Argument

Indian Social Media Goes Nuts Over Fake Claim of Su-35 Shootdown

With tensions high, nationalist audiences are primed for dangerous nonsense.

A Su-35 fighter jet
A Su-35 fighter jet is displayed before a test flight ahead of the Airshow China 2014 in Zhuhai, South China's Guangdong province, on Nov. 10, 2014. Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images

Early on Friday morning in India, a video purporting to show a Chinese Su-35, a Russian-built plane used by the Chinese military, shot down in Taiwan began to spread like wildfire online, promoted by military-oriented accounts with large followings, by quick-hit news sites, and throughout Indian social media as a whole. A confused—and irate—Taiwanese government strongly denied the claims, which, as of writing, has barely dampened the Indian enthusiasm for them. The story itself will probably burn out within a day or two, but its emergence shows how entangled nationalist fantasies are becoming in Asia, and how dangerous they might be.

It’s unclear where the video actually came from, what it shows, or even how recent it is—but the most likely possibility seems to be an air accident in China itself. The plane involved may not even be a Su-35, but a J-10, a Chinese-built plane with a record of engine failures. Taiwan actually shooting down a Chinese plane would be an enormously significant, and risky, move. At worst, it could be the spark of a war; at best it would provoke economic and political retaliation from China—even if the Chinese had deliberately violated Taiwanese airspace. There was immediate worry inside the Taiwanese government that the video might have been a deliberate attempt to stir tensions. That seems unlikely. Instead, what happened is a compounding of bullshit on both the Chinese and the Indian sides.

The bullshit started with the Global Times, a Chinese nationalist tabloid run under the auspices of the Chinese Communist Party’s newspaper, People’s Daily. That gives Global Times (where I once worked) a credibility it doesn’t deserve; Global Times editorials, often dictated impromptu over the phone by the pugnacious editor Hu Xijin, sometimes presage actual government action but are far more frequently about Hu’s own efforts to drum up traffic or troll the rest of the world. An editorial on Monday called for the Chinese air force to establish regular patrols over Taiwan and a declaration of war if Taiwan acted to defend its airspace. That would be a murderously idiotic move, but it’s highly unlikely that even Hu meant it as a serious suggestion.

But Indian media takes the Global Times extremely seriously. India’s own nationalist newspapers have a dysfunctional relationship with their Chinese counterpart; the Global Times prints some mad bullshit, often insulting India directly. Indian newspapers and websites pick up on it, often describing it as “China” or “the Chinese government” making those statements. The Global Times then writes more pieces in response to them. The cycle continues, and everyone’s traffic rises. (The English-language version of the Global Times isn’t really intended as a plausible commercial venture, but the editors are directly incentivized and rewarded not just for traffic as a whole, but for mentions of pieces in foreign media, whether good or bad.)

The idea of Chinese patrols, then, was already circulating in an Indian online media sphere that’s completely obsessed with China at the moment, following the clash in Galwan Valley that left 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese dead. Relations between New Delhi and Beijing are at a nadir not seen since the 1970s. More border clashes this week, apparently leaving at least one Indian soldier dead, had put Chinese aggression back in headlines again. Online Indian takes on China’s military power tend also to swing from the panicky—the Chinese military can crush India unless India redoubles its efforts—to the cocky: Our brave jawans can defeat the invader!

Wherever the video originated, it dropped into a perfectly receptive atmosphere: an Indian audience primed for news of both Chinese aggression and Chinese failure. The Taiwanese, meanwhile, were left scratching their heads. As Asian geopolitics get hotter and online nationalisms meaner, more such misinformation will spread. Most of it will burn out into nothing—but the bit that doesn’t could be the spark that gets people killed.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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