Disinformation is a serious threat in the age of digital media, as tracing sources can be quite hard. Moreover, many people do not even stop to question the information they are given through various channels. This is mostly due to our blind faith in the internet, which just a decade ago, comparatively had a lot of authentic information. But as more and more users gathered on various platforms, the boundaries between fact and fiction became blurred. In our routine life, we see many cases of misinformation mostly centered towards the general public. But in 2019, EU Disinfo Lab, a non-profit organization, uncovered one of the biggest misinformation scams of the century.
The Pro-Indian Fake Websites
According to the researchers in the EU Disinfo Lab, there is a network of 265 fake websites being run by a ghost company. This ghost company, located in India under the name of Srivastava Group, is spreading false information across 65 countries. This information is in favor of the Indian agenda and promotes its values as a secular state, whereas at the same time it seeks to negate Pakistan, its rival, as a terrorist state.
The researchers have found proof that this fake media network even has an influence over the members of the United Nations, especially the website “Times of Geneva,” which is probably one of the most complex sites in this network. This site has a lot of video content in the form of interviews that mostly revolves around bashing Pakistan. There are false claims of minority persecution, involvement in terrorist activities, and sabotaging peace in India.
However, as soon as the news broke out on EU Disinfo Lab, the website hasn’t been updated. Its contact number, Youtube channel, and Twitter account have also been disabled. Some believe the network was created to influence members of the United Nations on speaking in favor of the Indian agenda. They were even successful in doing so, as many of the members of the United Nations engaged with this network. This engagement was done on multiple occasions but it came to a halt after it was exposed.
Nurturing a False Network
Members of the United Nations are not to be blamed entirely for their misplaced beliefs as many of the networks that published false articles and content used the names of real newspapers. The only catch was that these newspapers closed long ago, and United Nations members had no idea. Moreover, it was using the power of suggestion by using close-cut names for many publications. So, instead of “Los Angeles Times,” the fake network released “Times of Los Angeles”.
Moreover, they even duplicated many famous networks like The Manchester Times for which they copied text from Wikipedia and pasted it as it is. That is why many members of the United Nations fell into this carefully crafted trap. This trap was set up at convenient places for them to be baited in and then the follow up was quick as well. Many members even went to seminars and talking sessions arranged by the fake news network. EU Disinfo Lab was able to uncover that as well and tracked the funding back to this ghost company, Srivastava Group. Things went as far as the Human Rights Council as a segment of the network protested in front of the United Nations in 2016.
The Success of the Indian Agenda?
India gained a lot of influence through this network, and put Pakistan on the backfoot. In 2017 there were banners were placed all over Switzerland in favor of the Pakistani ethnic minorities and ethnicities. The banners stated that there was an unfair prosecution going on in Pakistan against its minorities and that these minorities, especially the one ethnic minority from Balochistan, wanted to seek freedom from Pakistan’s tyranny.
Pakistan took this seriously and summoned the Swiss ambassador for this baseless propaganda in his country against Pakistan and asked him to remove those false banners.
This network had a significantly negative impact on the image of Pakistan. But after the discovery made by EU Disinfo Lab, Pakistan took measures to restore its lost reputation. This was a wake-up call for the United Nations as they learned that they too came to be fooled by misinformation. They had been advocating on behalf of such fake media networks for years. After the scam was uncovered, the entire network of 265 websites was tracked down.
India had to face embarrassment when EP Today and its parent Indian organization arranged a visit of 27 members of the European Parliament to Occupied Kashmir in an effort to counter Pakistan's diplomatic measures by falsely giving justification to the illegally locked down region. The visit turned out as shady as its over proportionate media coverage on the entire network of fake websites. Eventually, the whole exercise stamped on the fact that every slogan and banner against Pakistan was nothing but a twisted and fabricated pile of disinformation.
Zombie website is a rightful term used for identifying such fake networks. These networks, just like zombies, appear to be alive but have only one goal for their existence. They are focused on their purpose, and the slightest breach can summon an entire horde. Due to their focus on only one agenda, they are far more efficient in achieving it. These networks do not have to worry about any kind of repercussions. Therefore, running a network of 265 zombie sites is like having a strike force on the internet.
This zombie network was slowly moving towards its actual goal, but Pakistan was catching some wind of it. For years, Pakistan had been voicing concern about India running a negative campaign against it around the world. India, of course, denied such accusations and blamed it on Pakistan’s own incompetence. No one in the world had the slightest clue that such a huge operation was underway on a global scale. But, after the EU Disinfo Lab discovered this zombie network, the world was surprised at its vulnerability. As soon as it was uncovered, the websites died off quickly.
It is not just the United Nations that was subjected to such propaganda, as other countries, including the U.S. are also under this threat. After Donald Trump took office as the 45th President of the United States there was a series of serious allegations pointing towards Russia for aiding his campaign. Some experts went as far as to blame Russia for rigging the 2016 U.S. elections. Many news channels covered the story of Russian involvement in the 2016 elections. It was brought up on multiple occasions that during Trump's campaign, a lot of misinformation was being spread about his opponents.
Rumors were going around about the ill health of Hillary Clinton, and her e-mails from the White House. This goes to show that the U.S. itself is not safe from misinformation impacting its judgment. Cases such as these are fast becoming frequent, and now even entire governments are being blamed for using this tactic. The internet is becoming extremely hard to manage, and experts believe that it might also be impossible.
Can the Internet Differentiate Between Fake and Real?
The answer to that is NO; the internet cannot distinguish fake from real. That means, we, who are reliant on the internet, are also not able to differentiate between fake and real. Just look at your feed right now, can you tell how much information is fake or misrepresented? This phenomenon started a long time ago, as the number of internet users rose to a staggering amount. The internet soon became the center of information, and everyone took notice. But people soon realized that the internet could host all kinds of information regardless of its authenticity.
Major news networks like FOX News, CNN, The Guardian, and The New York Times were fooled in 2011. As the protest against Bashar al-Assad was taking place, a woman named Amina Arraf rose to prominence. She highlighted the reason for her protest and her struggle to maintain her identity. The internet went crazy for this progressive and brave girl. But sadly, she was then kidnapped, and the people went into a great panic. It turns out there was no kidnapping, as Amina did not exist. The woman was actually a 40-year-old American man from Georgia, who took advantage of the whole ordeal.
This was the biggest case of misinformation in 2011, and many demanded that severe action be taken against it. Many countries took notice of that and tried to make policies regarding such misinformation.
The Cyber Security Laws
Sadly, only a few countries take cybersecurity seriously and because of this many do not even have a strict cyber policy. Crimes done on the cyber net have little to no penalties. Also, if there are some penalties in place, tracking down such criminals is not possible for the law enforcement agencies. However, due to these incidents, many countries have started to act against misinformation at a national level. However, there are no measures in place for a global violation.
EU Disinfo Lab was able to uncover the vast fake network and pin it down in a ghost company in India but it was not able to establish its connection with the Indian government. This will allow them to disclaim any responsibility and write it off just as easily. The decade of misinformation against Pakistan and the negative impact on its image will go unanswered.
How Can Misinformation be Controlled?
It took years to uncover the false media network of the Srivastava Group, and no policy against misinformation was in effect. Moreover, even at the moment, there are no serious policies in place to stop the spread of misinformation on a global scale. However, on a national scale, the spreading of misinformation is controllable. Many countries, including Pakistan, the U.S., Europe, and China, are working on making a strict media policy. China is the closest a country has come to cracking down on misinformation. However, countries have to be careful while making media policies as they have to ensure that people retain their freedom of expression. Therefore, misinformation needs a concise definition, otherwise people may mask it as their personal opinion.
Moreover, if countries like India continue to use misinformation to further their own agenda, this malpractice will end up hurting the entire world. Even in today’s world, there is a lot of fake news going around. Only a third of the information you come across has some degree of credibility. That is why making an international law against misinformation is necessary. Otherwise, the internet will continue to lose its reputation as a reliable source of information.
What Future Holds for the Next Generations
One positive outcome of the research done by the EU Disinfo Lab is that governments around the world are acting. Now this action may not be what we expect at the current stage, but it will lead to future progress. We are confident that in the future there will be measures in place to eliminate misinformation. We can see a basic example of such measures on all major websites. Facebook has the option to report any post, page, or image that is offensive or misleading whereas, YouTube has the same measures in place with an extra option against plagiarized content.
So, it is safe to say the actions are in place even if they might not yield a substantial result. But these actions have a great potential for improvement in the future, and we may have the perfect solution. In the meantime, people should take responsibility and root out any fake material or misinformation circulating on the internet. Governments should strengthen their cybercrime policies and discourage the spread of misinformation.
Real People or Just Bots?
No matter how much the security strengthens, there is another threat rising rapidly in the world. That threat is “bot,” which is already in use to generate fake traffic upon websites. A bot behaves like a human by regulating cursor movement, aimless clicking, and wandering. The bot traffic has already caused millions of dollars’ worth of damage to digital marketing agencies. It serves as an alternative to actual web traffic and is thus a fraudulent business practice.
According to experts, 40% of the traffic present on the internet is bots, which means that humans contribute only 60% to the annual internet traffic. This is extremely dangerous as soon enough bots are going to take over the internet.
Even the most sophisticated digital networks, like YouTube, have to keep strengthening its algorithm for safeguarding its ad network, which is the most vulnerable part of Google since it hovers around the advertisers’ money.
These bots can spike up the fake traffic on any video or a particular website for the sake of promoting a hidden agenda, and it gives the general public nearly every reason to believe in the content merely based on views.
This is a serious issue and should be taken into consideration before it is too late. Otherwise, the internet will be full of fake networks like the Srivastava Group and bot traffic. We humans may just lose a huge chunk of the internet if this keeps going on.
The writer is a technology journalist and Editor-in-Chief of More Magazine and Outlook Pakistan.
E-mail: [email protected]
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