Investigators have uncovered a huge network of websites aimed at influencing European policy toward India and against its neighbor and bitter rival Pakistan.
Brussels-based organization EU Disinfo Lab says 265 websites across 65 countries, many using the names of defunct media outlets or names similar to existing trusted sources, all seem to be traceable back to an Indian company, Srivastava Group.
The lesser known facts about Srivastava Group is that this is not the first time it has taken up an assignment of cyber operations but it had been operating earlier with the name of Agalya led by Ankur Srivastava. Agalya made its first international appearance in one of the most potential markets known for outsourcing cyber operations, 2017 DSEI Defense and Security Event in Dubai. Agalya made an important mark there with the presentation of tools for government but also selling hacking as an offering. It well defined its technologically advanced capabilities were even well noticed by the Bahamut Report published by Bellingcat.
The alarm was initially raised when the Lab investigated a website called EP Today, which claimed to be connected to the European Parliament in Brussels, but which was in fact taking a lot of its information directly from outlets including Russia Today. It was feared that it might be related to Russia, but on closer inspection the Indian connection was discovered.
“Among this syndicated content, we unexpectedly found that a large number of articles and op-eds related to minorities in Pakistan as well as other India-related matters,” said a statement on the EU DisinfoLab website.
“More than the fake media outlets alone, it is their combination with the fake NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that’s really worrying because it provides a mirage of online and grassroots support to a cause,” Alexandre Alaphilippe, executive director of EU Disinfo Lab, told the BBC. “That’s exactly where the disinformation lies.”
No connection to India’s government has emerged, but links have been found to groups with ties to anti-Pakistan lobbying events in Europe, as well as a large number of fake English language sites, using names such as the Manchester Times, a newspaper that ceased publication in 1922, promoting Indian interests.
Another fake outlet is one called the Times of Geneva, whose website has not been updated since the EU Disinfo Lab uncovered the network, and whose YouTube and Twitter accounts have been suspended.
Alaphilippe said it appeared that the main point of the network, which generated a surprisingly low amount of social media traffic for such a sophisticated looking setup, was pushing its agenda toward decision makers.
“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.
“MEPs (Members of the European Parliament) have engaged directly with this network on a multitude of levels, whether that’s been through writing op-eds for their media, participating in overseas trips and press conferences, or by speaking in the European Parliament on behalf of the cause.”
As recently as October, 27 MEPs, including members of Britain’s Brexit Party, Germany’s far-right Alternative fur Deutschland and France’s National Rally, formerly the National Front, were invited on an unofficial visit to India-controlled Kashmir, where access has been restricted for other people.
Another British MEP, Chris Davies of the Liberal Democrats, told the Washington Post that he had been disinvited from the trip after requesting that journalists also be allowed along and that he should be able to speak to local people, unaccompanied by security officials.