How the ‘Online News’ Platforms have become a tool of Dis-information
The information warfare has reached such high levels of sophistication that it is increasingly difficult to establish and expose such networks, despite seeing their modus operandi. However, that does not mean low-IQ/ low-level fake news/ propaganda has stopped coming.
In a nutshell.
A set of handles (20 odd at time of reporting, increasingly getting suspended) are running a well-coordinated propaganda to push a particular kind of narrative that are anti-Pakistan and anti-China. To this end, while most of the news items they have been using are from main-stream media, they have also, on the side, been trying to mainstream a bogus news-site, which is peddling a RW agenda.
We observed that these set of handles are promoting news articles from a the NewsComWorld (www.newscomworld.com), rather peculiar sounding name for a news-site. This ‘news platform’ follows the pattern of several such online news sites that have surfaced in recent past. It uses a network of fake handles/ bots who amplify the articles posted on this site, and in the process make it popular.
The website has been mostly used for distorting news/ or pushing misinformation. To save time and resources, instead of creating original content, it copies content from several major news platforms, and then recycles them as its own content, with a minor tweaking.
However, by changing some facts here and there, it tends to change the entire narrative.
Here is a sample:
The handles shared a news that US Navy seized Chinese Arms in the Arabian Sea that was headed towards Yemen. The news ‘called out China’ for promoting terrorism. However, the news was contrary to what the mainstream media had reported. Media houses like CBS news and Business Insider stated that the package comprised of “Chinese & Russian built” weapons, but nowhere mentioned that it was shipped from China.
While the international media merely mentioned the cyber-attack on the US Pipeline, the NewsComWorld mentions Chinese cyber-attack leading to closure of the US pipeline, which is not mentioned by Wall street journal, BBC or any other major news channels.
As expected, the website is registered anonymously, taking GoDaddy’s hosting services. The site however is not an old one, registered barely a year ago on 2020-05-09.
However, Twitter handle of the news-site seems to be in existence long before the actual platform – @NewsComWorld – which was created in June, 2019.
It turns out that prior to May 2019, the Twitter handle belonged to another website called news-communique.com (Domain Registered on 2019-06-17). The Twitter handle of this particular site @communique_news was created in June 2019, the same month NewsWorldCom Twitter.
A bit confusing? Here is what happened:
A ‘new’ news-site is created in May 2019 – called News-Communique, and its Twitter handle is created in June 2019 as @Communique_news. However, by next year another news-site is created – NewsComWorld. The change could have happened as if the admin lost the login credentials.
Likewise, the same pattern was seen on its Facebook page which started on September 6, 2019 as News-Communique.com and changes to NewscomWorld in July 2020.
A minor glitch (or one could say an overlooked mistake) gave more clarity that News-Communique website, which is still active but has not published any news piece after mid-2020, now shows NewscomWorld logo on its website.
The website of the News-Communique still exists in today’s date but in a dormant state. But its news articles are still shared on Twitter even in 2021.
Fun Fact: Imagine the kind of guys who are trying to carry out info-war, but lacks even basic imaginary power – to give such weird names to a ‘news-site’, not once but twice!
First Tweet of the ‘News-site’
Who are the News-Makers?
One of the earliest tweets launching the NewsComWorld is found from June 2019. However, at this time the Website was not even in existence (which was registered in May 2020).
This is seen because of Twitter’s name change policy, which shows only the latest name of the handle. (for details on the policy and its abuse, pls refer to Twitter’s name change policy)
Which means the previous avatar of this news site (Communique-News) was launched in June 2019, and later renamed the Twitter as new website.
This also brings us to the person who could possibly be behind this website. The handle launching this news-site is shown as @Sanjeev40330782. However, this handle has also changed its @IndiaKaPrahari, which is likely to be the key person behind this propaganda site.
In a Nutshell
Both handles have changed their name: the news site – from @communiqe_news to @NewsComWorld; and the handler – from @SanjeevM to @IndiaKaPrahari – now the Tweet below might make sense!
As has been noted in the beginning, such obscure sites have learned a new method to gain popularity as well as credibility by using Twitter. These sites create a set of fake handles, who in turn start posting their content.
However, to make it more legitimate, they also tend to publish other content, particularly news from major credible media platforms.
Here are the set of handles:
It is likely that the list of handles was much longer, and some of the handles would have got suspended, as while working on the report we witnessed one of the handles getting suspended.
The only thing that makes them different from bots is that they have made some effort to rename their handle and user id, which means some manual intervention was required. (Twitter assigned user ids generally are alpha-numeric, and one of the signs that tells that the end-user does not give much attention to handle’s identity, whereas a genuine user likes to own the handle in a personalized manner, even if they are anonymous.)
It seems that these handles have been selected to represent a wide spectrum of Indian society so that the credibility of the news platform could be enhanced.
These accounts seem to have been created for this purpose alone as most of these handles seem to have been created between December 2020-January 2021.
While the network was quite elaborate, it was no-brainer to ‘decode’ the pattern of this network, which could be done by most basic search of content for similarities. At one level the handles do seem like a bot – their pattern being so identical! All of them followed the same blueprint devised for them for posting the same tweets.
The Following/ Followers Pattern
As noted, most of the handles were recently created, and do not have any significant number of followers, many not even in double digits. Following list of these accounts is also very similar, we found a list of accounts common in the following list of the troll group.
The timeline of these tweets matches perfectly, as it can be seen from the tweet timeline plot. The pattern of tweets is exactly same for each account.
The time-difference between the tweets of these accounts is merely between half an hour-to an hour, which means either handles are run by one person, or they get their instructions and start posting simultaneously. The peak in the posts is also around same time, (peak comes around mid-day IST), with only difference that certain accounts are more active than the others on some days.
Below are two graphs of two different days – May 4, 2021 (Tuesday) and May 6, 2021 (Thursday).
The peak in the number of tweets can be seen from Monday and rises by the mid-week. And it suddenly falls down on the weekend especially on Sunday. The pattern implies that these accounts rigorously work on week days as a part of their routine office work with weekends as offs. It has been illustrated through the below attached graph of their tweet timeline of the past two weeks.
The word cloud of their content is also confirming what is most obvious from the first look – that these handles have been promoting similar kind of stories. But for minor differences, it would have been impossible to tell whether these are bots or human. Words like China, Balochistan, Pakistan, Naya Pakistan, Uyghur and Kashmir are prominent occurrences in this story.
On the face of it, the narrative falls into three different categories: Pro-India/Kashmir; Anti-Pakistan (Pro-Baloch); and Anti-China.
A set of handles have posted en-mass news about depleting water level at Mangla Dam. Again, this is not a fake news, as it has been sourced from a major Pakistani news portal itself, but the pattern makes it abundantly clear that the purpose of this exercise is to push a negative news about Pakistan. Most of the accounts shared the same news using the same link only. (incidentally, the news has only been covered by Samaa TV Pakistan, so its veracity we are no way able to verify either way).
There is a cold war situation going in between Australia and China, or at-least this is what the handles want us to believe. (The relations between China and Australia are no way anywhere normal, but to call it Cold War is stretching it way too far!) The link of a news by The Sydney Morning Herald is being shared by these handles using exactly the same narrative, and at the same time as if they were actual bots.
“‘Cold war mindset’: Beijing suspends key government dialogue with Australia” followed by link of The Sydney Morning Herald.
The pattern is that wherever this troll-farm finds anti-China news, they pounce upon it and amplify it. The sophistication of operation is seen only at one place – that they have been using mostly mainstream news media to push the narrative, except promoting the particular news site.
Fake News: Rare, but it’s there
Other than amplifying the ‘tweaked’ articles from NewsComWorld, as a rule, these handles have been only pushing their narrative via tweeting/ promoting articles published in mainstream media, and hence at this level they are not wrong or spreading fake news as such, but it is the behavior pattern that makes them an obvious propaganda network.
However, there are some exceptions
While most of the handles’ post in identical manner and identical pots, at times few of the handles in between also push some fake news individually, may be just to draw home the point that they are not Bots. For example, one of the handles (@Sumira_Bashir) used a 2016 Deccan Herald picture to push a ‘New-Age Kashmir’ narrative.
Fig 1: https://twitter.com/sumira_bashir/status/1367497702909575171
Fig 2: (https://www.deccanherald.com/content/569277/not-all-youths-kashmir-want.html)
Another similar Tweet was by another handle (@Seharmajid5) on the death of Mutahidda Qaumi Movement (MQM) worker Aftab Ahmed under the custody of Pakistani Army in 2016. Aftab was kept under custody for 90 days and was brutally tortured by the Pakistani rangers. While in itself the information was not in-correct, it nonetheless ‘recycled’ an old news to create a negative
sentiment by bringing up the incident to the fore after almost six years. The tweet might not be available as the account may have been suspended.
(Note*-The graphic of the tweet has not been used here as it contained some pictures that are disturbing or sensitive in nature)
There is an age-old saying, that the smartest of your enemies can’t harm you as much as a stupid friend. With such ‘Praharis’, ostensibly working to safeguard India’s interest, we may not need enemies anyways.
If one were to examine the actual impact the network of these fake handles, it would be obvious that they had almost negligible impact in terms of their reach. Almost none of their posts got any traction whatsoever, and hence they were virtually barking in vacuum. Nonetheless, it doesn’t reduce the fact that these are part of a well-planned propaganda network. And by no means these are the only propaganda network.
While the info-war against India is at all-time high, and is way more sophisticated, these fake news industries are not an answer to that. A meaningful and morally right approach is to fight against such propaganda by exposing them, not be part of it.