India’s fake media campaign unmasked

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Hadi Bandyal

In early October this year, the European External Action Service’s EastStratCom (the EU Disinformation Task Force) revealed that eptoday.com the website of a self-proclaimed magazine for the European Parliament in Brussels had been republishing a large amount of news directly from Russia Today and Voice of America. Among this syndicated content, it unexpectedly found a large number of articles and op-eds related to minorities in Pakistan as well as other India related matters.

 

EU DisinfoLab quickly discovered that EP Today is managed by Indian stakeholders, with ties to a large network of think tanks, NGOs, and companies from the Srivastava Group. It also found that the IP address of the Srivastava Group is also home to the obscure online media “New Delhi Times” and the International Institute for Non-Aligned Studies, which are all based at the same address in New Delhi, India.

 

On 16th December, 2019 the European non-governmental group released it detailed report in which it declared that it has uncovered a network of 265 ‘fake’ news outlets managed by an Indian network to influence the European Union and the United Nations with content critical of Pakistan. During the investigation, the EU DisinfoLab found that the fake websites copy-pasted anti-Pakistan content from unusual press agencies and amplified material shared by politicians and obscure think tanks that supported Indian geopolitical interests.

 

The coordinated network of 265 sites operates across 65 countries. The researchers traced the websites to an Indian company, Srivastava Group. More than the fake media outlets alone, it is their combination with the fake NGOs that’s really worrying because it provides a mirage of online and grassroots support to a cause.

 

Many of the fake websites use names of defunct newspapers to provide a veneer of credibility. EU DisinfoLab has dubbed these “zombie” sites, because the names were resurrected from dead media outlets. Six of the sites use misleading names, like “Times of Los Angeles” instead of the better known “Los Angeles Times”.

 

The websites all copy syndicated content from news organizations to make them look like real news sites. They then plant anti-Pakistan stories and opinion pieces from employees of NGOs linked to the network to serve India’s lobbying interests. The EU DisinfoLab report highlights various fake organizations which appear to be closely connected, which have been organizing “protests and conferences every year during UN Human Rights Council sessions.

 

They focus on campaigns to criticize Pakistan for the state of minorities and persecuted groups in the country. In 2017 posters with the message “Free Balochistan” and other slogans supporting minorities in Pakistan appeared on streets in Geneva, resulting in Pakistani authorities summoning the Swiss Ambassador to demand the removal of the posters. It found a similar modus operandi, where the news outlets “reference and promote each other constantly”, with misleading names such as “Times of Bombay, The Delhi Times, and Dacca Times”.

 

The anti-Pakistan network revealed by EU DisinfoLab has a strong presence in European cities such as Brussels, Geneva and Strasbourg, coordinating demonstrations and a social media campaign. Through shared phone numbers and an office address in Brussels, as well as shared web servers, EU DisinfoLab found Srivastava Group to be at the heart of the network. One of Srivastava Group’s subsidiaries, the International Institute for Non-Aligned Studies, sponsored a controversial visit to Indian-administered Kashmir for right-wing MEPs in October.

 

This appears to be a larger part of the campaign against Pakistan. The group is operating from different locations and four out of six outlets in India. Most of the websites have a presence on Twitter; diverse tactics are deployed in increasing suspicious information; and organized propaganda campaigns are launched for sowing the seeds of distrust, misinformation and sponsored political motives.

 

The content is characterized by aggression, incitement, and vituperation. It is not a secret that India has been involved in acts of sectarian terrorism, subversive activities and terror attacks in different parts of our country. Now when India’s malicious campaign has been unmasked, it is the responsibility of Pakistani and international media to expose the real face of India to the world.  

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