An independent non-profit organisation focused on tackling sophisticated disinformation has exposed the latest iteration of an Indian influence campaign aimed at defaming Pakistan within the EU institutions.
According to an investigation by the EU DisinfoLab, a Brussels-based NGO, a coordinated influence operation, to malign Pakistan’s reputation, is being led by the New-Delhi-based Srivastava Group and amplified by Asia News International (ANI), an Indian news agency.
The operation’s mission is to discredit nations in conflict with India in the region, in particular Pakistan and also China to a certain extent. In the long run, the campaign is aimed at bolstering India’s global perception, which will ultimately allow New Delhi to bag more support from international institutions such as the EU and the UN.
DisinfoLab researchers believe the operation, which has been running for the past 15 years, has employed more than 750 fake media outlets, and more than 550 domain names in 119 countries to reinforce pro-Indian and anti-Pakistan feelings.
Democratic regimes don’t indulge in such actives. All indicators, including the spread of disinformation show that India is not a democracy
Dr. Wizarat, a noted scholar and expert on international affairs
While the websites have no direct links to the Indian government, researchers tracked them to a New Delhi-based organization called the Srivastava Group.
“I’m absolutely not surprised that Indian websites would conduct disinformation campaigns. And whilst the Indian government may not be involved directly in this sort of activity, I would be surprised if it didn't know what was happening,” said Dr. Claude Rakisits, a senior strategic analyst and Associate Professor at the Australian National University.
The South Asia expert, who focuses on Pakistan and India said: “Not stopping this sort of malicious activity says a lot about the Indian government.”
“I believe this will have a negative blow back effect and the international attention will now be turning to what is happening in India domestically. It will be very obvious that India is not the great democracy it keeps saying it is,” Dr. Rakisits cautioned.
According to DisinfoLab, the influence campaign playbook includes fake media outlets in Brussels, Geneva and across the world. The NGO revealed that these outlets repackage and disseminate information via ANI and other obscure local media networks – in several countries.
The network, DisinfoLab said, regurgitates negative content about India’s regional opponents, particularly Pakistan.
Following a preliminary investigation published last year, the EU DisinfoLab uncovered another extensive and manipulative campaign targeting international institutions and serving Indian interests. Back then, the operation was named “Indian Chronicles” by the DisinfoLab researchers.
I believe this will have a negative blow back effect in that international attention will now be turning to what is happening in India domestically
Dr. Claude Rakisits
Senior Strategic analyst and Associate Professor at the Australian National University
In a report published by Politico’s Europe-focused site, DisinfoLab’s managing director explained the website’s aim was to amplify pro-India comments by Members of European Parliament (MEP).
EU Chronicle is the latest addition to the long list of websites that have sprinkled anti-Pakistan content online while constantly lobbying India’s interests.
DisinfoLab investigators said EU Chronicle is a “new fake media site with fake journalists supposedly covering European affairs, which offers a platform for MEPs to sign pro-Indian articles.”
According to Euractiv’s report, 11 MEPs across a range of Parliamentary groups have penned or endorsed op-eds on the platform.
Commenting on the development from the Quincy Institute, a newly formed public policy think tank in Washington, D.C., Adam N Weinstein said: “At the very least the EU should open its own investigation and determine whether this misinformation campaign was supported by New Delhi. If not, then India should work with the EU to report misinformation.”
Referring to similar cases in the past, the Washington D.C-based researcher said: “Unfortunately, past reporting has previously revealed this phenomenon of India-based misinformation campaigns without much consequence.”
While DisinfoLab has not associated the campaign with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in India, the messaging, Weinstein said, reflects the Modi administration’s position.
It is unclear whether the disinformation campaign is endorsed by the Modi administration, but the messaging clearly reflects BJP positions and is unlikely to be challenged without external pressure
Adam N Weinstein, Research Fellow at the Quincy Institute
“It is unclear whether the disinformation campaign is endorsed by the Modi administration, but the messaging clearly reflects BJP positions and is unlikely to be challenged without external pressure,” said Weinstein, who focuses on transitional justice, trade, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
On the campaign and its credibility, Weinstein said: “It is particularly disheartening that some of these disinformation accounts appropriated human rights causes inside Pakistan.
However, it is also unfortunate that events inside Pakistan have enabled such a campaign to appear authentic.”
In Pakistan, Dr. Wizarat, a noted scholar and expert on international affairs, assesses the situation differently. India, she said, has been directly involved in such activities for decades.
“Pakistan and other regional victims of India’s policies must band together to expose the regime in New Delhi.”
When asked about the impact of DisinfoLab’s exposé on India’s global image, Dr. Wizarat bluntly said: “The revelation hammers India’s image as the self-proclaimed largest democracy.
“Democratic regimes don’t indulge in such actives. All indicators, including the spread of disinformation show that India is not a democracy.”
A long list of websites, DisinfoLab said, were used over a period of 15 years to discredit Pakistan. These websites and their social media handles were used to publish videos and articles highlighting human rights abuses in Pakistan. At the same time, these platforms published positive reports about India.
DisinfoLab’s investigation reveals that the names of these website staffers were ‘probably not real’. Some articles, the Brussels-based NGO said were also published anonymously.
This is one of the most serious expose of India run, managed and funded FAKE news, NGO and think-tank networks created since 2005 to malign Pakistan internationally, especially at the UN and EU. The world needs to be talking about this
Syed Hassan Akbar, Senior policy specialist at the national security division
According to DisinfoLab, the pro-India operation is busy creating informal working groups inside the Parliament, establishing fake newsgroups, as well as influencing parliamentary questions to the European Commission. All such efforts, the investigators at DisinfoLab said were aimed at portraying Pakistan as the villain and India as a defender of globally accepted values.
Named as ‘zombie sites’ primarily because they were resurrected from dead media outlets, these platforms were constantly used to promote content that was against Pakistan.
Many of these fake websites also used names similar to active and defunct news outlets to provide a veneer or credibility.
Reacting to the report, Syed Hassan Akbar, Senior policy specialist at the national security division said “This is one of the most serious expose of India run, managed and funded FAKE news, NGO and think-tank networks created since 2005 to malign Pakistan internationally, especially at the UN and EU. The world needs to be talking about this.”
When asked about how Pakistan should deal with Indian efforts to discredit it on the global stage, Dr. Wizarat unequivocally condemned the actions. “It’s about time Pakistan gets aggressive about this. We need to expose India on every international platform,” the Karachi-based scholar said.
The long list of fictitious NGOs and think tanks, DisinfoLab reported were weaving an alternative narrative. Particularly on issues close to the Indian State’s interest, DisinfoLab said the think tanks and publications were very active.
According to the Brussels-based NGO, 11 MEPs took part in an October 2019 trip to Jammu and Kashmir, sponsored by the New Delhi-based Srivastava Group.
Moreover, DisinfoLab researchers also revealed that several informal European parliamentary groups, including the South Asia Peace Forum, friends of Gilgit Baltistan, and Friends of Balochistan, were set up or chaired by MEPs who were actively involved in events organized by Indian Chronicles.
The extent to which Israel and India have influenced and corrupted global discourse in favor of their respective crimes in Palestine and Kashmir via Western think tanks, corruptible NGOs and media surrogates is almost immeasurable
CJ Werleman, a journalist and analyst on conflict
Commenting on the use of such platforms to modify global discourse on issues like Kashmir and Palestine, CJ Werleman, a journalist and analyst on conflict said:
“The extent to which Israel and India have influenced and corrupted global discourse in favor of their respective crimes in Palestine and Kashmir via Western think tanks, corruptible NGOs and media surrogates is almost immeasurable.”
During its investigation, the DisinfoLab also uncovered an entire network of coordinated UN-accredited NGOs promoting Indian interests and criticizing Pakistan repeatedly. At least 10 of them directly to the Srivastava family, with several other dubious NGOs pushing the same messages.
The deeper dive by DisinfoLab revealed a US-based NGO – accredited to the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) – which had become inactive in the late 1970s was resurrected in 2005.
Not only that, the organization’s former chairman Louis B. Sohn, attended a UN Human Rights Council meeting in 2007 and participated in an event organized by “Friends of Gilgit-Baltistan” in Washington D.C. in 2011 – that too after several years of his passing.
Most of these UN-accredited NGOs, DisinfoLab said work in coordination with non-accredited think-tanks in Brussels and Geneva. Several of them, including the European Organization for Pakistani Minorities, Balochistan House and the South Asia Democratic Forum were ambiguously created by the Srivastava group.
According to DisinfoLab, Indian Chronicles effectively benefited from the track record of these organizations while pursuing their own agenda: discrediting Pakistan and promoting Indian interests at UN conferences and hearings. While these organizations were fronting as NGOs, they were primarily working to manipulate the EU Parliament.