Source: EU DisfoLab

Shahneela Tariq 

The extensive disinformation campaign, revealed by EU DisinfoLab’s Indian Chronicles, has posed a challenge to the international community. It now has to work towards creating more binding arrangements to combat the spread of false information. Such planned and fabricated disinformation campaigns can cause non-reversible damage to international security in this technological age, if they are not controlled effectively and timely.

Right to information and expression has been recognized in international law and considered to be a fundamental human right. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights encompasses the freedom “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”. The increase in information technology and introduction of social media outlets have  created many avenues for people around the world to share their views beyond borders.

The purpose of these improved means of communication in this globalized world is to have smooth flow of information. However, the intentional spread of false and wrong information has killed the true essence of the basic right to information.

The ease, created by technological advancement, of spreading information has also brought challenges for nation-states and the global community. The last two decades have seen an increase in hybrid warfare, the use of non-military means to attack an adversary in order to achieve political goals. The purpose is to create ambiguity in which gray zones are identified, and hostile actions are carried out by one state against another, which are difficult to attribute to a state and yet remain below the threshold of the use of force. It is 5th generation warfare, which is not fought on ground, but through disinformation about the internal affairs of a state in a bid  to destroy its external relations.

According to UNESCO, disinformation is ‘information that is false and deliberately created to harm a person, social group, organisation or country’. Disinformation is a powerful and destructive strategic tool to build and change the perception of people to defame a state by spreading deliberate false information through fabricated content and manipulation of facts. It had been used during the  Cold War by USA and USSR but in recent times it received fame with Russia’s involvement in USA election in 2016 and once again Russia’s misleading campaign to popularize the Russia-made COVID-19 vaccine.

The Indian Chronicles, the clearest proof  of disinformation campaigns, one that has brought to the fore as to how India has been misleading the world by manipulating real facts and spreading  fabricated content, came into limelight on 9th December 2020. EU DisinfoLab, which is an independent non-governmental organization in Europe, released a study titled “Indian Chronicles: Deep Dive Into A 15-year Operation Targeting the EU and UN to Serve Indian Interests”. This study was a continuation of a previous research finding, carried out in October 2019 that revealed an Indian- operated fake magazine clothed in foreign covers, called ‘EP Today’ a self-proclaimed magazine of European Parliament. This was, in reality,  publishing false content about the internal matters of Pakistan i.e. minority rights and women rights. EU DisinfoLab, however, did not stop its research and published another report, with the latest one being  more detailed  and full of evidence.

Indian Chronicles has shown how remarkable India had been in using European Parliament’s name, its members, UN platform and social media to spread false content to harm Pakistan’s external relations. This fake entity has also tried to create Pakistan’s image as a security state. According to the EU DisinfoLab , there was a huge network of 750 fake NGOs, more than 550 websites and think tanks in 119 countries, which had  been working from the  last 15 years and not only influencing people with its fabricated content, but also manipulating the UN system with its false information through interns and researchers.

According to the report, this network is headed by the  Shrivastav Group, an India- based business entity that has close links with ANI (Asia News International), a famous Indian news hub, one somehow deemed a reliable source of information. It is noteworthy that ANI is often referred to by foreign media.

This study by EU DisinfoLab has raised several questions and serious concerns about the maintenance of the  principle of sovereignty. Few questions that need immediate attention are: (1) why a private entity could start such an aggressive disinformation campaign to destabilize a country’s  external relations,  by interfering in its internal matters? (2) How these fake entities have been working within the UN system from last so many years even in the presence of a well-established monitoring mechanism? (3) Why  large social media outlets have failed to report such disinformation campaigns to the international community?  (4) What are the financial sources of this fake network that has managed to survive these last 15 years?

International law prohibits interference in the internal matters of other states and also obligates  states to follow these customary norms in good faith. According to Article 8 of Montevideo Convention ‘No state has the right to intervene in the internal or external affairs of another’

As mentioned in  rules  6 and 7 of the  Tallin Manual 2.0 (a reliable research study on cyber security), states must exercise due diligence in not allowing  their  territories  or cyber infrastructure under their control, to be used for cyber operations that affect the rights of another state and produce serious,  adverse consequences. Furthermore, states are obligated to act to dismiss cyber operations conducted from their state using  available means when notified of them. The Indian authorities have denied their link with the network exposed by the Indian Chronicles. Questions need to be  asked of India as to what steps, as a  self- proclaimed responsible nation, have been taken or will be taken by Indian authorities to investigate the matter? It is important to note that this  fake network has not been brought to light by Pakistan, but by a European NGO, whose  main purpose was and is to safeguard the  European Union from such fake networks.

Furthermore, it has been noted in the  G7 Declaration on Responsible States Behavior in Cyberspace, “that the customary international law of State responsibility supplies the standards for attributing acts to States, which can be applicable to activities in cyberspace. In this respect, States cannot escape legal responsibility for internationally wrongful cyber acts by perpetrating them through proxies”. Cyber proxies are people who conduct or contribute to spreading false news, and according to Maurer, there are three types of proxies. The first type consists of those who are under strict governmental control. The second one comprises those working on a state-driven  agenda, but not under strict controls. The last category includes  private entities, which are passively supported by the state. EU DisinfoLab clearly highlights the tactics and intentions of those networks to spread anti-Pakistan sentiments and creating  suspicions on human rights and the security situation in Pakistan.

India and Pakistan are considered to be traditional rivals, with the former being aggressive in its dealings with latter. India, following its Hindutva nationalist mentality, has long been a perpetrator of state- sponsored terrorism within the boundaries of Pakistan. The issue has been raised and communicated by Pakistani institutions to the international community on several occasions. Last year, Pakistan released a detailed dossier on India’s brazen support to terrorism inside Pakistan.

Using proxies enables a state to deny disinformation campaigns against other states from its  territory,  as it is  difficult to attribute to a state authority because of the low threshold of the use of force. However, it is important to understand that such disinformation campaigns  can cause more damage to the social, political, and economic infrastructure of a country, something that India attempted to do against Pakistan.

According to this EU DisinfoLab study, more than 10 fake NGOs under this network are enjoying consultative status of ECOSOC, which means they can participate in UN events, publish content, and make statements at the Human Rights Council. Disinformation campaigns highlighted by Indian Chronicles,  have tried to create a negative image of other countries, especially Pakistan, not only among general publics  of other regions but also among the influential personalities who were reading their content and attending their events. They have created fake NGOs i.e. Friends of Gilgit-Baltistan and Free Balochistan and invited those Pakistanis  who are supporting militants  and anti-state  sentiments in Pakistan while sitting abroad, to give speeches at Human Rights Council’s side events and even during the session. It has raised concerns over the structural flaw within the UN system that unintentionally provides the space to fake networks to spread  false information.

The role of large social media outlets, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google has also come under question. Although, social media campaigns have not been widely studied in this report, these platforms have been used by the fake NGOs to showcase their work at the  UN and around the world to get support. These social media outlets have voluntarily agreed on self-regulatory mechanism and signed The Code of Practice on Disinformation under the umbrella of the European Commission in 2018. The purpose is to build a transparent infrastructure of political advertisement and closure of fake accounts that spread hatred against another country. In 2019, these signatories submitted their compliance reports, which had been considered satisfactory. However, the  EU DisinfoLab report highlights that  steps taken by these outlets have not been successful in suppressing disinformation campaigns using social media platforms.

Lastly, this episode has raised important concerns over the financing of this fake network. How did they manage to finance the visit of European Parliamentarians to Kashmir? Who was paying for  side events at the Human Rights Council and who was bearing the cost of their staff, interns, and researchers? How did they build  such a massive online infrastructure of fake websites and social media pages? India became a  member of the  Financial Action Task Force (FATF) in 2010, that is considered to be the watchdog to check  money laundering and terror financing. In order to comply with non-discriminatory norms, FATF should start investigations to find out the financial sources of this group.

This is an alarming and challenging situation that calls for global responses to disinformation campaigns. States such as America, China, and European countries have taken steps to combat disinformation, but a more binding global arrangement is required to deal with this challenge. Furthermore, UN has to take aggressive measures against the acts of such fake NGOs who are misguiding the UN system. As of now, such nefarious activities cannot be attributed to a state and do not come under domestic or international jurisdictions, directly. Such campaigns have the tendency to disturb world peace to a large extent, as they do not only affect external relations of a country but also create hatred for a society.

Shahneela is a Lecturer in the School of Integrated Social Sciences, University of Lahore.