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Sikhs being targeted by fake social media profiles to tarnish farmer protests in India: UK report

Parneet Kaur

C'tsy: BBC News

A probe carried out by a UK-based organization has exposed fake social media accounts of people impersonating Sikhs to dishonour the protest movement in India, and tag Sikh interests as ‘extremists’.

According to a BBC report released Wednesday, the research by the Centre for Information Resilience (CIR) — titled Analysis of the #RealSikh Influence Operation — identified a core network of fake accounts that targeted “other accounts supportive of Indian nationalism in order to spread and amplify the content and narratives generated by the core network.”

The network used accounts across all social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to promote Hindutva and narratives set and propagated by Modi-led Government

Hundreds of accounts were found which have now been adjourned, according to the author of the research and CIR’s director of investigation. The investigations team tracked the campaign using Twitter API, hashtags, and visualised data.

The aim of the network appears to have been to "alter perceptions on important issues around Sikh independence, human rights and values", according to the report's author, Benjamin Strick who goes further and makes observations about Khalistan through his Twitter thread.

“The core network of fake accounts promotes content that labels the Khalistan movement as extremist”, “what we know is that their aims were to label Sikh political interests as extremist…and promote the Indian gov”, “we can glean some obvious details from the content the accounts post…it shows a strong focus on countering Sikh independence.”

Many of the accounts used profile pictures of celebrities, including actresses in the Punjabi film industry. The BBC contacted eight of the celebrities whose images had been used, one responded via their team to confirm they were not aware their image had been used in this way, and said they would take action.

The management team of another celebrity said there are thousands of such fake accounts associated with their client, and there wasn’t much they could do about it.

The farmers’ protests, which started a year ago this week, and the decades-old Khalistan independence movement were the two discussion topics most frequently targeted by the network, clearly marking the agenda and the narrative

According to the report, the accounts sought to label any notion of Sikh independence as extremist, and delegitimise the farmers’ protests, claiming they had been hijacked by “Khalistani terrorists”.

“We believe these accounts were set up at the bidding of the government and it was done to set a narrative against the protests” Jagjit Singh Dalewal, leader of the Bharatiya Kisan Union, one of about 30 unions sitting in protest, was quoted as saying by the BBC.

Some accounts projected diaspora communities in the UK and Canada as sheltering the Khalistani movement.

Apart from using fake images, the accounts were using the same hashtags, posting similar kinds of content, and had nearly a similar number of followers. The accounts had posts from the network that have been liked and retweeted by real influencers and quoted on news sites.

The research identified posts which were interacted with and endorsed by the verified accounts of public figures, the BBC report added.

The report also identified content from the fake profiles entrenched on news blogs and commentary sites. Very little of the content included text in Punjabi – the biggest language for Sikhs in India – and nearly all the content was in English.

In December 2020 a dead professor and numerous defunct organisations were resurrected and used alongside at least 750 fake media outlets in a vast 15-year global disinformation campaign to serve Indian interests. The man whose identity was stolen was regarded as one of the founding fathers of international human rights law, who died aged 92 in 2006.

"It is the largest network we have exposed," said Alexandre Alaphilippe, executive director of EU DisinfoLab, which undertook the investigation and published an extensive report The network was designed primarily to "discredit Pakistan internationally" and influence decision-making at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and European Parliament, EU DisinfoLab said. EU DisinfoLab partially exposed the network last year but now says the operation is much larger and more resilient than it first suspected.

Earlier too Social media was rife with supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) promoting misinformation around the protests to discredit the farmers. Many had posted a picture of a man wearing a green turban and claimed that a Muslim man disguised as a Sikh took part in the agitation.

The BBC shared the report with Twitter and Meta - the company which owns Facebook and Instagram - requesting comment.Twitter suspended the accounts for violating their rules prohibiting "platform manipulation" and fake accounts.

A Twitter spokesperson said: "At this time, there's no evidence of widespread co-ordination, the use of multiple accounts by single people, or other platform manipulation tactics." Meta also removed the accounts on Facebook and Instagram for violating its "inauthentic behaviour" policies. A Meta spokesperson said the accounts "misled people about the origin and popularity of their content and used fake accounts to spam people and evade our enforcement".

Misinformation is one of the greatest threats to democracy, journalism, and freedom of expression. It has weakened public trust in Indian governments and its ways of working on ground zero. By exposing these fake accounts and its agenda the CIR goes on to authenticate the government’s policy of suppression towards the minorities in India, including Sikhs . The bigger question that still remains unanswered is how are the sikhs going to react to this attack to their very existence in India. Will we hear back from some top Sikh leaders including leading news journalists and bloggers from this space? Like us to know more about our upcoming series on this subject.



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