London: A global network of pro-Indian fake websites and think-tanks is aimed at influencing decision-making in Europe, researchers say. The co-ordinated network of 265 sites operates across 65 countries, according to a report by Brussels-based NGO, EU Disinfo Lab. The researchers traced the websites to an Indian company, Srivastava Group. The network was also found to involve groups responsible for anti-Pakistan lobbying events in Europe. There’s no evidence it is linked to India’s government. But researchers believe the network’s purpose is to disseminate propaganda against India’s neighbour and rival Pakistan. Both countries have long sought to control the narrative against each other.
EU Disinfo Lab’s investigation started by looking at EP Today, a website which claimed to be an online magazine for the European Parliament in Brussels.
In October, the European Union’s disinformation task force revealed that EP Today had been re-publishing a large amount of news directly from Russia Today and Voice of America.
Some suspected Russian interference, but EU Disinfo Lab, which is an independent NGO, traced the servers behind the website to Srivastava Group.
The researchers then uncovered a vast network of English language fake sites serving India’s lobbying interests.
Many of the fake websites use names of defunct newspapers to provide a veneer of credibility. EU Disinfo Lab have dubbed these “zombie” sites, because the names were resurrected from dead media outlets.
For example, one of the sites is called Manchester Times. Its “About Us” section uses text copied from a Wikipedia entry about a newspaper with the same name.
But it omits an important part of the Wikipedia description, which states: “The newspaper’s last issue appeared on 22 July 1922.” It also fails to declare the website’s links to Indian interests.
Six of the sites use misleading names, like “Times of Los Angeles” instead of the better known “Los Angeles Times”.
The websites all copy syndicated content from news organisations to make them look like real news sites. They then plant anti-Pakistan stories and opinion pieces from employees of NGOs linked to the network to serve India’s lobbying interests, researchers found. The Times of Geneva is one of the most sophisticated websites in the network, and creates a lot of video content. Its activities appear to target decision makers at the UN. The website hasn’t been updated since 19 November, a few days after EU Disinfo Lab first announced its discovery of the network.
The BBC tried calling the phone number on the Times of Geneva’s website, but it has been cut off. Its YouTube channel has been disabled and its Twitter account suspended.
Mr Alaphilippe believes the network was created to influence international institutions and elected representatives. “We think the main goal was to be able to reach policymakers in Brussels and Geneva, without being able to trace back to those behind the manipulative network. And this worked!” he told the BBC.