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Indian fake media network targeting Sikh farmers, separatists exposed in UK research

LONDON: The Centre for Information Resilience (CIR) has exposed a network of fake profiles of Sikh influencers created to target the farmer protests in India as well as the Khalistan movement.

The CIR report — 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 report exposes a coordinated influence operation that uses fake personas on multiple social media platforms to promote narratives arguing that “real” Sikhs support the Indian government and Indian nationalism, and that advocates of Sikh autonomy and independence are extremist or terrorist.

Some of the fake network’s messaging included statements calling for action such as Indian “Nationalists shouldn’t remain watching silently” and that they “need to counter and expose them [the Khalistani movement for Sikh independence]” to “save India” from “Pakistan, Canada, UK, and US”.

All these accounts used repetitive hashtags such as #RealSikhAgainstKhalistanis #Khalistanis #SikhRejectKhalistan.

“The network increased its activity since the commencement of the farmers’ protests in India. Both the farmers’ protests and the Khalistan independence movement have been the two most frequently targeted subjects of the core network of fake accounts,” the report stated.

The content produced by these accounts was also endorsed by various verified accounts who worked with these accounts, suggesting that there was a coordinated govt backed activity.

Many high-profile accounts were found to be involved in focused targeting of Sikhs For Justice’s General-Counsel Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, who is running the Khalistan Referendum campaign for the separation of Punjab from India. All these accounts that published Pannun’s cartoon memes called him a Pakistani agent, fake Sikh and enemy of India and Sikhs.

One user tweeted Narendra Modi, kicking Pannun while he’s running away. The tweet read: “The reply of a #RealSikh to the #FakeSikh Pannun. Dear Pannu, there is no place for Khalistan and no Sikh wants Khalistan.”

Another fake Twitter user girl wrote: “There is the difference between a #RealSikh and “Fakesikh, whom you want to follow? A “RealSikh who died fighting for our country or a #FakeSikh who spreads #KhalistanTerrorism at Pakistan’s behest? Salute to Subedar Singh and #ShameOnPannu.”

“Our research shows a coordinated effort to distort perceptions and discredit the push for Sikh independence, label Sikh political interests as extremist, stoke cultural tensions within India and international communities, and promote Indian government content,” CIR Investigations Director Benjamin Strick said.

“The network amplified its messaging on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram through a core network of accounts that used profile pictures stolen from celebrity social media accounts and used names common in Sikh communities to appear as legitimate members of the Sikh community,” Strick added.

The report said: “The network’s advocacy that supporters of Sikh independence are extremist or terrorist, and that Indian nationalists must take action against them, may contribute to an environment in which some actors consider intimidation of, or violence towards, the Sikh community as legitimate.”

The CIR said it had collected the data of 398 accounts that had liked, retweeted or commented on tweets that used the hashtags #RealSikhsAgainstKhalistan, #SikhsRejectKhalistan and #RealSikhs. These were three hashtags that appeared to be commonly used in the network, particularly by accounts with larger numbers of followers.

“The network amplified its messaging on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram through a core network of accounts that used profile pictures stolen from celebrity social media accounts and used names common in Sikh communities to appear as legitimate members of the Sikh community,” Strick added.

The report said: “The network’s advocacy that supporters of Sikh independence are extremist or terrorist, and that Indian nationalists must take action against them, may contribute to an environment in which some actors consider intimidation of, or violence towards, the Sikh community as legitimate.”

The CIR said it had collected the data of 398 accounts that had liked, retweeted or commented on tweets that used the hashtags #RealSikhsAgainstKhalistan, #SikhsRejectKhalistan and #RealSikhs. These were three hashtags that appeared to be commonly used in the network, particularly by accounts with larger numbers of followers.

The BBC published the report on an exclusive basis and said that there is no evidence linking this network directly with the Indian government, but it’s believed that such tactics are applied routinely by the BJP government to influence minds and previously hundreds of accounts have been suspended for being involved in coordinated activity against Sikhs, Pakistan and dissenting Indian voices.

Ahmed Mukhtar Naqshbandi

Media person and communication expert for over 25 years. Worked with Dow Jones News, World Bank, CNBC Pakistan, Aaj TV, ARY TV, Abbtakk TV, Business Recorder, Pakistan Observer, Online News Network, TTI Magazine and other local and world Publications.

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