How a ‘disinformation network’ on Twitter added to the tension surrounding the Galwan Valley conflict

Cybersecurity agency Technisanct said nearly 500 Twitter accounts spread misinformation against India.

WrittenBy:Prateek Goyal& Anna Priyadarshini
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Aswathama hatha, iti narova kunjarova.”

This phrase from the Mahabharata is possibly one of the oldest examples of “fake news” during a time of war or conflict. Today, we live in a time of social media and WhatsApp forwards, and fake news is everywhere.

Recently, it was seen during the clash between India and China in the Galwan Valley last month, when 20 Indian soldiers were killed. While Indian Twitter is no stranger to propagating and distributing fake news, hundreds of Twitter handles spread untruths against India. These were often picked up by the Indian media as well.

According to Technisanct, a Kochi-based cybersecurity agency, a wide disinformation network was operated by Pakistan before and after the Galwan Valley clash. This network comprised about 400-500 Twitter accounts that spread misinformation about India.

“We identified around 400-500 fake Twitter accounts that were activated during the Ladakh standoff and post the Galwan Valley clash,” said Nandakishore Harikumar, the chief executive officer of Technisanct. “Most of these fake accounts were of Pakistani origin and were created to spread fake narratives in favour of China. Twitter groups carried out this activity: once a group made a tweet, it asked others to retweet it. They had a dedicated audience to do so.”

The three main Twitter groups involved, Harikumar said, were Team Patriot, Team Pakistan Zindabad, and Defenders of Pak. These groups created many Twitter handles, whose followers were predominantly bot accounts that retweeted tweets.

“These groups are experts at making hashtags trend on Twitter. Now, they are creating fake Bangladeshi, Nepalese and Sri Lankan accounts to spread fake narratives,” Harikumar said.

Jiten Jain, a cybersecurity expert and specialist in geopolitical intelligence analysis, told Newslaundry that some Twitter accounts “manipulated information” after the stand-off between India and China.

For example, Jain cited a handle by the name Cathy Rolanova (@CRolanova on Twitter), which claims to belong to a Russian researcher. “The account posts manipulated satellite images of happenings at the Line of Actual Control,” Jain said. “Previously, she claimed to be Chinese. But she’s neither Chinese nor Russian; the account is operated by a Major Haider in Pakistan.” While Newslaundry could not independently verify this claim, @CRolanova has been criticised for posting “unverified and misleading” content.

“People tend to believe satellite images,” Jain added, “and a manipulation here and there will not even come to their observation. Such fake accounts help in spreading a fake narrative..."

According to a 2018 study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, false news spreads much faster on Twitter than verified stories, especially on topics like politics, urban legends, business and terrorism. These stories are 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than verified news. However, this can’t be attributed to bots alone — the study noted that false news “speeds faster around Twitter due to people retweeting inaccurate news items”.

Newslaundry looked at some of the Twitter handles that had been flagged by Technisanct. The handle @CNPakWW, for example, often tweets on how China, Nepal and Sri Lanka are “against” India (see here, here, here, here, here and here). This “collective” is often referred to as the “South Asian United Social Media Front”.

The handle previously existed as @lampakww, generally tweeting in Urdu, before changing its name during the conflict. It gathered 11,270 followers and 1,23,160 likes within a span of eight days, with its posts often retweeted more than 1,000 times.

@CNPakWW retweets and quote-tweets other Twitter handles spreading the same sort of content. One of them is @Irmaknepal, which Technisanct said is of Pakistani origin, but is purportedly run from Kathmandu. Both @CNPakWW and @Irmaknepal tweeted about the Indian army treating Gurkha soldiers as “lower caste soldiers” based on a video that Boomlive pointed out was simply a clip of commandos undergoing teargas training.

@Irmaknepal’s dispensing of Nepal’s “action” against India continued in July (see here, here, here, and here). The handle emphasised that India is “completely isolated” and trying to “destroy peace in the region”. In June, it also falsely claimed that China “occupied Ladakh and killed more than 86 Indian soldiers”.

These tweets were duly retweeted by @tangtianru, a handle that claimed China took 130 Indian soldiers prisoner, forcing India to “get American and European help to get them released”. This handle, reportedly based in Pakistan, frequently tweets about the mobilisation of military resources, often against India, as well.

This list isn’t exhaustive. Importantly, all these handles frequently retweet and amplify each other, garnering thousands of interactions and shares, with active participation from scores of others, including @@RajaKha45535733, @PingXyung, @malik_tts and @Me_Fari1.

Major General Prakash Panjikar, who retired from the Indian army, told Newslaundry that it’s important that the Indian government is open and keeps its people informed. “In the current standoff, every bit of information came from unverified sources who peddled selective inputs. There was no government briefing or clear information channel.”

Information is king in battlegrounds of the 21st century, said retired Colonel Vinay Dalvi. Keeping this in mind, the Indian armed forces must up their game, since its adversaries already have.

“China has a legion of information warriors. Islamabad has been exploiting social media and planting false narratives,” he said. “While the ministry of defence has approved the development of an information warfare branch, the need to formulate an information warfare policy is a need of the hour for all three forces.”

After all, he pointed out, “wars are no longer primarily waged with missiles, tanks and daring infantry charges. War has moved on to the information sphere.”


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