New Delhi: National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval made a statement last week on how a “disinformation campaign” was launched to damage India’s reputation on the matter of remarks made by two BJP spokespersons. The campaign was carried out at the global level and the NSA’s comment was the first public acceptance from the highest office of India tasked with handling the country’s overall security apparatus of the threat and damage the country is facing from a sustained disinformation campaign.
However, while NSA Doval spoke about the ramifications of the disinformation campaign for the first time, it is a topic that has been discussed for the past few years at various layers and multiple departments that handle India’s security, all ending with the same conclusion—India needed to be better prepared to handle such sustained, systematic disinformation warfare, much of which is carried out by state and non-state actors based in Pakistan and China.
Experienced officials from multiple government agencies, including the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), and intelligence departments, while speaking to The Sunday Guardian on the recent developments regarding the attack India faced on the disinformation front, said that the adversaries were well ahead of India when it came to spreading disinformation in the country and turning a non-issue into a situation that leads to massive unrest.
“To be honest, there is not much happening when it comes to developing offensive or counter offensive techniques as far as cyber capabilities that include spreading and tackling disinformation that is backed by state-backed actors. The recent incident (referring to the spokespersons episode) has been repeated in the past, too, by the same actors. A section of the media has been writing about it, a section of officials has been highlighting it, but nothing much has changed and we continue to lag when it comes to handling such misinformation campaigns,” said a senior official, who has been raising the issue of developing India’s cyber capabilities to tackle disinformation.
According to officials, there needed to be a concrete framework on how to handle such warfare. “After every such incident, independent reports are released to name the individuals and groups who were behind these disinformation campaigns. Nothing happens beyond that. Countries like Russia, US and our adversaries have dedicated teams that wait for opportune moments to jump in and spread disturbance in an enemy country,” he said.
The National Cyber Security Strategy, which is expected to bring a focused approach to India’s response to cyber warfare, is still a work in progress, more than three years after it was envisaged.
Doval’s statement about how the remarks made by two BJP functionaries about Prophet Muhammad were used to spread disinformation, especially on Twitter, is something that has also been proven by independent agencies. A Delhi-based organization, Digital Forensics, Research and Analytics Centre (D-FRAC) that specializes in deep fake scan and fact-checking disinformation and misinformation, on 11 June released an extensive report that detailed how Pakistan-based Twitter handles were exclusively created to spread lies in India on this sensitive issue. These handles started tweeting content with hashtags that soon started trending on Twitter, thereby creating a false impression that the entire Gulf was united in anger against India. This ultimately pushed the government of the respective countries to issue statements against India under the false belief that citizens of their respective countries were very upset with India.
Such disinformation was then amplified by users based in Pakistan, including media organizations, to put more pressure on the leaders of Gulf countries. Significantly, many of these handles are still active on Twitter.
“Unlike in the US where issues of national security dwarf the interest of the corporates, in India, we still have to pander to them for multiple reasons,” the official quoted above replied when asked why the agencies were not proactive in taking action against Twitter handles which are clearly being run from Pakistan with the ulterior motive to spread disturbance in India.
In October 2017, Twitter general counsel Sean Edgett was grilled by the US Senate Judiciary Committee about foreign interference in the 2016 election. Edgett admitted that Russian agencies had systematically spread fake news and hateful content through a carefully coordinated, years-long social media campaign.
Less than a year later, Twitter released more than 10 million tweets from 3,841 accounts that were working for Russian agencies. Later, it released more data of accounts linked to Russia, Iran, Venezuela and the Catalan independence movement in Spain. In all, Twitter shared details of about 30 million tweets which were engaging in disinformation campaigns to hurt the strategic interests of the respective countries.
If Parliament of India is able to achieve something similar to what the US Senate did and force Twitter to share similar information which it did with the US Senators, then the information that is likely to tumble out could be a goldmine for Indian agencies to help them secure the country’s virtual border more securely.
Recent research done jointly by the Department of Information Technology, Indira Gandhi Delhi Technical University for Women and the International Institute of Information Technology, Hyderabad, has found that Twitter contributes to the largest chunk of fake news on social media.
According to the research paper, 33% of the total fake news that is circulated on social media comes from Twitter. It is followed by Facebook, which contributes to about 12% of the fake news circulated on social media, while YouTube and Instagram contribute about 7.4% and 8.9% of fake news, respectively.
“We observed that Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook appear in most of the fake news incidents. Instagram is rarely being used for the spread of fake news incidents. However, YouTube does appear, particularly when fake news involves video content,” the researchers stated.
The research published in January this year and conducted through a period of three years between 2016 and 2019, points out that on an average, 10-15 fake news incidents have been found to be emanating from India every day on social media sites.
The researchers during their research period evaluated 5,031 tweets and 866 videos on YouTube which were suspected to be fake news and were being circulated on these social media platforms. The research further says that out of these total sample sets evaluated, 4,083 of them (Twitter and YouTube together) were found to be fake content.
Corresponding author of the research paper, Rishabh Kaushal, Assistant Professor, Department of Information Technology at the Indira Gandhi Delhi Technical University for Women, while speaking to The Sunday Guardian, said that they analysed Twitter and YouTube for fake news since both platforms have open-source information, while Facebook has limited access to information due to its privacy factors.
The researchers also found that fake news circulation increases during an election period and subsides when an election is over. “We can conclude that fake news mainly revolves around politics. In other words, politics appears to be the most commonly occurring domain for which fake news is produced and consumed,” Kaushal said.
The researchers found that keywords like “Rahul Gandhi”, “Narendra Modi” and “Sonia Gandhi” are the prominent personalities whose names are used to spread fake news incidents. The researchers also found that other popular keywords for spreading fake news include keywords like “Hindus”, “Muslims”, “Indians”, “BJP”, “Congress”, “Delhi” and “West Bengal”. According to Kaushal, Twitter was one of the most used platforms to peddle fake news.
“Twitter is one of the most popular social media platforms that is used to circulate fake news because we have seen that the engagement ratio on Twitter is very high. It has also been observed during our research work that the traction a news gets on Twitter is very high; therefore, fake news peddlers use this platform to achieve their goal. Also, Twitter is an important platform since many personalities are present on the same and it is an open source of information,” he said.
Kaushal further added that it has been observed by his research team that on many occasions, a fake news post that has been flagged by fact-checking websites still linger on the platform (Twitter). “We have seen that a fake news story is still in circulation even after it has been flagged by fact-checking websites. Maybe Twitter takes its time to analyse and take down a tweet, but then by the time Twitter takes a decision, the fake news has already been widely circulated and made an impact,” Kaushal said.
Asked what has been their observation on fake news on Twitter and how quickly Twitter reacts to taking down fake news, Kaushal said, “What Twitter does regarding these fake news and what it doesn’t is a kind of a black box for us. Twitter puts out aggregate data on posts that they have taken down through their transparency report, but it does not tell the kind of posts they have taken down. We do not have exact data on the kind of posts that Twitter has taken down as we have not interacted with Twitter. But there have been controversies on this with users alleging that Twitter is liberal when it comes to taking down posts from one particular group of people while being stringent on the other particular group.”
The Sunday Guardian sent a detailed questionnaire to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube regarding what the steps they have taken to combat disinformation and the time they require to take down fake posts.
A YouTube spokesperson told The Sunday Guardian that they have a comprehensive policy regarding misinformation and other malicious and harmful content due to which the vast majority of content on YouTube is not harmful. According to YouTube officials, harmful content was just a fraction of 1% of the total content and consumption of borderline content or harmful misinformation videos that is shown as “recommendation” to the user is significantly below 1% which the company was constantly working to reduce even further.
“We remain committed to protecting the YouTube community while providing room for a broad range of views. YouTube has clear policies that outline what content is not acceptable to post and we quickly remove videos violating our Misinformation Policy. We have taken a number of steps to address misinformation, including doubling down our efforts to raise authoritative information with features such as Top News, Breaking News, Fact Check and Information panel giving topical context. Moreover, over the years, we’ve updated our recommendations system to prevent the spread of problematic misinformation and borderline content,” the spokesperson said.
In its response, the Twitter India spokesperson shared the company’s policy regarding “Platform manipulation including spam policy” and “Hateful Conduct Policy” given on the company’s blog. No response was received from Facebook (Meta) till the time the story went to press.