Narratives and Social Media in Conflict Situations

Two case studies explored how collective narratives form on social media during crises and conflicts

People celebrate after Indian authorities said their jets conducted airstrikes on militant camps in Pakistani territory, in New Delhi, India, February 26, 2019, photo by Adnan Abidi/Reuters

People in New Delhi, India hold flags and placards as they celebrate after Indian authorities said their jets conducted airstrikes on militant camps in Pakistani territory (February 26, 2019)

Photo by Adnan Abidi/Reuters

Developing a collective narrative is important to sustaining a social movement. This project conducted two detailed quantitative case studies of how misinformation originates and spreads and how collective narratives form on social media. The team examined the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, and the 2019 air strikes and skirmishes in Balakot, Pakistan.

Case 1: Airstrikes and Misinformation in India and Pakistan

On February 26, 2019, Indian Air Force jets entered Pakistani airspace and dropped their payloads near Balakot. The next day, the Pakistani Air Force retaliated, leading to the downing and capture of an Indian Air Force pilot. This marked the first air combat between the two countries since the 1971 war, and the first ever use of conventional airpower between two nuclear-armed states. Conflict between India and Pakistan has killed over 25,000 people since the partition, so increased tension between the two states has significant humanitarian and geopolitical implications. On Twitter, partisans of both sides quickly began pushing alternative narratives regarding the facts of what had happened, making it difficult for an unbiased observer to discern the truth. Had India bombed a terrorist camp or an uninhabited area? Did Pakistani jets intercept the Indian warplanes, or did they fail to scramble their F-16s in time?

Case 2: Pro-Democracy Protests Sweep Hong Kong

Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region of China, ceded to China in 1997 under the "One Country, Two Systems" framework designed to allow a degree of formal autonomy. The protests that began in 2019 are a series of clashes between pro-democracy demonstrators and Hong Kong authorities, with behind the scenes pressure but not open interference from Beijing. For this case study, the team is interested in both supportive and oppositional public opinion about the movement and youth participation in it. Similar to the situation between Pakistan and India, throughout the Hong Kong protests various actual events are represented, misrepresented, or falsified on social media. Social media has served as a tool to unmask moles from the Chinese Republic within protesters, but may also have produced false accusations of such infiltrators.


Both case studies used similar methodologies within two broad categories: social media analysis and modern social science techniques. To conduct these case studies, researchers did the following:

  1. Obtain data from social media platforms (e.g., Twitter, LIHKG, Whatspp): activities include reviewing relevant messages on these platforms, reviewing platforms’ data sharing policies, and obtaining appropriate IRB approval.
  2. Develop analytical tools to analyze social media data: activities include the development and testing of computer hardware and software programs needed to perform data analyses. Tools will be available via TNL website for RAND internal use.
  3. Analyze data extracted from social media platforms: activities include descriptive analyses, text analyses and comparative analyses to find similarities and differences in the two case studies.
  4. Summarize how features of platforms enable the spread of information/misinformation.