A network of 265 fake websites in 65 countries operated by a shadowy Indian company has been helping spread anti-Pakistan propaganda — which happened to align with IRL demonstrations in Europe.
The ultimate goal of the influence campaign was to sway lawmakers in Europe in favor of Indian interests, a matter of vital importance during the crisis in Kashmir in August when the Indian government stripped the Muslim-majority region of its autonomy.
Researchers at the EU Disinfo Lab, an NGO in Brussels, uncovered the network of sites that mimic current or defunct media sites around the globe, including dozens of U.S. portals in the mix. Some mimicked long-defunct outlets like the New York Morning Telegraph (which closed in 1972), and others attempted to mislead by using site names similar to those of current media organizations, such as the Times of Los Angeles, rather than the Los Angeles Times.
The network even operated a North Korean-focused website called the Times of Pyongyang.
All the outlets published identical material that was copied and pasted from news agencies, including North Korea’s KCNA and Russia’s Interfax.
But the researchers believe the network’s real purpose was to act as a way to disseminate coordinated anti-Pakistan propaganda that coincided with real-world anti-Pakistan demonstrations taking place in Europe.
The demonstrations were organized by groups such as the European Organization for Pakistani Minorities and Pakistani Women’s Human Rights Organization, which have been shown to use the same online infrastructure as the fake news network.
The EU DisinfoLab researchers built on the work of researchers within the EU who last month uncovered a fake European Parliament magazine called EP Today that was filled with content from Russian state-run outlet RT.
“What we know is that if we look at the whole network, not only the media outlets but also the demonstrations and the visit to Kashmir by MEPs, we can see how this [campaign] had a direct influence on how the European Parliament viewed the Kashmir question,” Alexandre Alaphilipe, executive director of EU DisinfoLab, told VICE News.
Alaphilipe said he did not have figures for how many times any of these sites were viewed, but said the publication of similar information on a large number of websites could act as a way of promoting the anti-Pakistan content in search rankings.
The researchers were, however, able to link all the activity back to one Delhi-based organization called the Srivastava Group, which also helped fund the controversial visit of mostly far-right members of the European Parliament to Kashmir in late October.
Opposition lawmakers criticized the trip, noting they haven’t been allowed to enter the region since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stripped it of its autonomy in August.
The trip was funded by the International Institute for Non-Aligned Studies (IINS), which is a subsidiary of the Srivastava Group.
The Srivastava Group’s website claims it is 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.”
However, a report by Indian website the Wire last month revealed that the Srivastava Group has a host of companies that do little to no business, according to filings with India’s Registrar of Companies.
Cover: A person using a laptop. (Press Association via AP Images)