Over the past few days, a strange story has unfolded on social networks in India: first, a man in army uniform filmed a video in which he expressed anger against Kerala state authorities for not handing full control of flood rescue operations over to the army. The video went viral, and the Indian army quickly issued a tweet calling the video “fake” and describing the man as an “imposter”. The army’s tweet was then widely relayed in the Indian media. But when a fact-checker investigated the man’s identity, the tale took a different turn…

The video started spreading onlineon Saturday, but has since been taken down. In the short video, a man wearing an army uniform speaks to the camera in Malayalam, a language spoken in India’s southern state of Kerala. In it, he addresses Kerala’s Chief Minister: “I am recording this video with sadness. Kerala CM Prinarayi, what do you think about the army? Do you think they are coming to administer the state?” He goes on to say that his family has been stuck in the floods for four days, and that none of the rescue teams have reached them yet.

The man’s message appeared to echo criticism by some Indians – including some politicians – who believe that rescue operations in Kerala would be more efficient if the army was granted greater autonomy. These operations are currently held jointly with local authorities.

On Sunday, the army posted a reaction on the Twitter account of its Additional Directorate General of Public Information:

The army set up a disinformation hotline amid numerous reports of disinformation linked to the Kerala floods, including images from other disasters falsely attributed as taking place in Kerala.

The army’s tweet about the “imposter” was shared in numerous articles published by some of India’s leading media outlets, with headlines like “Kerala Floods: Imposter wearing army uniform spreads fake news about rescue efforts”. While most attributed the “imposter” claim to the army, they did not investigate matters further.

But one Indian media outlet did. Jency Jacob is a journalist specialised in fact-checking for the Indian online news site BOOM. (BOOM is a member of the International Fact-Checking Network, as is the FRANCE 24 Observers team). Jacob decided to try to figure out the identity of the man in the video. He told the FRANCE 24 Observers team that a person reached out to his team on social media to say that they recognised the man in the video, and that the man’s name was Unni S. Nair. Jacob was then able to find plenty of information about this man online, including his social media profiles. It was soon clear that the man in the video was indeed named Unni S. Nair.

An “imposter”… who works for the army

In Jacob’s article, he explains that he tracked down friends and relatives of Nair’s. They explained Nair was not allowed to speak to the media because he works for the Defence Security Corps, which is a wing of the army that protects defence installations and whose personnel are subject to army rules. They said he previously served as a regular army soldier.

According to Jacob’s sources, Nair now regrets recording the video, which was first shared on Whatsapp before someone reposted it to Facebook and it went viral; they said he was emotional at the time because his in-laws and friends were stuck in the floods.

Jacob contacted an army spokesperson, who said they would crosscheck Nair’s credentials, but that even if he turned out to be a soldier for the Defence Security Corps, that he would not be allowed to record social media messages, especially in uniform. The FRANCE 24 Observers team contacted the army spokesperson to follow up, but we have not yet received an answer. We will publish it if we do.

“Unni Nair, who is now serving in another wing of the army that hires those who have retired from combat, has been wrongly termed as an imposter,” Jacob told the FRANCE 24 Observers. “He may have violated army rules but we have to give him the benefit of doubt for having recorded the video at a time when he was disturbed by the floods and the relief work. The army’s response is disproportionate and seems to have been based on reports that he spoke against relief work which our fact check points out that he didn’t.”

In Jacob’s article, he explains that many people – including a journalist for India Today - seem to have confused Nair’s video message (which, since he spoke Malayalan, was incomprehensible to many viewers) with another message that went viral on Whatsapp at the same time. This was an audio message by a man who called the majority of the Kerala flood victims “rich” and said they therefore did not require food aid, which caused outrage on social media.

The tweet calling Nair an “imposter”, published Sunday, remains up on the verified Twitter account of the army’s Additional Directorate General of Public Information as of this article’s publication on Tuesday. It has been retweeted more than 9,700 times. Meanwhile, BOOM’s investigation into this case, which was published Monday, has not reached nearly as wide of an audience: it has thus far only been retweeted a few dozen times total.

Article by Gaelle Faure.