A Discreet Indian Firm is Running a Global Disinformation Campaign, Says Report

A Brussel-based nonprofit has unearthed a global network that used over 750 fake media outlets to push anti-Pakistan and anti-China content.
Pallavi Pundir
Delhi, IN
December 11, 2020, 2:15pm
india disinformation srivastava group ANI
In 2019, Srivastava Group organised a visit of the European Parliamentarians to Kashmir. The trip was criticised for projecting normalcy in the region when it was actually a tumultuous phase. Photo by Waseem Andrabi/ Getty Images

A network of over 750 fake media outlets is currently spreading disinformation against China and Pakistan, revealed an investigation by Brussels-based NGO EU DisinfoLab. 

The report, published on Wednesday, Dec. 9, found that a little-known Indian company called Srivastava Group (SG) is operating this network in at least 100 countries, primarily targeting members of the European Parliament and the United Nations. 

Advertisement

EU DisinfoLab’s work is focused on tracking disinformation campaigns targeting the European Union and its member states. The NGO called this operation “Indian Chronicles”, which has been 15 years in the making. EU DisinfoLab published a precedent to this report last year, which detailed SG’s Indian influence network made up of 265 fake news websites in over 65 countries. 

“The vast network of fake media outlets, think tanks and NGOs serving Indian interests we uncovered in 2019 took a hit, but it’s still around,” said the report. 

SG had come under the spotlight last year, for organising an unofficial visit by the members of European Parliament (MEP) to the conflict-ridden region of Kashmir after the Indian government stripped it of its special status. The MEPs who had landed in Kashmir were known to have far-right leanings and anti-immigration views. At the same time, a narrative of peace was projected in the mainstream Indian media, despite mass protests and clashes erupting in certain pockets against the Indian government’s move. 

Advertisement

It’s unclear whether any of these networks are linked directly to the Indian government, even though a large part of disinformation is targeted against China and Pakistan. 

Interestingly, the report documents how the Indian Chronicles network resurrected dead professors and defunct organisations while pushing fake content. “The actors behind this operation hijacked the names of others and tried to impersonate regular media and press agencies such as the EU Observer, The Economist and Voice of America,” said the report. 

“They used the letterhead of the European Parliament; registered websites under avatars with fake phone numbers; and provided fake addresses to the United Nations,” it added. 

In one instance, the report dug into the origins of an organisation called The Commission to Study the Organization of Peace (CSOP), which was traced to the SG network of domain names. It turns out that CSOP was an actual organisation formed in the 1930s, but has been defunct since the 1970s. The investigation found that the fake CSOP often spoke at the UN on human rights issues, including many interventions about Pakistan. The report also details at least 10 UN-accredited NGOs that were linked to the SG, and promoted “Indian interests and [criticised] Pakistan repeatedly.”

Additionally, CSOP’s website showed Louis B Sohn as its chairman who appeared to be alive on its lists of meetings and participation in 2007 and 2011, even though, in reality, he had passed away in 2006. 

Another organisation mentioned in the report is one of India’s prominent news agencies, Asian News International (ANI). ANI has previously been observed as giving the Indian government’s version of events. 

The report said that ANI “repackaged and amplified” activities of fake zombie-NGOs and distorted facts. These were then picked up by more than 500 fake local media outlets in 95 countries. Most of the content, found the investigating team, produced negative iterations about Pakistan or China. 

“This should serve as a call to action for decision-makers to put in place a relevant framework to sanction actors engaging in disinformation and abusing international institutions,” said the report. “It is possible that the absence of messages from the institutions affected by Indian Chronicles provided the space and opportunity for the operation to reinvent itself and to continue doing more of the same.”

Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.