Release of Abhinandan Varthaman and social media influence

Indian pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan captured by Pakistan is seen in this handout photo released February 27, 2019. Inter Service Public Relation (ISPR) Handout via REUTERS

NEW YORK – Geneva Conventions apart, how much of a role did social media play in the almost instantaneous release of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman?

Social media in India and Pakistan exploded in the wake of the capture of the Indian Air Force officer, who landed in the clutches of the Pakistani army, after being forced to eject from his fighter plane.

The reverberations across the social media was like a mini revolution in itself, in its sheer intensity of pent-up anger, spewing original and convoluted videos, photos, memes, news articles, and messages.


It had no boundaries.

It was not just a virtual battle between people living in India and Pakistan. The subcontinent diaspora globally reacted with anger, warmongering, condemnation, fear and appeals, through tens of millions of social media pieces.

Those who could not clearly formulate their own opinions, just fwd. some they sympathized with, or felt they could relate to. On Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and YouTube, there were plenty of arguments, back and forth diatribe; reason, indecision and indignation clashed with nationalism, or charges of anti-nationalism.

It was like a giant churning social media Hadron Collider machine which had captured people’s thoughts and emotions, flinging it around with enough venom for even the Indian government to sit up and react to it, with caution. That they had never seen anything on this large scale before, was evident by the unique steps they took to try curb it.

India’s minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, Union Minister of Information Technology, among other portfolios he holds, announced curbs on what people should see online, of the ongoing conflict.

“In the light of the situation prevailing in the country today, we expect the social media platforms to ensure that they should not allow their platform to be abused by content which is designed to weaken the morale of the country,” he declared.

It was an ambiguous appeal, but the Indian government also directed Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube to take down some videos showing Abhinandan captured by Pakistan.

“We comply with valid legal requests from authorities wherever possible, consistent with our longstanding policy and act quickly to remove such material,” said a spokesman for the company, while not commenting on the exact nature of the videos it had taken down.

Social media has been abused in India of late, with WhatsApp allowing incendiary and inflammatory messages to spread at lightning speed, and congregation of mobs to stoke violence.

A series of recent lynchings in India because of suspicion of cow slaughter and child abductions was blamed partly on social media. An estimated 41 per cent of the population in India is by now online. Encryption in social media is a huge hurdle for the Indian government, to punish lawbreakers.

The Indian government, even as they ratcheted up international pressure on Pakistan in the wake of the attack in Pulwama by the Jaish-e-Mohammed outfit and capture of Varthaman, was acutely aware of the danger of religious and ethnic riots that could flare up and get out of control, fanned through social media. It was the reason why Prime Minister Modi was quick to denounce attacks on Kashmiris residing in other parts of India.

Social media now has the power to also make subjects which appeal strongly to enough people to rise above other issues which are equally powerful. It’s the reason why Varthaman’s case got much more traction than that of Indian national Kulbhushan Jadhav, who has been sentenced to death in Pakistan after being accused of being a spy.

India has appealed against the sentence in the international arena. They say that Pakistan has gone against the Geneva Conventions in sentencing Jadhav. Reports have surfaced of Jadhav’s brutal torture by Pakistan. India has accused Pakistan of using him as a pawn in the Pulwama attack case. But how many social media pieces have you seen of the Jadhav case? Perhaps, none.

Social media also exploded in fear and anguish that Varthaman might face torture by the Pakistani military personnel. Didn’t Pakistan torture Jadhav with impunity?

Americans know well the horrors of a situation like that. The cruel case of an innocent young man, Otto Warmbier, who was tortured to near death by the North Koreans is still fresh in the minds of the people.

Warmbier died days after he reached the shores of America, a shell of a man destroyed physically and mentally by captors who should now be brought before the international court for murder.

For now, Varthaman is back. Social media is placated.

(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)



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