For 15 years, a nefarious network of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) used fake websites, lobbying and a dead professor to distribute pro-India propaganda for both foreign and domestic audiences, according to a report by EU DisinfoLab. Through the use of over 10 UN Human Rights Council accredited NGOs, the group behind the fake websites reportedly lobbied Members of European Parliament (MEP), think tanks and fake news websites.
This network was active in Brussels and Geneva in producing and amplifying content designed to, primarily, undermine Pakistan, the report says. The actors behind these operations also impersonated senior politicians, journalists and media organisations, had fake addresses and phone numbers, and registered over 750 media websites and over 550 domain names for their network. This included NGOs, think-tanks, media, European Parliament informal groups, religious and Imam organizations, obscure publishing companies and public personalities. The report states that New-Delhi based Srivastava Group in partnership with the Women’s Economic and Social Think-Tank, which had sponsored the trip of 27 MEPs to visit Kashmir and had met Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Srivastava Group describes itself as one of “the fastest growing business houses in the country with interests in Natural resources, Clean energy, Airspace, Consulting services, Healthcare, Print Media and Publishing.” Disinfo Lab is independent non-profit organisation that investigates disinformation campaigns targeting the European Union.
Fake media outlets and role of ANI
In 2019, DisinfoLab found a network of 265 fake media entities, in 65 countries publishing anti-Pakistani material and how the actors behind the fake media organisations also organised side-events at the UN, press conferences and demonstrations. Thereafter, this material was reproduced and distributed through news agencies through Asian News International (ANI), it says.
“In total, the media coverage of Indian chronicle operations has covered 116 countries and 9 regions. We also realised that the content produced was primarily targeted at Indian nationals with an extensive coverage of these barely known “media”, MEPs and “NGOs” in Europe. Overall, according to our open-source investigation, the operation led by the Srivastava Group and amplified by ANI began in 2005 and is still ongoing” — Indian Chronicles, EU DisinfoLab December 10, 2020
In May 2020, a new website called EU Chronicle was set up and in less than 6 months 11 MEPs who went to Kashmir last year had written or endorsed op-eds for it. Using this lead, DisinfoLab began its investigation and found that the website was on the same IP address that hosted NGOs and websites belonging to the Srivastava group.
“The absence of transparency about the ownership of the media outlet and its journalists, the heavy use of content syndication and the presence of MEP op-eds were 3 features already present in our last investigation about the fake European Parliamentarian magazine ‘EP Today’,” the report said. The website also cross-syndicates other news websites and news sections of official government/inter-governmental organisations like NATO and the European Parliament. The website also provided distribution services for press releases and, in the attempt to appear legitimate, membership packages without a payments gateway, it added.
DisinfoLab said that nine MEPs who had written for EP Today were now writing for EU Chronicle and through its Twitter account, EU Chronicle would post videos of some of these MEPs speaking to the Prime Minister or on human rights violations in Pakistan.
“Some of the footage including in videos tweeted by EU Chronicle were very similar to those we could find on videos for “4News Agency”, a Geneva-based organization that we connected to the Srivastava group during our last investigation” — Indian Chronicles, EU DisinfoLab December 10, 2020
DisinfoLabs found that in large parts, an op-ed published by a Bulgarian MEP attacking China on COVID-19 on May 11, was quoted in an article on ANI the next day. Similarly, it found an article on ANI quoting an op-ed on Pakistans’ treatment of women. “At the end, we were able to identify at least 13 occurrences of EU Chronicle’s MEP op-eds and articles being rewritten and amplified by ANI. Most of the topics of these articles were linked to Pakistan or China. For EU Chronicle, being quoted by ANI is a way to gain some legitimacy and to try to appear as a legitimate media outlet,” it said.
Since ANI is the largest wire and press agency in the country, a large amount of its reports and videos are re-produced by the mainstream media. The report states that ZEE5, BW Business World, Business Standard, Times of India, DNA India and Economic Times had reproduced ANI articles which were based on EUChronicle articles. Further, the report says that the EUChronicle articles which were reproduced by ANI with modifications, were then redistributed in entirety across several obscure websites part of Big News Network and World News Network. Big News has 450 media outlets under its operations while World News Network has 40 outlets.
Resurrecting dead and defunct NGOs
DisinfoLab began looking into Commission to Study the Organization of Peace (CSOP), which was accredited to the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). But CSOP had been inactive since the late 1970s, until its resurrection in 2005. It found that the actors behind CSOP also listed Professor Louis B Sohn as its chairman, having attended an event on Gilgit-Baltistan in 2011. In reality, Sohn had passed away in 2006.
The report found that many UN affiliated NGOs that had long been defunct, were “hijacked” and “resurrected” by the same people. These organizations would be represented at the UN Human Rights Council by either Geneva-based students or pro-India stakeholders, it said. They also organised events at the UN which were centred around Balochistan, Pakistan, human rights or Kashmir.
Over 15 years, this disinformation operation bought more than 500 domain names which included websites for the networks’ several dubious think-tanks, parliamentary groups, media organisations and NGOs, the report says.
“A significant part of the Indian Chronicle operation is based on creating a smoke screen of organisations, with often only an online presence, which can cross-reference each other. By regularly mentioning each other’s without disclosing their links, these organisations try to gain legitimacy and to build an artificial ecosystem which is credible only if the network is big enough to justify its own existence.”— Indian Chronicles, EU DisinfoLab December 10, 2020
DisinfoLab states that its investigation uncovered so much as many of the websites were created at a time when the actors were less concerned with privacy. “Nowadays, malicious actors register domain names and create websites anonymously, making detection more difficult. The regulatory discussion on data transparency from platforms now taking place should be broadened to include greater scrutiny of domain names,” it said. DisinfoLab urged the domain name industry to “seriously reflect” on the fraudulent behaviour and consider it abuse of the domain name system.