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Hilal English

India's Infowar on Pakistan

October 2021

As the situation in Afghanistan worsened and the United Nations Security Council met under the month-long presidency of India – a non-permanent member – many Pakistanis were shocked to see the hashtag #SanctionPakistan as the top trend in Pakistani Twitter space. The Digital Media Wing (DMW) of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting would soon get to the bottom of this and we will get to it momentarily. However, it is critical to underscore the problem. During conflicts and upheavals, it is understandable if your enemy tries to discredit you within its own sphere of influence – within its territory or in a neutral third country. But to have this trending in your country, the enemy either has to have its moles sitting within your boundaries or the capability to trick the Twitter algorithm into believing that these tweets are originating from your country. The Digital Media Wing's deep analytics report parses this data and takes a look at the handles being used from within Pakistan, but not all of them originate from the country.
As per the analytics reports of the DMW, the said trend originated in Afghanistan where the office bearers of the erstwhile Afghan government, including the Twitter handle of former Vice President Amrullah Saleh, had promoted it. Saleh, who had earlier served as the head of the National Directorate of Intelligence (NDS), an Afghan intelligence agency notorious for being a shadow puppet of India's Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), had a long history of running defamation campaigns against Pakistan at India's behest. The hashtag would later be used by other Afghan officials including the Defense Minister and members of the National Security Council. On August 8, these elements were able to make the hashtag a top Twitter trend in Afghanistan. On August 9, Indian groups had joined and were bumping the trend internationally with their toolkits and farm portal generated content to lend credence to their propaganda. Finally, Pakistani sub-nationalist and secessionist groups also joined in. The most intriguing part of this story is that many individuals belonging to such secessionist groups are based outside Pakistan. But the trend had obviously been tweeted and retweeted from handles accepted by Twitter as of those who were based in Pakistan. Could it be that many of these accounts were generated and using virtual private networks or VPNs? The report does not say but some recent developments have revealed that Indian troll farms regularly use VPNs to create accounts that pretend to belong to Pakistani citizens. In any case, the report also highlights that some of Pakistan's major social media influencers sometimes willingly, and at times unwillingly, became a part of such trends. For example, when a notable mainstream influencer uses the hashtag in order to shun it and inadvertently retweets the trend to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of followers.
The report reveals that between August 7 and 8, fifteen thousand tweets were generated from 2059 contributors from 9 countries with a collective reach of 5.1 million users around the world. Three leading countries whence these tweets originated were Pakistan, Australia and Afghanistan. In Pakistan, the leading cities were Quetta, Peshawar and Islamabad. The choice of cities in itself carries a nefarious message. The analysis of a subset of these tweets shows that a vast majority of these tweets (81.3 per cent) came from male profiles and only 13.3 per cent from female profiles. The rest were generated by the business or organizational accounts. These numbers alone tell the ominous tale of an obsession with undermining Pakistan's image.
Why does this matter? While Indian troll armies are known to use all social media platforms including Facebook and YouTube, Twitter has acquired a special place in the world. Even before the former U.S. President Donald Trump began using the platform for his political activism, owing to its straightforward microblogging experience, Twitter was known as the place used by countless international players including world leaders, major politicians, celebrities, businessmen, authors, intellectuals and artists. The importance and effectiveness of the platform has only increased over the past few years. Dominate this space and you have direct access to not only the 330 million users of the forum but to the eyes and ears of uncountable globally influential individuals.
The Indian state and intelligence agencies have always had a disproportionate obsession with Pakistan. During the War on Terror, they used every opportunity to malign Pakistan that they could find. When Daniel Pearl was killed, Indian RAW sought out sympathetic French writer and public intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy to write Who Killed Daniel Pearl? In his book, the author makes no bones about his cooperation with RAW. It was a demonstrable attempt to use a tragedy not just to attack the alleged assassin, or for that matter the Pakistani state, but the people of Pakistan as well. Every page of the book oozes hate towards Pakistan. This propaganda spiel and many similar attempts ensured that while Pakistan sacrificed life and wealth for the safety of the world, India always walked away with the prize. When the War on Terror started, India was ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The party that is now led by Narendra Modi seems to have further poisoned India's permanent institutions against Pakistan and the vitriol has never stopped since.
In 2019 and 2020, the EU DisinfoLab uncovered a fifteen-year long influence and propaganda campaign against Pakistan. The network running the campaign included 10 fake NGOs accredited to the United Nations Human Rights Council, 550 domain names, 750 plus fake media outlets in 116 countries, and at least one dead public intellectual brought back to life. In the own words of the organization that uncovered these propagandist instruments, “Members of our team all share a common trait: an eye for the fake and a drive to uncover it. But never before in our investigations have we been so astonished at the multiplication of layers of fake. Indian Chronicles 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 used the letterhead of the European Parliament; registered websites under avatars with fake phone numbers; and provided fake addresses to the United Nations.” The elusive Srivastava Group, which ran this dog and pony show, was accidentally uncovered when the Indian state, in order to escape global isolation and censure following August 5 illegitimate actions in Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir, brought Europe's far-right MEPs to India to meet Modi and visit the occupied territory. Europe by this time was already alarmed by the rise of its far-right. By courting another region's hardliners, India's hardliners revealed their own fingerprints. Since 2005, only a year after BJP's exit from power, this operation exploded on the scene, but Srivastava Group's close ties with one of India's largest news agencies Asia News International (ANI).
ANI, often seen as the Indian government's mouthpiece, developed close ties with BJP when, in 2000, the central government then ruled by the party opened a propaganda news station for Kashmir called DD Kashmir and ANI was allowed to manage the channel. The Srivastava Group could be a front for India's intelligence agencies or worst still the BJP's ideological fountainhead, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). RSS is known to run an elaborate network of charities, NGOs, counterparts and advocacy groups in the west. What is more, the EU DisinfoLab's report hints at a nexus between Europe's far-right and such groups that pre-date the rise of such groups in the continent. In fact, most of these developments like this rise, Brexit, the shock victory of Donald Trump materialized after Modi's ascent to power in India in 2014. War for Eternity: The Return of Traditionalism and the Rise of the Populist Right by Benjamin R Teitelbaum, among other things, also chronicles some of the leading far-right and white nationalist elements who travelled to India, stayed at the RSS supported temples and converted Hindutva ideology before returning to the west. Likewise, when you read Reign of Terror: How The 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump by Spencer Ackerman, you realize that Trump's entire coalition was put together based on Islamophobia. The question that then comes to mind is: could India have a hand in this? Trump is often accused of being Russia's proxy but while he hardly has any business links with Russia, his business links in India are quite elaborate. So much so that immediately after victory the first set of foreign private citizens that met him at his New York office were his Indian partners. It was after this meeting that Nikki Haley was chosen for the UN Ambassador job.
While India's negative influence might have grown in the west, it is clear that its obsession with Pakistan has only intensified under Modi. As I Am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP's Digital Army by Swati Chaturvedi highlights the fact that BJP's trolls are highly organized, often followed on Twitter by Modi's own handle and extremely depraved. No wonder then that we have seen an intensification in India's online assault on Pakistan and mushrooming of social media accounts that claim to be of Pakistani origin, often use pictures of Pakistani leaders and join in debates to further polarize the society. This trend will only grow in the days to come and will need to be exposed constantly.

The writer is an Islamabad-based TV journalist.
Twitter: @FarrukhKPitafi
E-mail: [email protected]