[Dawn 14 November 2019] KARACHI: A European non-governmental group 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.
The ‘EU DisinfoLab’ is focused on researching and tackling sophisticated disinformation campaigns targeting the EU, its member states, core institutions and core values.
During the investigation, the 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.
One such website eptoday.com — claiming to be a self-proclaimed magazine for the European Parliament in Brussels — had been copy-pasting a large amount of news word for word.
The investigation discovered that the news outlets were managed by Indian stakeholders, with ties to a large network of think tanks, NGOs, and companies from the Srivastava Group.
The EU DisinfoLab found that EP Today’s office address was the same as that of the Srivastava Group that is based in New Delhi. The IP address of the Srivastava Group was also home to the obscure online media “New Delhi Times” and the International Institute for Non-Aligned Studies (IINS).
Only recently, the obscure IINS invited 27 members of the European Parliament to meet Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
In Geneva, where the UN Refugee Agency has its headquarters, the group discovered timesofgeneva.com – an online “newspaper” that is “approaching 35 years in business”. The ‘Times of Geneva’ published the same type of content as EP Today and produced videos covering events and demonstrations criticising Pakistan’s role in the Kashmir conflict.
Through the website, the network served Indian lobbying interests in Geneva towards the United Nations.
Analysis of the fake websites revealed that most of them were named after an extinct local newspaper or spoof real media outlets. They republished anti-Pakistan content on the rest of the influence Indian network— including fake outlets such as EP Today, 4NewsAgency, Times Of Geneva, New Delhi Times. Most websites had a Twitter account as well.
The DisinfoLab found evidence that both EP Today and Times of Geneva had extremely strong ties to a network of NGOs and think tanks, such as the European Organisation for Pakistani Minorities, and Pakistani Women’s Human Rights Organisation.
Why create the fake outlets?
According to the DisinfoLab’s analysis, the purpose of these fake news outlets was to influence international institutions and elected representatives with coverage of specific events and demonstrations. They also provided NGOs with useful press material to reinforce their credibility and thus be impactful.
The network added several layers of media outlets that quoted and republished one another, making it harder for the reader to trace the manipulation, and in turn (sometimes) offer an illusion of international support towards Indian geopolitical interests.
The critical content was largely aimed to influence public perceptions on Pakistan by multiplying its iterations on search engines.