MEPs duped by manipulative Indian disinformation network  

Researchers have unearthed a widespread, coordinated, and manipulative 15-year-long Indian disinformation operation in Brussels, with the creation of fake media organizations, the revival of defunct think-tanks, and even the fraudulent impersonation of dead people.

Actors behind the an Indian disinformation campaign, dubbed the 'Indian Chronicles' by investigators, directly targeted MEPs. [Shutterstock]

Researchers have unearthed a widespread, coordinated, and manipulative 15-year-long Indian disinformation operation in Brussels, with the creation of fake media, the revival of defunct think-tanks, and even the fraudulent impersonation of dead people.

Actors behind the campaign dubbed the ‘Indian Chronicles’ by investigators, directly targeted MEPs, bankrolling trips to Kashmir, Bangladesh, and the Maldives, creating informal working groups inside the Parliament, establishing a fake newsgroup, as well as influencing parliamentary questions to the European Commission.

All such efforts were made, according to EU Disinfo Lab – the team behind the investigation, in order to spread anti-Pakistan propaganda and to bolster Indian interests within the EU institutions.

The news comes following an investigation last year into Indian disinformation efforts in which it transpired that the New-Delhi based business association, the Srivastava Group, had been behind a network of 265 fake media in 65 countries, including EP Today, a fake European Parliament online magazine active in Brussels since 2006.

The publication, investigators say, served as a ‘honeypot’ for MEPs and other politicians to publish their views, and in particular, views that served Indian interests in the EU.

Earlier this year, EU Disinfo Lab resurrected the probe, after stumbling upon “an entire network of coordinated UN-accredited NGOs promoting Indian interests and criticizing Pakistan repeatedly.”

This led to the discovery of a fake media organisation in Brussels – EU Chronicle, which effectively took up the mantle that was ceded by EP Today following the previous investigation.

MEPs named and exposed

EU Chronicle, investigators say, is a “new fake media with fake journalists supposedly covering European affairs but which essentially offers a platform for MEPs to sign pro-Indian articles.”

Research shows that in less than six months of existence since being established earlier this year, 11 MEPs across a range of Parliamentary groups have penned or endorsed op-eds on the platform.

These include far-right Identity and Democracy MEPs Gianna Gancia, Dominique Bilde, Thierry Mariani, Julie Lechanteux, and Virginie Joron; ECR’s Angel Dzhambazki, Grzegorz Tobiszowski, and Ryszard Czarnecki; EPP’s Fulvio Martusciello and Giuseppe Milazzo; and S&D’s Marc Tarabella.

For his part, the office of MEP Dzhambazki informed EURACTIV that he had “never written or submitted any text or comment,” to EU Chronicle, despite an article being published under his name in May this year.

“We suspect that part of this material is taken from a plenary statement MEP Dzhambazki made on the COVID crisis and that the rest of the text has been made up and added as if written by him,” an official from Dzhambazki’s office said. “We are looking into legal options to resolve this issue.”

Moreover, S&D’s Marc Tarabella became embroiled in EU Chronicle after he penned a release that was sent out to the MEP’s press list. The PR was picked up by EU Chronicle who lifted quotes from the text for an article on the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The entire article was then attributed to Tarabella, rather than the individual quotes themselves.

Tarabella’s office recently protested against the impersonation, and the whole piece was removed from the EU Chronicle website.

However, for Identity and Democracy MEP Thierry Mariani, the French politician defended his decision to write two pieces for EU Chronicle, criticizing money laundering operations and terrorism in Pakistan.

“Who is my friend and who is my enemy?” Mariani told EURACTIV. “For France, we are much closer to Modi than we are to Imran Khan. I support India and the government of India. ”

EU Disinfo Lab says that the majority of topics covered in the op-eds written or endorsed by the above MEPs are “very close to topics of interests for the Indian State,” such as the treatment of minorities in Pakistan, the situation in the Jammu and Kashmir region, and the growing presence of China in the world.

In addition, 9 of the above 11 MEPs also took part in an October 2019 trip to Jammu and Kashmir, sponsored by the Srivastava Group.

Moreover, researchers also level accusations at several informal European parliamentary groups, including the South Asia Peace Forum, Friends of Gilgit Baltistan, and Friends of Balochistan, as being “set up or chaired by MEPs involved in activities organized by Indian Chronicles,” with a view to further Indian interests in Brussels.

Parliamentary questions to the European Commission have also been drafted by an organization referred to as ‘WESTT’ – the Women Economic and Social Think-Tank, which works in partnership with the Srivastava Group.

Commission study calls for 'sanctions' for online disinformation

A European Commission study on the effectiveness of the EU’s code of practice against disinformation has criticised the self-regulatory nature of the framework, suggesting that “sanctions and redress mechanisms” should be put into place in order to ensure compliance with the rules.

Media hijack, identity fraud and a possible sanctions regime?

More generally, certain underhand strategies conducted by actors to further the aims of the disinformation operation in the EU’s capital include the impersonation of press organizations such as EU Observer and the Economist, the registration of deceased people to attend lobbying events more than five years after their death, and the invention of ‘dozens’ of journalist identities, creating a global network of fake media groups that would republish and amplify one another’s views.

For their part, EU Disinfo Lab, who have spent months investigating the most recent Indian disinformation network in Brussels, want to see sufficient measures put in place to counter such widespread and coordinated disinformation campaigns such as the one outlined in Indian Chronicles.

Primarily, researchers say that EU Regulators should consider a sanction regime for actors abusing international institutions as well as explore the ways to challenge the tactic of malicious actors in abusing search engines by reproducing the same content hundreds of times and therefore amplifying it.

Interestingly enough, as part of the Commission’s unveiling of its Democracy Action Plan last week, the EU executive floated the idea of introducing a sanctions regime for foreign actors abroad who seek to interfere maliciously in EU affairs.

In the Commission’s plans, the bloc should “develop a toolbox for countering foreign interference and influence operations, including new instruments that allow imposing costs on perpetrators.”

Announcing the intentions last week, Vice-President of the Commission for Values, Vera Jourova adopted an unambiguous stance on the extent to which punitive measures should be imposed for nefarious disinformation efforts in the EU.

“We must not stay passive, because, over the years, we see the increasing trend of the coordinated and well-focused and targeted activities from malign actors abroad,” said the Vice-President of the Commission for Values, Vera Jourova.

“The attacks on European society bear fruits because they are able to influence the quality of democracy and undermine the trust of people in democratic institutions…The perpetrators, the producers who flooded the information spaces up to now go unpunished,” she added.

Commission floats sanctions regime for disinformation offenders

As part of the European Commission’s Democracy Action Plan, presented on Thursday (3 December), the EU is charting the establishment of punitive measures to improve the bloc’s and member states’ capacity to counter disinformation.

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