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Student Criticism & Misinformation: Narratives Around India's Ukraine Evacuation

The narrative of social media relies on misinformation to discredit the students.

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Amid a raging war between Russia and Ukraine, tens of thousands of Indian students stuck in the country made repeated appeals to the Indian government to evacuate them.

While the government undertook measures and launched 'Operation Ganga', several students stuck in the war-torn country claimed that it wasn't enough and that the advisories came too late.

But as these videos and appeals flooded the internet, a parallel narrative emerged – hailing the government efforts and criticising the students.

These voices became stronger and were amplified in an organised campaign.

Supporters and leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were among the ones who tried building a narrative evoking feelings of hyper-nationalism, in some cases relying on misinformation.
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Several people referred to the students as "ungrateful" and the criticism continued after the death of 21-year-old Naveen Shekharappa in Kharkiv on 1 March.

  • A link to the post can be found here.

    (Source: Facebook/Screenshot)

Catch all the live updates on the Russia-Ukraine tensions here.

In this story, we will illustrate how laudatory posts on social media for the government turned into criticism for students, sometimes relying on misinformation.

The story will explore:

  • Misinformation narratives around the evacuation

  • Criticism for students who spoke up

  • Control the narrative on news

Misinformation Narratives Around the Evacuation

Students who posted videos asking for help were accused of "defaming" the governemnt.

One piece of disinformation that was massively shared was about an Indian student, Vaishali Yadav, from Hardoi, Uttar Pradesh.

After she posted a video asking the Indian government to evacuate them from Ukraine, social media users started claiming that she was in India and posted the video at the behest of her father, who is a Samajwadi Party leader.

The claims were shared people with huge following on Twitter, including some BJP leaders, and went on to say that Yadav had been arrested by UP Police.

(Note: Swipe right to see the posts)

  • An archived version of the tweet can be seen here.

    (Source: Twitter/Screenshot)

A Twitter user called her a "hypocrite" and accused her of using the war to defame the Modi government.

Team WebQoof did a fact-check on the claim, spoke with the police as well as Yadav and found that she had neither been arrested by the UP Police nor was she in India at the time of making the video.

The same user, who is followed by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, then posted a photograph of another student with a fabricated story meant to mock her and other students.

The narrative of social media relies on misinformation to discredit the students.

An archived version of the tweet can be found here.

(Source: Twitter/Screenshot)

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But it doesn't stop here.

We have debunked several more pieces of misinformation that were widely circulated and used to create misleading narratives.

For instance: A screenshot of a flight tracker, which showed an Air India plane entering Ukraine's airspace was shared to claim that India was the only country that dared to enter the closed airspace.

However, it turned out that flight, which was going from New Delhi to Frankfurt, never entered Ukraine's airspace.

Another highly circulated, but extremely misleading piece of misinformation was a graphic that showed Russia's Minister of Defence, General Sergey Shoygu, as saying that Russia will ensure safe passage to Indian students and also leave them to a safe location if they are displaying the national flag.

This also turned out to be false.

  • 01/02

    An archived version of this post can be seen here.

    (Source: Facebook/Screenshot)

  • 02/02

    An archive of the post can be found here.

    (Source: Facebook/Screenshot)

This post was shared 379 times by public pages, groups and verified Facebook profiles and recieved close to one lakh interactions, as per information accessed using CrowdTangle, a tool developed by Meta (formerly Facebook) to monitor content on its platform. These figures are from Facebook alone.

However, it must be noted that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi did speak to Russian President Vladimir Putin and they discussed safe evacuation of India.

But the nature of these messages was highly misleading, especially at a time when the Indian nationals were scrambling to get out of Ukraine.

In fact, a narrative blaming the students for not getting out on time, despite the advisories, was also rife on social media. However, this too is misleading. (Some of these messages can be viewed here and here)

India's first advisory was issued on 15 February, which stated "students may consider leaving". US, UK among other countries moved much before that asking citizens to leave.

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'The Power of PM Modi, The Power of New India'

Some of the misleading claims had hyper-nationalistic undertones praising "Modi’s India" and criticising other countries for "not doing enough" for their citizens.

One such cartoon went viral on 3 March that showed PM Modi as bridge rescuing Indians from Ukraine, while citizens from the US, the UK and China were left stranded. Multiple BJP leaders with verified handles shared the graphic.

The narrative of social media relies on misinformation to discredit the students.

Tweets by BJP leaders. 

(Source:Twitter/Screenshot/Altered by The Quint)

A day after the Naveen's death, the Indian Embassy in Ukraine had issued two advisories, urging Indians to leave Kharkiv immediately.

From Wednesday evening, 2 March, several claims and reports emerged, saying that Russia had 'stopped' the war in Kharkiv for six-eight hours in order to allow India to safely evacuate stranded Indians from the city on India's request.
  • A link to the post can be found here.

    (Source: Facebook/Screenshot)

This wasn't tweeted by just some users on social media but again, it was shared in a very organised manner including by some news outlets.

However, on Thursday, 3 March, the Ministry of External Affairs denied reports of Russia “stopping the war for six hours” calling it "inaccurate".

This narrative had begun since the war started on 24 February.

A day after Russia started its "military operations", BJP MP Hema Malini, addressed an election rally in Bareilly and said, "PM Modi was going to take part in Russia-Ukraine war to stop it. Everybody is requesting PM Modi to stop the war, because he commands so much global respect."

While the social media posts celebrating the government's achievements are bound to be made by party leaders, some of the claims made amplified the misleading narratives – directly or indirectly.

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And as illustrated above, news reports too amplified the narratives around the evacuations and India's role "in stopping the war". (Some of the archives can be seen here and here.)

While the government is taking measures to ensure students and Indian nationals return safely, misinformation and propaganda around the efforts are trying to disregard the appeals made by the students mocking and discrediting them.

It also paints a misleading picture of the government and PM Modi.

(With inputs from Uzma Afreen)

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(Not convinced of a post or information you came across online and want it verified? Send us the details on WhatsApp at 9643651818, or e-mail it to us at webqoof@thequint.com and we'll fact-check it for you. You can also read all our fact-checked stories here.)

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