ANI played ‘key role’, based reports on ‘fake sources’: New EU group report on Indian influence networks

In two previous reports, the EU DisinfoLab pointed to a network of ‘fake sites, dead think tanks, and dead people’.

WrittenBy:NL Team
Article image

In its third and latest investigation into Indian influence networks, the European Union DisinfoLab has claimed that India’s leading news agency ANI has played a “key role” in pushing narratives based on “fabricated sources”.

In 2019, the Brussels-based non-profit group had published a study that claimed to have uncovered an Indian influence network covering “265 fake local news sites in more than 65 countries”. And in 2020, it claimed to have unearthed a 15-year influence operation – “targeting international institutions and serving Indian interests” – through resurrecting “dead media, dead think tanks and NGOs” – and in some cases, “dead people”.

In its latest report titled “Bad Sources”, the non-profit on Thursday pointed to narratives pushed through ANI by “fake personae” which are “almost entirely about criticising Pakistan and China”. The report claimed that the agency “has been repeatedly quoting a think tank that was dissolved in 2014 and therefore no longer exists”. It said the agency has also been quoting “a journalist, as well as several bloggers and geopolitical experts, who do not exist”.

The report was shared with the Story Killers Project, a consortium of international media outlets coordinated by Forbidden Stories. 

“Besides ANI and those media republishing it, no other established media covered the reports produced by these ‘Bad Sources’ (BS) – the name we gave to this investigation. All this left us with a bitter taste; ANI has, at least, failed its readership by not respecting the fundamentals of the Charter of Munich, an internationally recognised declaration of the Rights and Duties of Journalists. The fact that some of the ‘organisations’ mentioned use fake personae and are seeking to hide their tracks while counting on being regularly quoted by ANI shows that ANI is, de facto, playing a key role in this influence operation.”

A ghost think tank, its speakers 

The non-profit claimed that in most instances, ANI was not just quoting but making reports from a non-existent think tank the “backbone” of its articles. The non-profit said it suspects that the sole purpose of this “think tank” was to produce content that can be covered by ANI and then republished widely throughout the Indian press.

These reports were put up on the International Forum for Rights and Security website – “a Canadian ‘think tank’ that the EU DisinfoLab had previously exposed for its links to the Srivastava Group”. IFFRAS, a think tank previously chaired by former Canada MP Mario Silva, was registered in Canada in 2012, and officially dissolved in 2014. “However, the website remained online and was being updated.” 

“On 29 January 2020, at the University of Montreal, IFFRAS claims to have brought together no more than four Montreal University professors to discuss the ‘Increasing presence of Muslim Brotherhood’. We contacted the individuals listed as speakers, two of them responded and confirmed they had never attended such a conference and that the Muslim Brotherhood had nothing to do with their field of expertise. Looking at the summary of the conference available on the IFFRAS website, we also noticed that some of the alleged speaking points were clearly copy-pasted from other sources.”

“Interestingly, during that same conference, which supposedly took place in January 2020, a speaker even referred that ‘an underground cell of the outlawed Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was uncovered in Sudan in mid-February 2020’ – events that took place weeks after the conference itself. Fake and future might be the new fast and furious.”

The EU DisinfoLab also said that “most of the 70+ speakers mentioned in these fake IFFRAS conferences did not exist at all. For instance, we could find no trace of ‘Ms Oliver Carter’ as a professor at the University of Toronto. The same applies with ‘Ms Staphany Campebell - Assistant Professor, University of Manitoba’. Instead, we observed the same tendency as in our previous investigations: mistyping the names of individuals.”

“An additional interesting element is that one would normally assume that think tanks would rather enjoy having their positions and ideas widely publicised online. Instead, IFFRAS’ frenetic activity contrasts sharply with its silence on its social media accounts, which have been inactive since 2021.” 

Such obvious elements could have triggered the ANI’s suspicion. It did not, however, prevent the news agency from quoting IFFRAS more than 200 times between May 2021 and January 2023. In most instances, it was not only quoting but using the IFFRAS ‘reports’ as the backbone of the articles.”

Non-existent speakers

The non-profit looked at other organisations frequently covered by ANI and “stumbled across the Policy Research Group”, aka POREG. “It does seem that, in the last two years, three new contributors joined the platforms, and we could not find any other sign of their existence.”

It pointed out seemingly suspicious misspellings and bios of the contributors James Duglous Crickton, Magda Lipan and Valentin Popescu and said that it “contacted both the POREG and Magda Lipan to schedule a webmeeting with the individuals mentioned, but got no response”.

“Basketball players and management consultants have become geopolitical experts, quoted by ANI numerous times on topics such as Pakistan’s army doctrines and China’s ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’. Overall, the personae publishing on the POREG website do not hardly try to appear credible. Moreover, as with IFFRAS, POREG does not communicate via social media and seems to rely on ANI, which provides the think tank with regular and consistent coverage. Here again, all these elements should have triggered ANI’s suspicion. Similarly, ANI was not only quoting but also using the POREG reports as the backbone of some of its articles.”

The non-profit mentions another think tank.

ANI also started quoting reports by the Center of Political and Foreign Affairs (CPFA), a think tank based in France and registered in Hong Kong which – unlike the IFFRAS – genuinely exists. Along the legitimate reports by the CPFA team, we encountered content that we could not attribute to real individuals.”

The impact

The non-profit said that “the overwhelming majority” of these reports are being reproduced across Indian media, reaching hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of readers. It said readers can “easily lose track of the original sources and actors involved in the amplification loop. The narratives then become so sedimented in the public debate as legitimate positions that it becomes literally impossible to challenge them.”

“An additional long-term effect of such operations is the overall loss of trust in established think tanks, NGOs and media. In other words, if a well-known news agency can repeatedly quote fake sources, won’t readers start questioning the honesty of the good-faith organisations as well? The risk here is that readers – and citizens – end up believing that ‘Nothing is true and everything is possible’, and gradually and inexorably, leave the public debate.”

The DisinfoLab claims that the “playbook of using Europe-based friendly bloggers and think tanks or friendly politicians for internal purposes is now well-known and replicated in several countries, including Russia. In essence, Europe and North America have become places of production for influence operations material. Often, we are not the main target; we are the enablers and the co-producers, de facto partners of the disinformation and propaganda machines in other parts of the world.”

Newslaundry reached out to ANI editor Smita Prakash for her comment on the report's allegations. This piece will be updated if a response is received.

Update at 3.58 pm, Feb 24: Terming the DisinfoLab report as defamatory and false, Smita Prakash on Friday said that ANI will "continue to report on atrocities" in Pakistan and China. "Jo karna hai, kar lo."

Also see
article imageHow ‘press releases’ published by ANI make their way to news portals as news


We take comments from subscribers only!  Subscribe now to post comments! 
Already a subscriber?  Login

You may also like