Just International

India’s Disinformation Campaign and its Impact on the Media

By Abdullah Al Ahsan

‘Disinformation’ or false information has become a common word in the media in recent years. A BBC article identifies the origin of the term with 2016 US election suggesting that it originated in an east European town with Russian assistance. Interestingly disinformation became the official mantra of the White House for about four years. The wealthy class worldwide seems to have become the main patron of this development making devastating impact in world politics. Some further elaboration of this development will explain the situation better.

India: the Champion of Disinformation Campaigns

EU Disinfo Lab, a Brussels-based NGO devoted to combat disinformation, has released a report entitled Indian Chronicle: Deep Dive into a 15-Year Operation Targeting the EU and UN to Serve Indian Interests in December 2020 about a pro-Indian network engaged in disseminating fake news mainly regarding Pakistan. This was the second time that the organization came up with such an explosive report about internationally active pro-Indian fake news networks in the span of almost a year. In November 2019, the same NGO came up with a headline that, “Over 265 fake local news sites in more than 65 countries are managed by an Indian influence network.” What is noteworthy about these findings is that in spite of the explosive nature of this information, the media world does not seem to have taken it seriously. Normally such exposure of disinformation at an era of a severe crisis created by fake news the international press would have exploded the media world. Yet nothing like this has happened except for some scattered discussions here and there. Why? Is it not an Islamophobic approach of the international media? Is an Islamophobic approach rational? Or, is it due to romantic love for the “world’s largest democracy”? No accountability for democracies!

The process in which the EU Disinfo Lab discovered this incident is also very interesting. In the first report issued in November 2019, it noted that, “we unexpectedly found a large number of articles and op-eds related to minorities in Pakistan as well as other India-related matters.” The researchers were examining a website www.eptoday.com “a self-proclaimed magazine for the European Parliament in Brussels” and reported that, “EP Today is managed by Indian stakeholders, with ties to a large network of think tanks, NGOs, and companies from the Srivastava Group. We 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 (IINS), which are all based at the same address in New Delhi, India.”

Based on the first report, the BBC conducted an independent investigation and confirmed that the website eptoday.com did create a “global network of pro-Indian fake websites and think-tanks” with the aim of influencing the decision making process of the European Parliament. It also found that the network was “involved in anti-Pakistan lobbying events in Europe.” It was involved in many crafty and shrewd devices creating many fake websites and “use names of defunct newspapers to provide a veneer of credibility.” According to the BBC, the EU Disinfo Lab has “dubbed these ‘zombie’ sites, because the names were resurrected from dead media outlets.” As an example, the article notes:
One of the sites is called Manchester Times. Its ‘About Us’ section uses text copied from a Wikipedia entry about a newspaper with the same name. But it omits an important part of the Wikipedia description, which states: ‘The newspaper’s last issue appeared on 22 July 1922.’ It also fails to declare the website’s links to Indian interests.
The latter report published in December 2020 discovered even more devastating fake news networks and activities. According to the report, following the publication of the first report, the website eptoday.com disappeared, but a new website euchronicle.com was born proclaiming itself a “Brussels-based independent media outlet.” The report further asserts:
We soon realised that this US-based NGO – accredited to the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) – had become inactive in the late 1970s before being resurrected in 2005. Its identity had been hijacked by the same actors depicted in our first investigation. Shockingly, we discovered that the organisation had not only been revived. Its former Chairman and “grandfather of international law in the US”, Louis B. Sohn, who passed away in 2006, seemingly attended a UN Human Rights Council meeting in 2007 and participated in an event organised by “Friends of Gilgit-Baltistan” in Washington D.C. in 2011.

Following the publication of the second report the BBC published another article confirming that, “A dead professor and numerous defunct organisations were resurrected and used alongside at least 750 fake media outlets in a vast 15-year global disinformation campaign to serve Indian interests, a new investigation has revealed.” The article further asserted:
The latest EU Disinfo report, reveals that the operation, run by SG (Srivastava Group – a business group in India), is spread over at least 116 countries and has targeted members of the European Parliament and the United Nations – raising questions about how much EU and UN staff knew about SG’s activities, and whether they could have done more to counter those activities, especially after last year’s report.

The EU Disinfo Lab identified at least 10 UN-accredited NGOs that were engaged in lobbying, organizing demonstrations, speaking during press conferences and often receiving the floor at the UN. At the United Nations in Geneva, Le Temps uncovered that students from diverse backgrounds were recruited by fake NGOs to speak against Pakistan. It also reported that fake media outlets were created; poster campaigns were launched at the “United Nations, a ‘parallel universe’ has been formed to defend India’s interests.” What is noteworthy about this Indian swindle is that it has a number of layers. First, one fake news outlet concocts news, then one or more NGOs would take it up to some think tanks, think tanks then takes the issue up to lobby groups and the lobby groups to policy makers. In the process, fake news receive legitimacy and become acceptable source for academic writings and history books.

Criminal Offences

It is noteworthy that a google search on EP Today still “guides the reader to the European Parliament” and EU Chronicle claims to be an association of “freelance journalists” based mainly in Europe with the purpose of providing and “informing, ethical, stimulating and quality news to the reader.” On the other hand, by examining EU Disinfo Lab reports, one can easily confirm its report of lobbying at UN agencies, demonstrating for Indian interests in a manner that are acceptable in a democratic setup. However, hoodwinking people with fake websites, concocting news to defame enemies, establishing false think tanks and feeding policy makers with fabricated information, getting access to world bodies using bogus institutions, misusing names of famous deceased personalities – all these should have been criminal offences. For a common person looking for information about the European Union or the European Parliament, websites such as eptoday.com or eutoday.com will look like official sites of these institutions as their names suggest. The reality, however, is different: they are not. One may raise many questions in the current context. Are not the European Parliament or the European Union concerned about their reputation? Why did not the European Parliament take any action when it was discovered in the first EU Disinfo Lab report that its name was misused? Why no action was taken when it was discovered that its letterhead was inappropriately used? Why and how some members of the European Parliament were persuaded to speak and write based on fake information? Where is the democratic accountability? “Imagine if the same operation was run by China or Russia. How do you think the world would have reacted? Probably with international outrage, leading to public inquiries and probably sanctions,” wondered an EU Disinfo Lab researcher to the BBC correspondent conducting research on the subject. Why is India treated differently? Is it because India claims to be a democratic entity? Alternatively, it is because India apparently belongs to the privileged group of states in the perceived clash of civilizations conflict. Remarkably, a European Parliament spokesperson has claimed, “We take very seriously any effort to misrepresent the positions of the European Parliament or its elected members,” but added that she was “not aware of such a request made by Pakistan.” Is the burden of fighting fake news about the European Parliament and creating false institutions and spreading lies only Pakistan’s responsibility? Why is the international community silent on the issue? Are not these actors violating democratic and human values? An EJN article warned:
The Indian government is playing a dangerous game of supporting media organisations that whip up ultranationalist sentiments. Key ministers attack journalists and media that believe in speaking truth to power. Prime Minister Modi himself has called journalists “news traders”, one minister has called them “presstitutes” and another has said journalists should stop asking questions.

Yet no action seems to have been taken on India’s official efforts to manipulate news. These developments have created more chaos in an already chaotic media world. Yet surprisingly the mainstream international media outlets and institutions such as Reporters Without Border (RSF) do not seem to have expressed any concern about India’s habit of disinformation campaign very seriously. Interestingly in recent years, the mainstream pro-government Indian media has become target of severe criticism from within other Indian sources, nonetheless, for a different reason. The rise of fanatic Hindu nationalism seems to have been the main cause. Some Indian journalists have called the facet presstitution and money-politics that has manipulated and corrupted the media in the country. But these censures seem to infuriate Hindutva activists: Describing the second wave of Covid 19 outbreak in India The New York Times has reported that, “As Outbreak Rages, India Orders Critical Social Media Posts to Be Taken Down.” The Hindutva critic Rutgers academic Audrey Truschke has been a target of severe criticism and physical assault in both India and the US for years.

Hindutva Governance and Disinformation

On the current devastating coronavirus crisis in India The Guardian in an editorial has commented that, “little more than six weeks ago, Mr Modi, with not even 1% of the population vaccinated, declared that the country was the “world’s pharmacy” and signalled that pre-pandemic life could resume. Superspreading took place when thousands filled cricket stadiums and millions of Hindus took a dip in the Ganges during the Kumbh Mela festival.” In other words, the Modi government is good in propaganda and bad in governing the country. Last year at the beginning of the Covid 19 crisis Indian Muslims were blamed for spreading the virus. Hindutva activists and the mainstream Indian media concocted stories to implicate many innocent Muslims of spreading the virus in India.

The United States Commission for Interreligious Freedom or USCIRF last year in its annual report categorized India among countries of particular concern because of the rise of violence against minority groups such as Dalits, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians and indigenous communities in the country. However, an Indian cluster came up with the theory that what it calls some Islamist groups had infiltrated and manipulated USCIRF to issue the statement about India and that should be a matter of concern. This website claims for itself being a
[l]egal entity with the motive of unveiling fake news and propaganda that intend to create turmoil among the people. We take pride in being Asia’s first Disinfo Lab, with completely unbiased research and conclusion on all sorts of crooked activities taking place all around. “Decoding the Pattern” is what we believe in, before blindly agreeing to a piece of fake news spreading around blatantly and still clouding the minds of the innocent public with malicious ideology.
The website provides with one email address thedisinfolab.org@gmail.com as contact information; it has no name, no telephone number or any postal address. However, it seems to have many followers to disseminate its postings. In terms of content, it does exactly the opposite of what it claims to stand for. Most noteworthy aspect of the site it its name – thedisinfolab, a name that resembles EU Disinfo Lab, the site that originally exposed Indian disinformation campaign in November 2019. Is this an attempt to defame the term disinfolab? Is this intended to confuse common readers about the term? Cyber security institutions must come up with acceptable answers to these questions. For world peace and security, this is very important.

Dr Abdullah Al-Ahsan is a JUST member.

8th May 2021.