What unfolded in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Chitral district in Pakistan on the morning of 6 September was a classic case of a militants versus armed forces encounter. But what ensued on social media looked nothing less than a war. Militants of the banned Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) tried to attack and take over two military posts along the border that Chitral shares with Afghanistan’s three provinces. The militants were coming from Afghanistan’s side of the border and were repulsed and pushed back as a retaliatory response. The surrounding area and villages had to be searched and cleared for any militants who might be in hiding.
A “tense calm” prevails in Chitral in sharp contrast to the boiling chaos in digital spaces.
The first few reports that emerged on social media falsely claimed that several villages have been taken over by TTP in Chitral. The attack was given further hype by propelling TTP’s usual propaganda where the outfit claims exaggerated figures of casualties in Pakistan’s security forces. Sideways, a stream of anti-Pakistan voices started pouring in a fire of hatred. Some media outlets in India that usually thrive on anti-Pakistan narratives were amongst the first few to float exaggerated headlines. It was only a matter of time before these partial and incomplete news reports were picked up by Afghanistan’s diaspora who exploited these to make a case for fueling the fire that Afghanistan and Pakistan can never co-exist peacefully.
The streak of unconfirmed, biased conclusions drawn from the Chitral situation did not stop here. It was a very alarming sight that old and irrelevant videos were shared online, falsely stating that many security personnel had been taken hostage by TTP. Now had it not been an organized intent to portray the encounter as TTP’s victory, the online discourse would not have missed reports of in-fighting in TTP that also contributed to their quick retreat.
The TTP could not gain anything substantial on the ground from this encounter but it tried hard to push propaganda as reliable information.
This is not to deny that TTP remains an imminent threat to Pakistan; a threat that must be responded to and eliminated as a policy priority, but the flip side of this threat is its reach in digital space.
The information catastrophe that simultaneously unrolled on social media was as much a display of unethical conflict reporting practices as it was of a relatively organized online campaign, that was extracting its life and blood from TTP’s Telegram footprint. However, a gap in authentic information indeed opens room for misinformation and disinformation. But sometimes disinformation is at such a massive scale that actual information cannot find its way through the smoke screen. A viable way to minimize the damage that disinformation causes is to have a fully functional tunnel of communication between the parties that disinformation seeks to harm.
In the events of Chitral, a discourse to reduce the prospects of peace between Pakistan and Afghanistan fully played out.
It was nothing less than a red carpet-moment for all those who can never miss a chance to repeat the playbook of discord between the two countries. TTP, stationed in Afghanistan, will remain a flash point between the two countries unless they proactively charter a course that can build trust in the first place. Until that happens, information catastrophes will very well be the norm.