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Report Details How Army Used Fake Accounts to Target Kashmiri Journalists, Promote Narrative

Facebook's India team reportedly pushed back on removing this inauthentic account for over a year, according to the Washington Post, saying they feared government reprisal.

Srinagar: A report in the Washington Post on Wednesday (September 27) said that the India unit of Facebook’s Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviour (CIB) team had resisted removing accounts associated with an influence operation that violated Meta’s policies on inauthentic behaviour despite the issue being brought to their attention by their supervisors in the US.

The news report suggests that Indian officials were apprehensive about their legal safety amid the Narendra Modi government’s raids on Twitter (now X) offices that made Meta employees fearful of getting arrested for treason if they went ahead with blocking the networks. “The Modi administration is setting an example for how authoritarian governments can dictate to American social media platforms what content they must preserve and what they must remove, regardless of the companies’ rules,” the Washington Post said.

The operations, also reported on by The Wire in September 2022, involved hundreds of thousands of bot accounts masquerading as users from Kashmir heaping praise on the Indian Army while criticising countries India shares a border and a rivalry with, such as China and Pakistan. The Wire reported the contents of an investigation by the US-based Stanford Internet Observatory, which studies the abuse of internet technologies worldwide. The Observatory had discovered an unidentified online network running influence operations in J&K.

While the Stanford report had desisted from ascribing the activity to any actor for the want of credible evidence, the investigation by Washington Post reveals that Facebook sleuths obtained technical information – including the geolocation data associated with some accounts – which led them directly to a building belonging to the Indian Army’s Chinar Corps division based in Srinagar.

The Washington Post report quoted a Facebook employee who was involved in the Kashmir project as saying, “It was open-and-shut” that the Chinar Corps had violated Facebook’s rules by flooding the platform with a legion of make-believe user IDs imitating Kashmiris to promote a narrative of their own. “That was the moment that almost broke CIB and almost made a bunch of us quit,” the employee added. The report said that when Facebook’s American investigators “first saw the posts from accounts that purported to be residents in Kashmir, it wasn’t hard to find evidence of a central organization. Posts from different accounts came in bursts, using similar words.”

The report said the influence operations continued unaffected for about a year because Facebook’s top officials in the US couldn’t bring the Indian team around to their viewpoint that the manipulative networks needed to be expunged.

The stalemate continued till an intervention was sought from Nick Clegg, then Meta’s vice president of global affairs, who had been put in charge of India public policy. Clegg consulted Facebook’s top lawyers and ruled that the accounts indulging in inauthentic activity should be scrubbed. The pages were eventually taken down but Facebook chose not to disclose it publicly, the newspaper’s investigation found.

Meta’s policy on inauthentic behaviour specifies that the company will “not allow people to misrepresent themselves on Facebook, use fake accounts”. It also states that the policy “is intended to protect the security of user accounts and our services, and create a space where people can trust the people and communities they interact with”.

The Stanford report was based on analysis of one the 15 datasets of information operations that Twitter deleted from its platform for violating their Platform Manipulation and Spam Policy. The datasets, however, were shared with researchers of the Twitter Moderation Research Consortium from where the Stanford investigators accessed it.

“The disinformation hunters also found that the fake accounts often tagged the official account of the Chinar Corps, India’s main military force in Kashmir, showing that they were not putting great effort into disguising themselves,” Washington Post wrote on Wednesday.

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For its part, the Stanford report had linked the activity to the Army by analysing the content of the manipulative Twitter network and concluding that it was consistent with the objectives of Chinar Corps. “The official Chinar Corps account, @ChinarcorpsIA, is the seventh most mentioned or retweeted account in the network,” as per the report.

The report found that accounts linked to the network harvested their profile pictures from elsewhere on the internet. In one particular case, the analysis found that an account used a picture that was already available for a different user on freelancing website Fiverr.

Similarly, the Washington Post found that Twitter accounts linked to the Indian Army’s influence operation were using display pictures stolen from authentic users more rampantly than previously thought. It cites the case of Jibran Nazir, a Kashmiri journalist who was surprised to find his picture being used by an account tweeting under the hashtag #NayaKashmir and boasting about the region having become prosperous since the dilution of Article 370 four years ago.

“These networks are problematic because they are pretending to be someone they are not and can make it appear like Kashmiris have certain political opinions when, in fact, they are fake personas,” Shelby Grossman, a researcher at Stanford Internet Observatory who was involved in the investigations, had told The Wire last year. “The network wasn’t just about the fake personas. There was a lot of other dangerous stuff as well.”

The Stanford analysis also found that accounts associated with the network engaged in smear campaigns against Kashmiri journalists and decried critical reportage as amounting to treason and sedition. “Tweets tagging journalists aimed either to bring events to the attention of reporters, or to bring the reporter to the attention of followers – often in an apparent attempt to target the reporter for what was framed as anti-India content,” the Stanford probe found.

The Washington Post investigations reached similar conclusions and accused the malicious networks of singling out independent Kashmiri journalists by name, disclosing their personal information and attacking them using the anonymous Twitter accounts. The report cites the case of Qazi Shibli, the 30-year-old editor of the news outlet The Kashmiriyat.

“@TheKashmiriyat posts #fake news on the various operations conducted by the #IndianArmy causing hate amongst people for the #Army,” one anonymous user observed by the Washington Post wrote in a series of tweets. “Even the positive things like ration distribution that are happening in #Kashmir are shown in a negative perspective in posts of @TheKashmiriyat.”

Likewise, the Stanford report had also pinpointed the same two accounts in the network that were primarily targeting reporters, activists and politicians. “The accounts had similar usernames and tweets; @KashmirTraitors (created in July, 2020, with a bio that read, ‘Busting fake news, bringing you the real truth of Kashmir’) and @KashmirTraitor1 (created in January, 2022, with the bio, ‘Exposing the traitors who call them #Kashmiri but are working towards destroying #….!!!!!Kashmiriyat,’” the report stated.

The Stanford report also found that these accounts were absuing journalists with labels like #whitecollarterrorists. Media reports attribute the use of this term to Lieutenant General D.P. Pandey, the former Commander of the same Srinagar-based Chinar Corps that has found itself in the eye of the storm.

The report found that most of the slanderous tweets originating from these handles targeted journalist Fahad Shah, who has been imprisoned since February 2022. The Washington Post investigations found Facebook’s Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviour teamhad forwarded their findings to the company’s security policy chief Nathaniel Gleicher, who is said to have shared it with his counterparts in India. The India team of Facebook pushed back, and refused to take action as they “said they could be arrested and charged with treason”, the Washington Post quoted an official saying.

The Washington Post‘s findings shed light on how the Facebook’s India team, including its policy chief Shivnath Thukral and communications head Bipasha Chakrabarti, had grown apprehensive after police raids on Twitter in May 2021 amid a face off between Modi government and the social media giant over the latter’s refusal to take down tweets from protesting farmers. “Two former Facebook executives said they had believed that their colleagues’ fears were genuine, though no legal action was ever taken against them,” the report said.

The Wire spoke to one former journalist of The Kashmir Walla magazine, which was recently shuttered after its website was blocked in India and its owners evicted from the building from which they were operating.

The journalist has in the past found himself at the receiving end of the tweets originating out of the similar networks that spam the targeted user’s social media timeline with threats and pro-government propaganda. “Most of these tweets are posted under the hashtag #JagoKashmir,” the journalist said, pleading anonymity. “They are perhaps trying to enlighten us to the supposedly wondrous changes that have graced this place after August 2019 but which our blighted eyes are somehow unable to see.”

The journalist said that in the majority of cases, the tweets are about the deadly terrorist violence in Pakistan or the country’s poor economic condition. “Initially, the tweets used to carry threats,” he said. “But slowly the nature of messaging changed and later we were bombarded with propaganda content showing how bad the conditions had become in Pakistan and how great Modi’s India is.”

Shakir Mir is a Srinagar-based journalist. He tweets at @shakirmir.