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Internet shutdown fuels Kashmir fake news battle

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Wahid Bhat | Srinagar

A communications blackout in India’s Kashmir region is fuelling a fake news war with Pakistan, as both sides unleash a deluge of disinformation to fill the vacuum and shape opinion.

India cut access to Kashmir’s internet and phone lines in August as it sought to contain the fallout of its decision to revoke the region’s autonomy.

The stripping of autonomy triggered fury in neighbouring Pakistan, which also claims the Muslim majority territory, as well as the region’s seven million people.

While landlines and mobile phones have since been restored, internet remains cut and foreign journalists have been unable to enter.

In the absence of real news from Kashmir, waves of false information have emerged online. In the absence of real news from Kashmir, waves of false information have emerged online.

“Both sides are stoking tensions, and both sides benefit from the information vacuum to fill the void with their own narratives and push them to domestic and international audiences,” said Jan Rydzak, who has researched related topics at Stanford University.

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“Pakistan cannot afford to let (the Indian) government’s’business-as-usual’ narrative flood its citizens’ social media feeds; India cannot afford to let reports of mass incarceration and chaos flood theirs.”

Disinformation has ranged from old photos from Gaza purportedly showing how India has turned Kashmir intoa “living hell”, to old images of happy children falsely claiming all is well in “the new Kashmir”.

These have been identified by AFP’s fact-checking unit,which has reported on dozens of pieces of Kashmir related disinformation from both sides since the crisisbegan.

From India, media outlets with millions of Twitter or Facebook followers have shared manipulated or out-of context photos and videos to paint a rosy picture of life in the Kashmir Valley.

The Eid al-Adha festival, a major religious holiday forMuslims, was an early battlefront in the fake news war,occurring about a week after Kashmir’s autonomy was revoked.

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In the regional capital of Srinagar on that day, a curfew was in place, thousands of extra troops patrolled the streets and its main mosque was ordered shut.

Online, however, images circulated widely alongside false claims they showed people praying at mosques in Srinagar.