour of pavement was also observed on multiple occasions.
All the indicators led Euronews to conclude that the video uploaded to Twitter by Zaidi, was actually a video taken on Inner Road, during clashes in Panchkula, Haryana on 25th August 2017.
Minister Zaidi’s response
Using home-source tools, Euronews was able to prove that a video online, claiming to be from Kashmir, was not only two years old, but also taken from an entirely separate news event, 200 kilometres away from Jammu & Kashmir.
Euronews has reached out to Zaidi on multiple platforms for comment on why he chose to upload the video during a communications outage in the region. On Twitter, Zaidi continued to point the finger at the Indian government, ‘irrespective’ of how old the video he uploaded was.
Although it suggests that Zaidi was aware that the video was dated, he made no reference to the fact that this video was taken in Panchkula and not Indian-administered Kashmir.
The video has not been deleted from Twitter and it continues to spread on social media.
‘It is the people of Jammu & Kashmir who have suffered the most’
While internet outages lead to misinformation online, making it incredibly difficult to verify clear lines of communication, it is perhaps the people within these areas that are worst affected.
The UN has reported that shutdown has not only prevented citizens within Kashmir from sharing information but has also limited their access to healthcare and basic economic interests. Those who have lived and worked in Kashmir for decades, like Anuradha Bhasin, seem to agree.
“While India and Pakistan are satisfying their egos and fighting it out with each other, it is the people of Jammu & Kashmir who have suffered the most.”
Panchkula journalists Naresh Narang, Rajesh Kumar and Mahinder Pal contributed their local knowledge and videos to this piece.