According to a detailed report by DFRLab, a Canada-based PR firm created a website ‘India Vs Disinformation’ and ‘India News Network’ presenting itself as an Indian media outlet and fact-checking site and used it to promote narratives supporting the Indian government.
At a time when fake news is circulated at rampant speed on the internet, it’s imperative to have an unbiased fact-checking mechanism in place by media portals to make sure that the people consume only facts. But recent examples suggest a series of cases in which PR companies and digital communications firms operate online publishing networks claiming to fight disinformation while simultaneously aligning with individual politicians or governments.
According to a detailed report by Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), a Canada-based communications firm created a website presenting itself as an Indian media outlet and fact-checking site, then used it to promote narratives supporting the Indian government. Articles from the website, written to influence public perception in favor of the Modi government and against its opponents, were amplified by verified social media accounts of dozens of Indian embassies and consulates on Twitter and Facebook.
The Toronto-based company Press Monitor created and managed the website, India Vs. Disinformation, and the site’s social media accounts. It also registered and published a parallel pro-government site, India News Network, which served as the primary content provider for India vs. Disinformation.
In a written response to questions posed by the DFRLab, the company confirmed that it had contracts with the Indian government and some of the country’s foreign embassies to conduct media monitoring services but claimed that India Vs. Disinformation was a separate independent initiative not related to these contracts. Press Monitor also told the DFRLab that it created the websites as a means of gaining the favor of and receiving further commercial contracts from the Indian government.
Many of the articles on its website amplified pro-government narratives around controversial policy decisions enacted by the Indian central government, including the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which defines Kashmir’s relationship with India, the enactment of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, which includes a loophole that allows for religious persecution, and the targeting of Muslims amid sectarian violence in Delhi.
Other pro-government content published by India News Network and aggregated on the India Vs. Disinformation website sought to discredit reporting on India by international media outlets, accusing them of exhibiting Western bias in their coverage of various political developments in the country. This content was categorized under the header “Disinformation.”
In some cases, junk news stories published by India News Network would source their information from the IVD website, which would then post the India News Network story, creating a self-sustaining information loop.
Most notable, though, is the amplification IVD received from Indian diplomatic Twitter accounts. A query using the open-source Twitter tool TweetBeaver analyzing the 10,000 most recent followers of the @IndiaVsDisinfo account found that it was followed by more than 40 verified handles belonging to different Indian diplomatic embassies and consulates, including the Indian diplomatic missions in Geneva, Iran, Qatar, New Zealand, and Canada.
Further examination of the firm’s website indicated that it is a subsidiary of Business News and Informational Services Private Limited (BNI), a New Delhi-based news monitoring and media relations firm. Aggarwal denied that India Vs. Disinformation was linked to any of his clients. According to him, the website was developed to showcase the firm’s ability to produce videos, graphics, and other types of content
In this particular case, there is no open-source evidence suggesting the Indian government or anyone affiliated with it paid Press Monitor to run this operation; in fact, the owner claims he created the network to drum up business with the government, which in itself is a noteworthy development. That, combined with the fact that over 50 verified Indian diplomatic Twitter accounts have amplified their tweets more than 400 times makes this an important case study for those who research the increasingly visible trend of disinformation-as-a-service, the blurring of overt political communications and official government accounts, and disinformation campaigns in democracies more broadly, concluded the report