AARHUS (Denmark): A European group has uncovered an Indian disinformation network operating since 2005 to discredit nations in conflict with Delhi, particularly Pakistan.
Last year, the Brussels-based EU DisinfoLab uncovered a vast network of 265 coordinated fake local media outlets in 65 countries serving Indian interests, as well as multiple dubious think tanks and NGOs. This network was active in Brussels and Geneva in producing and amplifying content designed to, primarily, undermine Pakistan.
In a new investigation, titled Indian Chronicles, the group has exposed another Indian network that aims to reinforce pro-Indian and anti-Pakistan (and anti-Chinese) feelings in India.
Internationally, the network is working to consolidate the power and improve the image of India and damage reputation of rival countries so that ultimately India may benefit from more support from international institutions such as the European Union and the United Nations.
To do so, the network used fake personas of a dead human rights activist and journalists, and also tried to impersonate regular media and press agencies such as the EU Observer, the Economist and Voice of America.
265 fake media outlets & dubious think tanks, NGOs are involved in producing content designed to undermine Pakistan
The network also used letterhead of the European Parliament, registered websites under avatars with fake phone numbers, provided fake addresses to the United Nations and created publishing companies to print books of the think tanks they owned.
Overall, an entire network of over 500 fake local media outlets in 95 countries helped reproduce negative iterations about Pakistan (or China). In total, the operation has covered 116 countries and nine regions.
‘Fake’ news outlets
Last year, the investigation discovered that the ‘fake’ news outlets were managed by Indian stakeholders, with ties to a large network of think tanks, NGOs, and companies from the Srivastava Group.
They republished anti-Pakistan content on the rest of the Indian network, including fake outlets such as EP Today, Times of Geneva, and New Delhi Times. Most websites had Twitter presence as well.
After the network was exposed last year, some domains were unregistered only to be reproduced under a different name later.
For instance, EP Today was relaunched as ‘EU Chronicle’ this year in May.
The actors behind EP Today and EU Chronicle registered over 550 domain names of NGOs, think tanks, media outlets, European Parliament informal groups, religious and Imam organisations, obscure publishing companies and public personalities.
A non-negligible proportion of domain names was bought in the context of cyberwarfare with Pakistan i.e. to cybersquat on domains that Pakistan might later wish to use.
The websites were apparently also run by fake journalists.
The researchers wrote they were not able to find any traces of “Freelance Expat Journalists based in Belgium” named Stephen Ciccoli, Paul Riley, Rita Storen or Tony Faber (the alleged staff of EU Chronicle).
On Twitter, the investigation found that EU Chronicle account only posted two types of videos — MEPs congratulating Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Independence Day of India or his birthday, and a campaign of videos about alleged abuses against minorities and terrorism in Pakistan.
The researchers wrote that the findings have reinforced their inner conviction that this information operation is connected to India.
“We are alarmed to see the continuation of Indian Chronicle, which despite our first report and wide press coverage, has pursued its 15-year operation and even recently launched EU Chronicle, a fake EU outlet,” the researchers at DisinfoLab said.
The report found that articles from the small fake European media outlet EU Chronicle were used as a base by the Indian news agency ANI to create news reports.
It noted that the Indian press agency covers the lobbying efforts taking place under the cover of fake NGOs, with sometimes quite dubious practices.
The repackaging of EU Chronicle op-eds and articles into ANI news reports means that the content from the fake European media outlet can reach a wider audience, particularly in India.
ANI reports using EU Chronicle content are, for example, systematically reproduced on Yahoo News India (in.news.yahoo.com), a website attracting a sizable audience, it said.
Some Indian media outlets, which re-use content from ANI, become a de facto regular amplifier from EU Chronicle.
ANI also rewrote and recirculated some op-eds and articles from EP Today, the fake European Parliament magazine tied to the Srivastava group.
A significant part of the Indian Chronicle operation is based on creating a smoke screen of organisations, with often only an online presence, which can cross-reference each other.
By regularly mentioning each other without disclosing their links, these organisations try to gain legitimacy and build an artificial ecosystem which is credible only if the network is big enough to justify its own existence.
The EU DisinfoLab found at least 13 instances of ANI publishing mostly anti-Pakistan and sometimes anti-China op-eds by MEPs on EU Chronicle as news articles since May this year.
“You need more than a few computers to plan and sustain such an action,” Alexandre Alaphilippe, executive director of EU DisinfoLab, told Dawn. The researcher said the findings should serve as a call to action for decision-makers to put in place a relevant framework to sanction actors engaging in disinformation and abusing international institutions.
Published in Dawn, December 10th, 2020