Pakistan has resorted to fake news and rumour to trigger conflict in South Asia and harvest the benefit.
The country is abusing facebook, tweeter and other social media in this regard.Did you,
- See a video of “Gorkha soldiers being mistreated” by the Indian Army at the peak of India-Nepal border conflict?
- Witness reports of Gulf countries condemning “Islamophobia in India”?
- Spot videos and images of “Indian soldiers killed by the Chinese at the border during India-China border tensions”?
If yes, then you are the victim of fake news being spread in South Asia. If you believed any of these, then the fake news virus has effectively infected.
Where and how did these fake news originate?
This report is an effort to decode this willfully planted network.
• Fake news has always remained a preferred tool for state craft, and has become even more lethal in the age of social media. One such nation in South Asia is using it to cause differences between other South Asian nations.• Spreading disinformation has become an easy task due to Twitter’s facility / loophole which allows the users to change their profile (name and username).
• This tool has been deployed by various Pakistani social media accounts in propagating Anti-India fake narrative. Easter bombings of Sri Lanka, Islamophobia in India, Galwan valley clash, Farmers’ Protest of India are few of the many incidents where Pakistan has falsely accused India as the architect of these incidents.
• By July 2020, the Pakistani establishment decided to create a full-scale fake news industry by way of SAUSMF. SAUSMF website was hosted by Pak Cabinet Minister and close aid of PM Imran Khan – Jahangir Tareen on his server.
• The main members of this nexus included Aftab Afridi, Awas Javed Satti, Asim Khan who share direct links with Pak army, team Imran Khan and Pak businessman Jahangir Khan Tareen, the man who ensured Imran Khan’s electoral victory.
• Other than the Pakistani members, all other so-called members from South Asian countries are fake profiles, run by Pakistani members, most of which are associated with Pak PM Imran Khan’s party PTI. Among the entities amplifying SAUSMF propaganda is also the state broadcaster Radio Pakistan.
A study done at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has revealed that fake news travels six times faster than the real news on social media. The report had claimed that false stories “diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information.”
The information being circulated on these platforms eventually influences the political and Geo-strategic outcomes as well, and hence makes them a lucrative tool for info-war.
While it is hard to trace the first such instance, one of the earliest examples of this coordinated warfare in South Asia was seen in Sri Lanka in 2019. Immediately after Easter bombings, a series of fake news was planted, targeted at Sri Lankan audience as part of a well-orchestrated dis-info network, being run from a friendly neighborhood.
As we set foot to decode the pattern of this network, we unearthed a massive social media design being run in the region with the aim to create conflict among the neighboring countries in South Asia or aggravate existing conflicts with misinformation.
One of the key tools of this dis-info is a Twitter loophole. The tool is found to be so useful that a whole fake organization has been created to take advantage of this loophole, the organization came to be- South Asian United Social Media Front (SAUSMF).
On 21st April, 2019, about 300 innocent people lost their lives and more than 500 people were injured in the one of the biggest terror attacks in Sri Lanka. And while the rest of world was in shock, and the name of radicals Islamist groups had already surfaced, a ‘friendly neighbor’ of Sri Lanka smelled an opportunity to use this tragedy to score ‘psy-war points’ against India. They started pushing the narrative that it was India who was behind the bombings by targeting Tamil minorities in Sri Lanka. They caught hold of their old accounts and solely dedicated themselves in commenting upon the tweets of the reports regarding the Sri Lankan blasts. They flooded the comments by proliferating the narrative that it was India who was involved in the bombings.
It’s anyone’s guess who this ‘friendly neighbor’ is in South Asia?
Gradually, a number of Pakistani social media ‘experts’ jumped in with their bogus narrative that – it was India’s RAW and Sri Lankan Tamils’ handiwork.
Eventually it was revealed that names of radical Islamists group ISIS & National thowheeth Jama’ath were involved behind the attack.
Once the news became mainstream, the Pakistani handles became even more aggressive to deflect the blame. They decided to push this fake story through a ‘Sri Lankan’ id – by exploiting what Twitter calls ‘name change facility.
Several Pakistani handles changed their Twitter name, bio and Twitter ids and became ‘Sri Lankans’ overnight. One such viral tweet was from a handle @cmd_artillery claiming to be a Commander of Sri Lankan Army Artillery – Brigadier NLK Samrasinghe.
There were several red-flags about the handle that could have raised suspicion, but in a chaotic situation, it was hard to scrutinize and the citizens were quick enough to respond to their so-called ‘Brigadier’
A Sri Lankan fact check site exposed this handle with some very interesting facts:
• The account was created in February 2019 but made its first tweet in April 2019, only after the bombings.
• This account was earlier being run in the name of Hubaib (@Lewany_yam), Twitter ID 1101055967872069633
• A “Sri Lankan Brigadier” had almost all followers from Pakistan and none from Sri Lanka.
• The first audiences of the Tweet were also Pakistani – which is unlikely if it was a Sri Lankan handle.
The story was later reported by media outlets like JVP News, Economic Times and Indian Defense News, but by then it had caused sufficient damage.
The original Pakistani id (@Lewany_yam which changed into @cmd_artillery) was run along with another Pakistani Id as ‘Tribal with Pak Army’ which share close ties with Pakistan army.
Islamophobia in India?
In 2020, during the Covid lockdown, a series of prominent Middle East influencers begun expressing concerns about rising Islamophobia in India. The campaign went so viral that it was trending in India for a while, and the Indian PM had to respond with a tweet.
What triggered this sudden concern in Middle East?
It turned out that these were all fake handles being run by Pakistani establishment to push the false narrative of Islamophobia in India. They were exploiting the same twitter facility to change their names and misuse Middle Eastern identities. They not only stole identities, but used the identity and the pictures of some prominent women from Middle Eastern royal families with impunity.
A Pakistani Twitter user changed into @SayyidaMona, Omani Princess Mona bint Fahd Al Saeed. The situation grew so grave that later the Omani Princess had to clarify that it wasn’t her who had tweeted but a fake account with her name and profile picture had impersonated her.
Interesting fact was that several social media influencers and even prominent news portal could not escape the scam, and provided space to this fake narrative without cross-checking the authenticity of these handles. By the time, fact-checkers had exposed these miscreants, the narrative of ‘Islamophobia in India’ had seeped into the news discourse.
How Identity Theft Works
Twitter allows changing both username and display name without going through any verification process. This has often resulted in identity theft; one such example has been Elon Musk. After reports of fake twitter account impersonating Musk, Twitter introduced the verification process. It also barred any other account by the name of Elon Musk, not even a parody account.
However, that was a customized facility for the richest man in the USA, not applicable in a poor third world country like India, irrespective of the amount they are victim of dis-info war.
There is a pattern where accounts from Pakistan change their identity to other nationality whenever there is any political development in any of the South Asian countries.
Decoding the Pattern
• Create an account with Pakistan identity, preferably ‘patriotic’/ ‘pro Pak Army’ to gain easy followers.
• Gather Pakistani followers with help of existing troll industries/ networks such as Team IK, PTI, PakDefence etc. The higher the number of followers more the sense of credibility; as no one generally checks who the followers are.
• Once there is a political development in any South Asian country (e.g., terror attack in Sri Lanka) Change name, bio, location and Twitter id; delete all previous posts as well. Use pics of respective country national, preferably girls for generic ids.
• Starts tweeting posts related to the particular event, laced with Pakistani agenda. This makes it look like the post is coming from the country itself.
• If a post or the account is reported, quickly change name, delete previous posts and morph into another identity ready to spread disinformation in another country.
• If there is some break, change back to Pakistani id (Team PTI/ Team IK/ Team ISPR) and indulge in domestic politics, targeting opposition and gaining followers.
The GIF above speaks volumes about how instantly an account changes its identity to suit its political agenda and thereafter goes with the flow of upheaval to create anti-India chronicle, on vast scale. Regardless, of the changed name and username, their Unique Identification Number remains the same.
Tell-Tale signs of Fake Pak Ids
I. One thing worth-noting about these accounts is their names. The names are mostly combination of two different names from the region, indicating the lack of cultural understanding.
II. Another feature is grammatically-incorrect English. Most of these handle posts are grammatically incorrect, in addition to being fake.
III. Despite pretending to be local handles (i.e., Nepalese / Sri Lankan) they rarely use local language. Most of the posts are in English, even if broken English.
IV. The Twitter bio at times use local language, copied from some handle and a basic search could reveal the truth.
V. The DP’s are also mostly captured/stolen of some local girl/model/ actress.
Pro Tip: How to Find Handles Changing Name?
Every twitter account has a unique ID number, which can be found using any of the free portals such as TweetBeaver (www.tweetbeaver.com). It allows you to download data of any public account using the Twitter handle or unique ID number. The tools also provide the facility to check if one ID has used different usernames or display names.
(Note: At Disinfo Lab, we maintain a log of all the fake accounts spreading fake news. The constant tracking of these accounts helped identify their motives and patterns.)