In a bizarre development, some Indian news broadcasts claimed that the Pakistani airforce attacked the Panjshir valley, an Afghanistan mountain province home to about 170,000 people, which is currently the last major holdout of anti-Taliban forces.
The only problem? The footage used to report the supposedly pro-Taliban airforce attack came from the popular military simulation game Arma 3.
The footage first appeared on Indian news channels including Republic TV, Times Now Navbharat, Zee Hindustan, and TV9 Bharatvarsh. The original video was credited to a source called "Hasti TV" on Facebook, which has since been deleted. These Indian news sources claimed the video showed a military jet attempting a bombing run on Panjshir.
In fact, the footage came from this January Arma 3 video from the YouTube channel Compared Comparison, which has now been viewed 23 million times. The gameplay shows players engaging in a ground-to-air battle between a jet and a vehicle-mounted anti-air turret with tracer rounds seen firing through the sky at the jet.
In a statement to PC Gamer, a representative for Arma 3 developer Bohemia Interactive confirmed that the original footage does indeed come from the game.
"Strangely, we've seen this particular game footage be used several times by certain media outlets in support of their real-life news coverage," the Bohemia Interactive rep said. "We know this because we've been previously approached regarding similar occurrences by fact-checkers from organizations such as Agence France-Presse, Check Your Fact, PolitiFact, and if I remember correctly, also Reuters."
"The clip in the [original viral tweet] is so cropped and low-res that I find it hard to compare and say for sure which it is, but I'm confident it is Arma 3 footage," Bohemia Interactive's rep said.
It's easy to see how the deceptive edit was made. In Compared Comparison's YouTube video, zoomed-in shots of the attacking aircraft do look moderately convincing, at least until the video zooms out to show the digital anti-air vehicle firing and later blowing up in a not-so-realistic fashion.
During Republic TV's broadcast, the anchor can be heard repeating the claim that the Pakistani airforce performed an airstrike in Panjshir. The claim was originally recognized as fraudulent by Boom, a group that calls itself India's "first and leading fact checking website and initiative," and is a member of the Poynter Institute's International Fact-Checking Network initiative.
Republic TV meanwhile has a sordid history of far right-wing reporting and supporting India's prime minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist policies, according to Aljazeera. Vikas Khanchandani, CEO of ARG (owner of Republic TV) was arrested in December 2020 for allegedly rigging ratings in order to charge advertisers more.
Since the withdrawal of United States military forces and subsequent surrender of the Afghan military, the Taliban has achieved significant victories throughout Afghanistan. Panjshir is regarded as one of the final holdouts of the National Resistance Front, a multi-ethnic coalition of anti-Taliban forces. Losing Panjshir would mark a "devastating and symbolic blow" according to CNBC's regional sources.
Pakistan's relationship with the Taliban and United States has been an arduously complicated one. The country was used as a safe haven by some Taliban forces, and Osama bin Laden hid from U.S. forces there for years until he was killed. U.S. officials have often considered Pakistani leadership "too close" to Taliban, and in fact the country has its own version of the Taliban, according to NPR.
As noted earlier, this isn't the first time that Arma has been used, deliberately or not, to falsify the presence of military conflict. In May 2021, Reuters debunked claims that Israel's defense system shot at helicopters and aircraft as conflict between Israel and Hamas escalated, but found the footage came from similar videos of Arma 3 players engaging in ground-to-air combat gameplay.