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ANI Boosted Huge Global Network of Fake Media Websites: Study

Responding to the study, MEA said that as a responsible democracy India does not practise disinformation campaigns.

Updated
WebQoof
7 min read

Video Editor: Abhishek Sharma

EU Disinfo Lab, a European NGO, has unearthed a 15-year-long disinformation campaign organised by Indian stakeholders targeting ‘international institutions and serving the interest of the Indian government’.

The year-long investigation titled ‘Indian Chronicles’ named news agency ANI and Srivastava Group, which had come under spotlight for arranging a visit of the far-right Members of the European Parliament in 2019, as stakeholders of this operation.

The report mentions that the Srivastava Group-backed fake media websites published op-eds of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) advocating pro-India agenda. ANI then repackaged these op-eds which were later picked up by Indian media outlets and amplified. 

It further added that one of the modus operandi of the operation is the “misleading representation of the views of individual MEPs as general support or official position from the European Union.”

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The report notes that the campaign even “resurrected” dead people.

“This network is active in Brussels and Geneva in producing and amplifying content to undermine – primarily – Pakistan,” the report said.

This report builds upon the 2019 investigation which pointed out the workings of EP Today. However, responding to the findings of the study, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has said in a statement that as a responsible democracy, India does not practise disinformation campaigns.

But first, let’s take a look at what the 2019 EU Disinfo Lab report was about, the current investigation and what has it found.

265 FAKE MEDIA OUTLETS IN 65 COUNTRIES RUN BY SRIVASTAVA GROUP

“Over 265 fake local news sites in more than 65 countries are managed by an Indian influence network,” says the EU Disinfo Lab report.
“Over 265 fake local news sites in more than 65 countries are managed by an Indian influence network,” says the EU Disinfo Lab report.
(Graphic: EU Disinfo Lab)

In 2019, the EU Disinfo Lab had uncovered that the controversial visit by several MEPs to Kashmir and their meeting with PM Modi was linked to a network of 265 fake local media sites run by the New Delhi-based Srivastava group.

Their report mentioned that the network was created by the same people who were behind ‘eptoday.com’a “fake” European Parliament magazine active in Brussels since 2006.

The Lab also found that several politicians including MEPs used EP Today to publish their views, specifically those that “would serve Indian interests and undermine Pakistan.”

In an email exchange with The Quint, one of the co-authors of the report, Alexandre Alexandre Alaphilippe, said that ANI had rewritten and recirculated some op-eds and articles from EP Today.

“For example, EP Today’s articles were mentioned at least 22 times in some of ANI’s news reports. You could find two articles from ANI about the controversial visits of some MEPs to Maldives that quoted EP Today.”

The Quint had earlier reported on the 2019 investigation and the detailed article can be read here.

WHATS THE LATEST? EP TODAY IS BACK!

The Lab found in May that EU Chronicle, a new Belgium-based media outlet, had the same IP address as the one hosting NGOs and other websites run by the Srivastava Group.

ANI Boosted Huge Global Network of Fake Media Websites: Study
(Source: EU Chronicle website/ Screenshot)

While tracking the Opinion section of the website, they found that almost all the op-eds were on topics favourable to Indian interests. For instance, treatment of minorities in Pakistan, the situation in Jammu and Kashmir region, the growing presence of China in the world, among others.

ANI Boosted Huge Global Network of Fake Media Websites: Study
(Source: EU Disinfo Lab report/ Screenshot)

“Moreover, Henri Malosse (former president of the European Economic and Social Committee), MEP Ryszard Czarnecki and MEP Fulvio Martusciello, who have already written several op-eds for EU Chronicle, were central figures during our previous investigation,” the report noted.

According to the report, they had written for EP Today on several occasions, and had taken part in pro-Indian lobbying events, among others.

Alaphilippe pointed out that the report only mentions fake local media and a significant number of these have featured in the ‘Indian Chronicles’ investigation.

“We qualify these websites as fake local media when we cannot find any trace of original reporting, no significant track records of journalists working with these media and also no production of original content. It was very clear for instance for EU Chronicle, that none of the journalists or editors were real at all, and that most of the content was copy-pasted from legitimate media outlets.”
Alexandre Alaphilippe, director of EU DisinfoLab
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WHAT IS THE ROLE OF ANI?

The op-eds published on EU Chronicle received coverage from news agency ANI that cited these article as pieces from an “independent media EU Chronicle.”

The Lab noted that ANI is the only press agency to have extensively covered activities of Geneva’s dubious NGOs.

The Lab was able to identify at least 13 occurrences of EU Chronicle’s op-eds written by MEPs that were amplified by ANI.

“Most of the topics of these articles were linked to Pakistan or China,” the report said.

ANI Boosted Huge Global Network of Fake Media Websites: Study
(Graphic: EU Disinfo Lab)

“The coverage – and often distortion – by ANI of the content produced in Brussels and Geneva led us to the Big News Network and the World News Network – an entire network of 500+ fake local media in 95 countries that have helped reproduce negative iterations about Pakistan (or China),” read the report.

The report also mentioned that the content mainly targeted Indian nationals, “with an extensive coverage of these barely known “media”, MEPs and “NGOs” in Europe.”

The Quint reached out to ANI for a response, but didn’t receive any. However, the news agency’s editor Smitha Prakash took to Twitter to call the investigation an "attempt by Pakistan" to hurt ANI’s credibility.

Meanwhile, on being asked whether the Lab has been able to establish a direct link between ANI and the Srivastava Group, Alexandre said:

“No comment. But we encourage everyone to look at these facts: EU Chronicle is set up on 6 May. On 11 May, there are already 3 op-eds from 3 different MEPs. On 12 May, ANI quotes EU Chronicle as an independent media and thus considers it as a reliable source whereas it is completely unknown in Brussels. It is truly a fast-track reputation check from ANI for a completely new media with fake journalists.”

The EU Disinfo Lab also found that ANI’s version of a few EU Chronicle’s op-eds got space on other media outlets such as Business Standard, The Times of India and The Economic Times.

“Our investigation details how the activities of a fake zombie-NGO and that of a fake specialised media can be repackaged, distorted and amplified by malicious actors to influence or disinform globally, using loopholes in international institutions and online search engines,” summarises the report.

UN-ACCREDITED NGOs PROMOTING INDIAN INTERESTS

The Lab could establish a network of at least 10 UN-accredited NGOs promoting Indian interests in a coordinated manner and criticising Pakistan on several occasions. The organisation was further able to establish a direct link between these 10 NGOs and the Srivastava family.

A deep dive into a US-based NGO, Commission to Study the Organisation of Peace (CSOP), accredited to the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), revealed that the organisation had been resurrected in 2005 after being inactive in the late 1970s.

The Lab found that its identity had been “hijacked” by the same players mentioned in their first investigation.

“Shockingly, we discovered that the organisation had not only been revived, its former Chairman and “grandfather of international law in the US”, Louis B. Sohn, who passed away in 2006, seemingly attended a UN Human Rights Council meeting in 2007 and participated in an event organised by “Friends of Gilgit-Baltistan” in Washington DC in 2011,” the report noted.

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WHAT MAKES ‘INDIAN CHRONICLES’ DIFFERENT FROM OTHER DISINFORMATION CAMPAIGNS?

Alexandre told The Quint that compared to the other disinformation campaigns that the EU Disinfo Lab has unearthed before, they had never encountered such a coordination between different stakeholders.

“The fact, that during 15 years, and even after being partially exposed last year, this operation is able to keep its activities shows the sophistication and the willingness of the actors behind Indian Chronicles,” he said.

He further added, “Its sophistication as well as its physical presence both in Brussels and Geneva is something that really intrigues us. You need more than a few computers to plan and sustain such an action.It is something that has an impact on international institutions, their credibility and directly on their democratic processes.”

The EU Disinfo Lab mentioned that they were aware the the work will be used by people who have vested interests, making an apparent reference to Pakistani authorities.

“Let us 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 clarified.

They further added a caveat saying that the investigation is 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. Our report simply shines a light on how Indian stakeholders have used these issues to serve their own interests.”

“Indian Chronicles is a very serious wake up call for them not to acknowledge the threat of foreign interferences and disinformation but to act. The real question is what will EU institutions and the UN do about this?” says EU Disinfo Lab’s Alexandre.

‘AS A RESPONSIBLE DEMOCRACY INDIA DOES NOT PRACTICE DISINFORMATION CAMPAIGNS’: MEA

Responding to the findings of the study, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has said in a statement that as a responsible democracy, India does not practice disinformation campaigns.

“If you are looking at disinformation, the best example is the country next door which is circulating fictional and fabricated dossiers and purveys a regular stream of fake news.”
Ministry of External Affairs

The statement further added, “Disinformation is practiced particularly by those who have records to hide such as sheltering international wanted terrorists including Osama Bin Laden. And seek unsuccessfully to cover up their own tracks such as on the 26/11 Mumbai attack.”

(Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with response from the Ministry of External Affairs and ANI’s Smita Prakash.)

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