In 2019, an investigation by the non-governmental organisation EU DisinfoLab alleged that it had found a network of fake news and lobbying websites that sought to promote Indian interests abroad. This network, it alleged, had connections to the little-known organisation that arranged a visit of Members of the European Parliament to Kashmir in October 2019, shortly after the Indian government scrapped the special status the territory had been accorded under the Constitution.
That organisation appeared to share its official address with the Srivastava Group, which describes itself as “one of the fastest growing business houses” in India, despite very little being known about it.
A year later, the NGO has released a report that it claims reveals “a massive online and offline 15-year ongoing influence operation supporting Indian interests and discrediting Pakistan internationally”. While EU DisinfoLab’s investigation into this operation did not turn up any evidence of ties to the Indian government or a political body, it alleged that the disinformation efforts were “led by the Srivastava Group and amplified by ANI”, the news agency that, critics claim, has apro-government tilt in India.
Update: On Friday evening, ANI editor Smita Prakash said in a tweet that the report was an attempt by “Pakistan and its proxies to hurt ANI’s credibility”.
Prakash also tweeted a reponse from India’s Ministry of External Affairs. “As a responsible democracy, India doees not practice disinformation campaigns,” it stated.
“Never before in our investigations have we been so astonished at the multiplication of layers of fake,” the NGO claims in its report. “[The fake news network] resurrected dead media, dead think-tanks and NGOs. It even resurrected dead people. 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... They misappropriated the picture of a former UK Government Minister and BBC Director on Facebook, registered the names of deceased persons to attend events five years after their death, and invented dozens of journalist identities.”
The aim of the overall operation, according to EU DisinfoLab was “to reinforce pro-Indian and anti-Pakistan (and anti-Chinese) feelings” in India, and, “internationally, to consolidate the power and improve the perception of India, to damage the reputation of other countries and ultimately benefit from more support from international institutions such as the EU and the UN”.
How did it do this?
EU DisinfoLab breaks down the allegations via a graphic in its executive summary:
A key element of the campaign, alleges the report, was the Srivastava Group’s alleged use of United Nations-accredited non-government organisations and individuals connected to them – including, in one prominent case, a person who was dead.
The United States-based Commission to Study the Organization of Peace, which had become inactive in the 1970s, was – according to the report – resurrected by the Srivastava Group and used as part of the lobbying efforts. This included claiming that the organisation’s former chairman Louis B Sohn, an American scholar of international law and human rights, had attended an event organised by Friends of Gilgit-Baltistan in Washington, DC in 2011, even though he had died in 2006.
The EU DisinfoLab report is, in fact, dedicated to Sohn.
According to the report, these UN-accredited organisations, including one that was originally related to the canned foods industry, were resurrected and were repeatedy given the floor at the United Nations Human Rights Council, at which they frequently brought up Pakistan even if it was not relevant to the subject.
“These UN-accredited NGOs work in coordination with non-accredited think-tanks and minority-rights NGOs in Brussels and Geneva. Several of them – like the European Organization for Pakistani Minorities (EOPM), Baluchistan House and the South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF) – were directly but opaquely created by the Srivastava group,” the report alleged.
These organisations led the EU DisinfoLab to the EU Chronicle, a fake media outlet with fake journalists “supposedly covering European affairs, yet essentially providing a platform for MEPs to sign pro-Indian articles”, the report alleged. “In less than 6 months of existence, already 11 MEPs have written or endorsed op-eds at a remarkably high pace for EU Chronicle.”
And that then brought the investigation to ANI, the Indian news agency.
“The only valuable coverage these op-eds receive, comes from an immediate repackaging by an Indian press agency named ANI,” the report said.
Based on this, the EU DisinfoLab claimed to have unearthed a much larger operation: “The coverage – and often distortion – by ANI of the content produced in Brussels and Geneva” led to network of more than 500 fake local media in 95 countries “that have helped reproduce negative iterations about Pakistan (or China)”.
“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,” the report said.
EU DisinfoLab said that its investigation showed how the activities of fake NGOs and fake media could be “repackaged, distorted and amplified” to “disinform globally, using loopholes in international institutions and online search engines”.
The BBC, which reported the story and in particular the connections to the little-known Srivastava Group, contacted to the Srivastava family as well as ANI for a response but did not get any, including from staff at the office of the group’s tech firm Agyala.
The report concluded that the disinformation campaign had managed to create support groups within the European Parliament, influence European and international policymaking and maximise “negative content about Pakistan online, primarily using a network of fake local media across the world”.
The NGO pointed out that its conclusions are “in no way a judgement of the situation of human rights in Pakistan, nor should it serve to undermine the credibility of minority movements in Pakistan”.
Pointing out that its results will nevertheless most likely be used by Pakistani authorities for their own ends, the report called for readers to “bear in mind that it is not because one side uses dodgy influence campaigns that the other side does not: A simple Google search will lead you to read about inauthentic behaviours supporting Pakistani interests.”
The report ends with conclusions for European policymakers, summarised below:
“We are alarmed to see the continuation of Indian Chronicles which – despite our first report and wide press coverage – has pursued its 15-year long operation and even recently launched EU Chronicle, a fake EU outlet. This should serve as a call to action for decision-makers to put in place a relevant framework to sanction actors abusing our international institutions. 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”
It is also our belief that the possibility for malicious actors to abuse search engines by reproducing the same content hundreds of times should also be challenged.”
Update: This article was updated at 7.45 pm on November 11 to include the tweets of ANI editor Smita Prakash.