In what it claimed was an “exclusive story”, broadcast at around 3.30 pm on October 11, the Times Now channel claimed that Pakistani social media accounts were responsible for the hashtag #GoBackModi trending on Twitter ahead of the Prime Minister’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Chennai.
“#GoBackModi is trending on Twitter. Just hours before Prime Minister Modi meets Chinese President Xi Jinping in Mahabalipuram, it has now been revealed there is an insidious plot by Pakistan behind this trend on Twitter,” claimed the Times Now anchor. The lines “Pak hand behind #GoBackModi trend” and “Spooked by India-China Bonhomie” flashed on screens. The anchor asserted that most users tweeting this hashtag were from Pakistan.
CNN News18 broadcast a similar report at around 4 pm. “This is a dangerous international conspiracy to defame India and its elected leader because we are learning that a lot of Pakistan-based Twitter handles are really behind this, presumably under the watch of its propaganda wing actively involved in pushing this trend is what Bhupendra Chaubey our executive editor is picking up…” it said.
Chaubey went on to add, “This is a very very shocking activity which we are now seeing play out before us. The fact that the Indian prime minister who clearly is India’s politician number one absolutely no debate about that…what we have learnt from our sources that these handles have had a habit of retweeting and supporting a lot of stuff coming from Pakistan, from Imran Khan…”
The journalist also wrote similar words in a tweet, “…conspiracy being hatched against @narendramodi by Pakistani handles”.
India Today attempted to analyse the tweets made using the hashtag #GoBackModi in a later broadcast anchored by Rahul Kanwal. “Seventy per cent of the tweets originated from India. If you check the state-wise location map, 60% came from Tamil Nadu only,” said a channel correspondent, Nikhil Rampal.
Kanwal replied, “But I can fake that also if I am running a sophisticated operation. Make it seem like it’s coming from Tamil Nadu but this could be the ISI as well.”
Furthering Kanwal’s theory, Rampal explained how the “operation” might have taken place: “I want to show you an example. I just tweeted from Karachi and the Twitter location is showing me in Karachi right now. When Twitter gets my data, I just use a third party fake geotag…Twitter locations can be faked very easily, Twitter trends can be manipulated from these locations because these are obtained services. So I fake a GPS, I put my location in Karachi and I write my tweet from New York, Chile, Antigua wherever I want to. That’s how trends can be manipulated.”
Though many media reports claimed that Pakistani users were behind trending #GoBackModi in India, Twitter trends are region-specific. This means that for a topic to trend in India, users from India need to tweet on the issue. Similarly, if users are tweeting from Pakistan, the hashtag would trend in Pakistan. Furthermore, topics show up in the global trend list when people tweet about the topic from multiple countries at the same time.
“Trends are determined by an algorithm and, by default, are tailored for you based on who you follow, your interests, and your location,” says the Twitter trend FAQs. It adds: “Location trends identify popular topics among people in a specific geographic location.”
However, India Today attempted to sow seeds of doubts when the channel claimed that location can easily be altered to manipulate Twitter. While false locations can be provided to Twitter, changing your location by providing fake coordinates does not mean that your tweet with a certain hashtag is adding to a trend in another country. This is because the mechanism that Twitter employs to determine a user’s location is far more elaborate.
How do location settings on Twitter work?
“Your profile location is part of your public account profile and is completely optional,” says Twitter. “Your profile location is your place to express yourself and show the world who you share.”
Profile location essentially lets a person sitting in the US put “Australia” or “Indonesia” or whichever country he/she wants to appear to be from. Further, Twitter also allows one to specify a geolocation (latitude, longitude) while tweeting, and there are ways of providing a fake geolocation.
However, does this mean that a tweet posted from one country will add to a trend in another country if the location is altered?
No, and Twitter explains why: “When you access Twitter, we may receive information about your location, such as your IP address, precise location information from GPS, or information about wireless networks or cell towers near your mobile device.”
In layman’s terms, a change in profile location does not hide your actual location because Twitter picks up users’ IP address (and other data) which reveals their location. For instance, the IP address of the server used by Alt News discloses that the organisation is based out of Ahmedabad.
Further, let us also look at what was trending in both India and Pakistan on October 11, especially between 3 pm- 6 pm since this was when most media reports were aired. Had a majority of users been from Pakistan, the hashtag would have trended in the country during this time. However, this was not the case.
Top trends in Pakistan
#GoBackModi or any other hashtag related to the Prime Minister’s meeting with his Chinese counterpart did not trend in Pakistan between 3 pm to 6 pm. The only hashtag related to India trending in Pakistan was #KashmirChained. This was revealed by searching for worldwide Twitter trends on the website trends24.in.
We observed that the hashtag was picked up in Pakistan only after 9 pm, when it was at the 20th spot.
At around 11.30 pm, it gained momentum and was trending at the 12th position.
More importantly, the hashtag maintained the top position during the hours leading up to the media broadcasts blaming Pakistani for trending #GoBackModi.
Most tweets were in Tamil
Alt News also performed a language-based search via Twitter search operators to determine the number of #GoBackModi tweets made in Urdu – the most prominent language used in Pakistan. We used the syntax ‘#GoBackModi lang:ur since:2019-10-10’ to search for all tweets made in Urdu since October 10. Till 12.30 pm on October 12, there were some 100 tweets and most of them were related to Kashmir.
Contrastingly, a similar search for all tweets made in Tamil since October 10 – ‘#GoBackModi lang:ta since:2019-10-10’ – throws up uncountable results. Tamil is not widely spoken in Pakistan.
India Today itself claimed that 70% #GoBackModi tweets were from India and 60% of these originated from Tamil Nadu. But the channel did not provide any evidence on how this was an ‘ISI conspiracy’. Other media outlets – Times Now, News18, The Times of India – also alleged a mass conspiracy without backing its claim.
These organisations need to come up with a logical explanation of the assumption that thousands of users in Pakistan managed to fake their IP addresses, GPS locations and all other parameters that Twitter uses to determine the location of an individual and gamed Twitter to get a hashtag to show up in the Indian trending list.
This article first appeared on Alt News.