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How India unleashed targeted social media campaigns against Pakistan

Data collected by The Express Tribune reveals campaigns against Pakistan along a carefully choreographed timeline

By Hammad Sarfraz |
PUBLISHED December 26, 2021

The proliferation of fake news is a real factor in modern conflicts between states. An increasing number of countries are using disinformation campaigns to influence and alter public opinion at home and abroad. While state-led misinformation campaigns on social media are a recent phenomenon, a report by the RAND Corporation, an American non-profit global policy think tank, suggests several countries have employed this tactic abroad to advance and promote a particular narrative – and in most cases against a foreign adversary.

Such misleading campaigns that propel unverified information on social media, the think tank says, have notched operational successes, but their overall impact is less certain. However, it cautions that the spread of misinformation will likely increase over the coming decade.

Experts define the use of misleading campaigns as a potent information-warfare tool. “It's a feature of totalitarianism, certainly; controlling and distorting information controls and distorts the understanding of those consuming it,” explained Dr Melissa Beattie, Assistant Professor of English and Communications at the American University of Armenia. When asked about the consequences of such campaigns, Dr Beattie said: “In the first instance, if the person is not aware of the misinformation and has not been taught media literacy or critical thinking skills, then they may base their actions and worldview on deliberately false information. This generally would then serve to aid whatever bad State or non-State actors' purpose.”

“In the second instance, where the person is aware of misinformation (or the potential for it), that person's response depends on their critical thinking/media literacy skills. If they are able to analyse the material they read and make determinations of credibility/veracity based upon facts, then that's a drain on their energy but they can remain reasonably safe from misinformation,” added Dr Beattie, who specializes in media and cultural studies.

Defined as the weapon of mass distraction, a paper produced for the US Department of State’s Global Engagement Centre, states that misinformation sponsored by states can have far reaching objectives. According to US experts, the most recent example of such an influence operation was witnessed around President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy. A researcher from the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab termed it as a concerted effort [from US adversaries] to undermine US democracy and put forward an alternate view. While in this particular case, the expert explained that a media blitz of alternative views came from official mouthpieces – such as news channels and Twitter accounts of senior government officials, such misleading information is usually circulated through a network of shadowy bots, trolls and fake news sites that are tasked to hammer a regimented narrative.

For more than a decade, an organized network comprising over a thousand fake Indian news domains systematically influenced global opinion against Pakistan. Uncovered by the EU DisinfoLab, a Brussels-based independent NGO that focuses on researching and tackling sophisticated disinformation campaigns, the network of fake news sites had one primary objective, and that was to influence opinion against Islamabad and in favor of New Delhi. The massive operation targeting international institutions and serving Indian interests was steered by a New Delhi-based entity known as the Srivastava Group.

Active in Brussels and Geneva in producing and amplifying content to undermine – primarily – Pakistan, the group’s funded sites resurrected dead media, think tanks and NGOs. It even resurrected dead experts to push its anti-Pakistan narrative in capitals around the world where important decisions are taken.

According to details gathered by the Express Tribune, the rumour mills never stopped churning out misleading information about Pakistan or its interests. Over the last three years alone, sponsored content against Pakistan has hammered several themes, including the promotion of online trends about civil-military discord, rise of nationalism, federal-provincial discord, Kashmir policy, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, treatment of minorities, rising radicalisation and the situation of women and child rights.

Data collected by the Express Tribune shows a major portion of disinformation around these subjects was circulated based on a carefully choreographed timeline – particularly timed around the Financial Action Task Force meetings.

Much of this agenda is also pushed through accounts on Twitter, a micro-blogging site that is known for trending hashtags. A Karachi-based digital media expert explained a hashtag is usually added to (digital content) to identify it as concerning a specific subject. “It is easily searchable and in most cases when a significant number of people talk about it, the issue ends up trending,” he added.

Accounts originating from India, he said, have been actively including phrases such as terrorists, terror, security terrorism, terror attacks, forced conversions and threat to peace in messages and posts that are related to Pakistan.

A key example of the coordinated campaign during the recent T20 World Cup, he pointed out, was aimed at targeting Pakistani cricketer Hasan Ali. Verified Twitter accounts, the expert said, were used to stoke sectarian discord at a time when Muslims were being targeted in India. Accounts owned by Ravi Ranjan, OpIndia.com and Anand Ranganathan, propelled negative content aimed at fueling sectarian unrest inside Pakistan.

“Shocking to see how Hassan Ali is being targeted and viciously abused by his fellow-Pakistanis just because he is Shia and his wife and Indian,” said Ranganathan, who claims to be a columnist and consulting editor at the Swarajya, an Indian right-wing monthly print magazine.

 

In February 2021, a well organized campaign amplifying the presence of terror networks and terror financing in Pakistan was launched on social media. This particular spike coincided with the FATF plenary meeting. The narrative was weaved in a manner that portrayed Pakistan as indebted and unable to meet its financial obligations to lenders. Similarly in September the same year, Indian media outlets barraged social media with doctored video clips from video games and fake images to blame Pakistan for the conflict in Panjshir. Experts were quick to debunk the claims. “Some Indian TV media have used video game images instead of real footage (of which there is very little available) to depict the assault in Panjshir,” said Wilson Center’s Michael Kugelman on Twitter shortly after the doctored visuals surfaced on the microblogging site.

Responding to questions from Washington DC by email, Kugelman, who serves as the Deputy Director of the Asia Program and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center said: “Fake news has become a new front in the India-Pakistan rivalry. Each side uses disinformation to try to undermine the other.”

In both countries, the expert said, social media, an influential platform for information dissemination, is used to propagate fake news to large, tech-savvy, and nationalistic populations given to assuming the worst about the other country. “This means many will believe this disinformation. And let's be honest: We're seeing this fake news coming from both sides, but the sheer scale of it is greater from the Indian side,” Kugelman explained. “It has the potential to cause tensions, but fortunately this hasn't happened yet. For one thing, when the fake news comes out, there are often strict denials and clarifications from officialdom. Also, while some of this stuff is taken at face value and believed, much of it is so absurd and silly that people just laugh it off,” he added.

Commenting on the 2020 exposé by EU DisinfoLab that uncovered 265 pro-Indian sites operating across 65 countries, the Washington-based expert said: “This case of misinformation is very concerning because it happened on such a great scale, with so many different outlets producing fake news over such a long time. So it's certainly worth calling this out. But then again, a closer look makes clear that this misinformation campaign wasn't very savvy. It invented fake online newspapers named after random small US cities that few outside the US have heard of. The production quality of these outlets was also quite poor. It simply wasn't very convincing.”

Interestingly, while the EU DisinfoLab did not blame the Indian government, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs was quick to react to the report that linked the extensive network to the Srivastava Group, a New Delhi-based entity.

Analysts including, Suhasini Haidar, National Editor and Diplomatic Affairs Editor, The Hindu, were quick to point that out. “MEA denies the European agency's claim of an Indian "network of disinformation". What's odd is that the report doesn't actually blame the government,” said the prominent Indian journalist.

Michael Kugelman, who is well versed in the region’s affairs believes New Delhi can derive political mileage from such campaigns, regardless of whether it is orchestrating them or not. “Fake news about Pakistan is meant to exploit negative perceptions about country to make it look bad – by coming up with a fake story about attacks on Pakistan's Hindu minority, or about Pakistani terrorists entering India, or about civil war about to break out in a major Pakistani city. Such stories harden negative perceptions about Pakistan in India, thereby giving the Indian government more public support for its hard line on Pakistan,” the senior expert explained from Washington.

“But it cuts both ways. When fake news from Pakistan claims that India is behind every terrorist attack in Pakistan, this emboldens Islamabad and earns it public support for its own hard line on India,” Kugelman added. “In effect, at a moment of deep India-Pakistan tensions, disinformation makes it all the more difficult for the two rivals to find an off ramp. And that's because it gives the government in each country a strong political incentive to keep taking a hard line against the other,” he cautioned.

When asked why Western countries tolerate the spread of misinformation that originates from India, Dr Melissa Beattie said: “India is perceived as a key economic market and as a bulwark against other regional powers. Governments everywhere have a tendency to ignore unpleasant aspects of their useful 'allies'.”

“Given the number of Islamophobic and anti-multiculturalist people in the West not necessarily in the governments but certainly in sections of the public, I suspect that the fear of losing votes or being vulnerable to (spurious) charges of supporting 'extremism' by opposition politicians is also playing a role,” the avid researcher and academic explained from Armenia where she is currently stationed.

Views from South Asia

According to senior experts in Pakistan, misinformation has become a permanent tool in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s policy manual related to Pakistan. “While the government in India denies any link to the spread of misinformation about Pakistan, all Internet Protocol addresses can be traced back to New Delhi,” said Dr Imran, a senior digital media expert, who also maps online trends. He claimed more than 500 domains including baluchday.org, baluchistantoday.com, baluchday.com, JammuKashmir.eu, friendsofKashmir.eu, foreignaffairs.times.com and several others were traced to 208.73.210.140, an Indian IP address used to propel hate speech, fake news and in many cases propaganda.

“India has always tried to exploit faultlines in Pakistan – no surprises there,” said Dr Talat Wizarat, a senior foreign policy expert. The former chairperson of the Department of International Relations at the University of Karachi said the trend of spreading propaganda against Pakistan is not new. “However, it has accelerated on Mr Modi’s watch, and we will witness an uptick over the next few years,” she cautioned.

To distract the audience at home, Dr Wizarat said, Prime Minister Modi needs to spread information about Pakistan that is misleading. “It helps him at home and abroad – particularly at a time when India’s domestic troubles are mounting.”

While New Delhi has recently blocked several websites and online channels, blaming Pakistan for using them to spread anti-India information, the Indian government’s Ministry of Electronics and Information did not respond to questions related to the claims made by the Modi administration. Pakistan, Dr Wizarat said, needs to up its diplomatic game in capitals around the world. “We need our diplomatic missions around the world to engage with think tanks and experts to expose New Delhi’s campaigns to discredit Islamabad.”

Dhruv Rathee, an activist and social media influencer, who regularly criticised Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s policies, claims that the Indian government hires the services of PR firms, trolls and influencers on platforms like Facebook and Twitter to disseminate its agenda. In one of his videos Rathee claimed the government in New Delhi spends millions to spread its ‘hate agenda’.

Buffeted by controversies, including not preventing the use of fake accounts to influence public opinion in the 2016 US Presidential election, and for failing to control hate speech on its platform that has fueled violence in several countries including Myanmar, Facebook or Meta, as it is now known, did not respond to questions related to the subject. The social media platform was asked to share the number of requests by the Indian government to remove accounts that spread hate speech or misleading information via email.

A case study titled ‘The Impacts of Misinformation in South Asia’ by researchers at the Center for Media Engagement, University of Texas at Austin, also flags the new element of the contemporary Indo-Pakistani conflict: fake news. According to Dr Ashok Swain of Uppsala University, Indian media organizations have also played a role in spreading fake news. “They have failed to play their roles responsibly,” said the Sweden-based professor of peace and conflict. He said the media on both sides needs to play a responsible role.

Dr Swain, who is a vocal critic of the Indian Prime Minister and his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, has frequently been targeted by followers of Mr Modi on social media, for expressing his views. Shortly after the 2019 Pulwama attack, for which Pakistan was blamed by the Indian government, Dr Swain shared a post on Twitter: “Modi is doing with Pulwama in 2019 what he had done with Godhra in 2002 - Instigating more violence for his own political gains.”

According to another senior academic based in New Delhi, much of the misinformation circulated on social media by the Indian government is aimed at distracting the public. “Anti-Pakistan narrative gains mileage here – particularly within circles that admire Mr Modi for his tough stance against Islamabad,” the expert said on the condition of anonymity via Signal from New Delhi .

Not limited to Pakistan

A recent study titled 'Prevalence and Source Analysis of Covid-19 Misinformation in 138 Countries', published in Sage's International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions journal declared India as the top source of misinformation on the pandemic. “India produced the largest amount of social media misinformation on coronavirus,” the study said. Researchers analysed 9,657 pieces of misinformation that originated in 138 countries before declaring New Delhi as the top source for misinformation on the subject. In his study, Sayeed Al-Zaman, analysed misinformation originating between January 2020 and March 2021. India, according to the University of Alberta researcher, is the world’s top hot spot for coronavirus-related misinformation, accounting for roughly one in six pieces of output generated worldwide.

“To my knowledge, I did not see much effort from the Indian government or other governments from other countries to curb Covid-19 misinformation, except a few sporadic efforts, such as requesting social media platforms to take steps to resolve the problems. In this age of mass deception, these temporary efforts would not be helpful,” Sayeed said by email from Alberta where he is based.

The misinformation being disseminated in India has multiple objectives. Hate and disinformation campaigns , according to Professor Shakuntala Banaji’s blog piece, have increased during the ongoing pandemic – particularly against members of the Muslim community.

“Some commentators naively assumed that a life-threatening pandemic would bring citizens together, and be enough to suspend if not completely stop the now endemic barrage of disinformation targeted at Indian Muslims. However, Covid-19 has simply added a new dimension to the hate speech and disinformation circulated about Muslim communities in India,” says the piece Professor Banaji co-authored with Dr Ram Bhat, a fellow in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Lashing out at Indian media channels for trying to normalize hate speech, Uppsala University’s Dr Ashok Swain said: “Hate speech is a criminal act. Indian TV channels debate on it to normalise hate speech against minorities.”

Journalists known to support the ruling BJP and the Hindutva cause in India, another expert said, were propelling the agenda on television and social media. “That is an alarming trend. Journalists and media in India are acting as the mouthpiece of the ruling party where they should be holding them accountable for their actions,” he said via Signal.