Over 265 fake local news sites in more than 65 countries are managed by an Indian network, designed to influence the European Union and the United Nations by criticizing Pakistan, revealed researchers at EU DisinfoLab, a non-governmental organisation that investigates disinformation campaigns targeting the EU.
The group, which had been investigating EP Today—a self-styled “news magazine for the European parliament”—“unexpectedly found a large number of articles and op-eds related to minorities in Pakistan as well as other India-related matters.” Concert Red
It discovered that the ostensibly Brussels-based EP Today is managed by Indian stakeholders with links to a large network of think tanks, NGOs and companies from the New Delhi-based Srivastava Group. It also found links to another influence network based in Geneva. At its centre is Times of Geneva, an online newspaper that claims to be ‘approaching 35 years in business’ and produces videos of events and demonstrations criticising Pakistan’s role in the Kashmir conflict.
“Specifically, the websites of these NGOs and think tanks are hosted on the same servers and/or staff have worked for one of these previous organisations while publishing articles for EP Today,” the study said. “We also proved that the two influence networks [in Brussels and Geneva] were interconnected by discovering links between website registration addresses, email addresses, and domain names.”
In February, a Reddit thread highlighted Times of Geneva’s skewed coverage, particularly in relation to Balochistan and Kashmir. The outlet has consistently covered demonstrations by little known groups such as the European Organisation for Pakistani Minorities and Pakistani Women’s Human Rights Organisation.
Soch has reached out to activists given coverage by these sites.
THE KASHMIR CONNECTION
EP Today’s readers are said to include senior European parliamentarians and European ambassadors. The Srivastava Group, of which it is a part, also runs the International Institute for Non-Aligned Studies—a think tank that allegedly paid for the travel and accommodation of an unofficial delegation of 23 European Union parliamentarians who visited Srinagar on October 30. Comprising mostly far-right nationalist politicians, this was the first international team to visit the region since the government revoked Kashmir’s special status.
The visit was seen as a validation of India’s efforts to control the conversation about Kashmir, which it has termed as an “internal matter”.
In September, Prime Minister Imran Khan raised the issue in his UN General Assembly address to world leaders in New York, saying that he feared a “bloodbath” in Kashmir when the security lockdown, in place since August, is lifted.
EVEN MORE EXTENSIVE
The fake websites appear to originate from a vast swath of countries—from Japan to São Tomé and Príncipe to Honduras—and are classified by the researchers into three categories: new, misleading and zombie. New outlets refer to media outlets that never existed, executive director, Alexandre Alaphilipe told Soch. Website names that hew closely to existing media outlets—such as timesoflosangeles.com and foreignaffairstoday.com—are classified as misleading. Zombie outlets, which form the bulk of the 265 websites, are those that existed in the past and have now been resurrected for campaigning purposes.
The two websites that seemingly originate from Pakistan use names of old newspapers that ceased publication decades ago. They are inaccessible from within Pakistan. Socialist Weekly, the official organ of the Pakistan Socialist Party, was an Urdu-language periodical published in Karachi in the mid-twentieth century. Khalsa Akhbar, associated with the Lahore Khalsa Diwan, was a weekly newspaper dating back to 1886.
The website of Khalsa Akhbar provides contact details, including an address in Lahore—of a gated residential community—and a Pakistani cellphone number. The same number can also be found on another website—Times of Azad Kashmir—which appears to be part of the same network. Times of Azad Kashmir has not been flagged by the EU Disinfo Lab, indicating that the disinformation network maybe even larger than is currently known.
What is the purpose of such an extensive disinformation network? The researchers had several theories. Such networks may influence international institutions and elected representatives with coverage of specific events and demonstrations. They create a “mirage” of international support by creating several layers of media outlets that quote and republish one another. They provide NGOs with useful press material to reinforce their credibility. They also influence global public perceptions of Pakistan by multiplying iterations of the same content available on search engines.
“The impact of these campaigns can be disastrous,” said Shmyla Khan, a researcher at the Pakistan-based Digital Rights Foundation. “Sophisticated campaigns can influence public opinion and discredit advocacy on the global stage regarding Kashmir.”
In September, Soch investigated how popular social media sites were blocking pro-Kashmiri pages.
While Pakistan appears to be the target of this disinformation campaign, journalists and political movements within the country are often similarly discredited through coordinated Twitter trends and concerted campaigns.