How the network spread disinformation across the globe
Indian Chronicles is a network of defunct NGOs, fake social media profiles, more than 750 fake news outlets, the resurrection of a dead man, and a concentrated disinformation campaign spanning over 15 years.
The network was operating across two continents and in more than 116 countries with one aim: to serve Indian interests and vilify Pakistan. The network was unearthed in an investigation carried out by EU Disinfo Lab.
The report that came out last month is a continuation of another investigation conducted by the EU Disinfo Lab in 2019. In that report, the organization uncovered multiple dubious thinktanks, NGOs and a network of 265 fake local media outlets in 65 countries. These fake media outlets served Indian interests and the network was active in Brussels and Geneva, primarily creating and amplifying content to undermine Pakistan.
Operating in Geneva and Brussels, this network, according to the report, resurrected defunct NGOs. One name that particularly piqued the interest of researchers was the ‘Commission to Study Organization of Peace’ (CSOPUS). This NGO was formed in 1945 and accredited to the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), but since the late 1970s, it had been inactive.
The identity of this NGO was stolen by Indian Chronicles and a website with the domain name ‘cospus.com’appeared on the internet in 2005.
Since then, the NGO has been used by multiple speakers – mostly interns studying at different universities of Geneva – to make speeches in the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. At least 10 such NGOs have been identified by this network that have been providing forums to people to speak on the treatment of minorities in Pakistan, and the situation of human rights in the country.
However, several NGOs whose identities were stolen by this network haven’t mentioned human rights and minority issues as their objective. Take the example of Canners International Permanent Committee.
According to the Union of International Associations, the organisation was founded in 1938 to “assist the scientific, technical and practical progress of the canning industry” and “promote the consumption of canned foods”. But people have used the forum of this NGO to talk about the treatment of minorities in Pakistan.
To support the network of fake NGOs and validate their interventions at the UN Human Rights Council, these NGOs had the support of several fake organizations outside the UN Human Rights Council created by the Srivastava Group. Two fake NGOs, Balochistan House and the South-Asia Democratic Forum, have been very active in Geneva side events. Balochistan House is responsible for the display of ‘Free Balochistan’ posters across Geneva in 2017.
In total, Indian Chronicles registered more than 550 domain names of NGOs, think-tanks, media outlets, informal European Parliament groups, religious and Imam organisations, obscure publishing companies and public personalities.
The network not only stole the identities of inactive NGOs, but also used the name of a dead professor to gain credibility. Louis B Sohn was the former chairman of the Commission to Study the Organization of Peace. He is also called the “Grandfather of International Human Rights Law in the United States”.
Sohn’s name was changed to Louis B Shon – changing the spellings of names of prominent persons has been the modus operandi throughout the network’s activities – and he was listed as a participant for two events in 2007 and 2011 organised by NGOs linked to the Srivastava group.
However, he couldn’t have attended either as he died in 2006.
The EU Chronicles website appeared online in May 2020. Its website is being hosted at the same IP address as other NGOs attributed to the Srivastava Group. The investigators found that EU Chronicles, despite presenting itself as ‘media outlet which gives you “news from the European Union”,’ never reported any such news.
The website actively copied content from other websites and republished it without quoting the original source. One noteworthy aspect of the website, according to the report, was the volume of op-eds it had published by European Union members of parliament. There are 16 available on the site.
The report says that “surprisingly, almost all the topics of these op-eds are very close to topics of interests for the Indian State (treatment of minorities in Pakistan, the situation in Jammu and Kashmir region, the growing presence of China in the world…).”
According to the report, the op-eds published by EU Chronicles were “used as a base by the Indian news agency ANI to create new reports.”
After being published in ANI, the content of EU Chronicles got legitimacy and was disseminated to a larger audience by various other media outlets.
ANI has been doing the same amplification of content published by EP Today, a fake magazine that preceded EU Chronicles which was investigated by the EU Disinfo Lab in late 2019.
The content of EU Chronicles was circulated by at least 450 suspicious media outlets across the world. The report says these dubious media outlets are linked to the ‘Big News Network’ and ‘World News Network’ that frequently syndicates content from ANI.
On its website, the Big News Network has shown itself as a ‘news agency’ and claims to own more than 750 media outlets.
investigators did an analysis of more than 16,000 articles published by websiteS linked to Big News Network and found that they mostly lift content from other news websites without quoting the original source.
The researchers also identified two digital marketing companies that offer services to get your content published on websites claimed to own by the Big News Network in a bid to maximise its reach.
Researchers at the EU Disinfo Lab found that more than 400 domain names have been bought through Ankit Srivastava’s private email address and email addresses belonging to his companies. He is the vice-chairman of the Srivastava group.
At least 10 NGOs can directly be linked to the Srivastava family.
“These UN-accredited NGOs work with other 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,” said the report.
“In Geneva, these think-tanks and NGOs are in charge of lobbying, organising demonstrations, speaking during press conferences and UN side-events, and they were often given the floor at the UN on behalf of the accredited organisations.”
The report does not attribute the network to the Indian government or Indian intelligence agencies due to the lack of evidence.
According to the report, the mission of the network of disinformation was to discredit nations in conflict with India in Asia, in particular Pakistan but also China to a lesser extent.
It also aimed to reinforce anti-Pakistan and anti-Chinese sentiments in India. Internationally, the network aimed to improve the perception of India and damage the reputation of countries that have conflicting interests with India.
The network of disinformation was set up in 2005 and is still going strong. The researchers are alarmed at the fact that even though the previous investigation revealed an extensive network of disinformation, the network sustained itself for 15 years.