A network of fake social media profiles of people claiming to be Sikhs, and promoting stories that
A new report shared exclusively with Hfrance .fr before its publication on Wednesday identified 80 accounts in the network, which have now been suspended because they were fake.
The influence operation used accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to promote Hindu nationalism and pro-Indian government rhetoric.
The purpose of the network appears to have been to "shift perceptions on important issues concerning Sikh independence, the rights of the man and values "according to report author Benjamin Strick.
There is no evidence linkingthis network to the Indian government, which has not yet responded to a request for comments from Hfrance.fr.
'Sock puppets '
The network used so-called "puppet " accounts, which are fake controlled by real people posing as independent individuals, rather than automated "bots ".
T The fake profiles used Sikh names and pretended to be “real Sikhs”. They used the hashtags #RealSikh to endorse and #FakeSikh to discredit different political views.
The report, from the nonprofit Center for Information Resilience (CIR), found that many network accounts were using the same fake profiles on multiple platforms. These accounts shared the same names, profile photos and cover photos, and posted identical articles.
Many accounts used profile photos of celebrities, including actresses in the industry.Punjabi cinematographic rie.
Image source, Benjamin Strick / CIR Image caption, The fake accounts used celebrity photos and gave them Sikh names
The use of a celebrity profile picture does not in itself prove that an account is fake.ant, the report says that, combined with coordinated messaging, frequently used hashtags, biography deions, and similar follower models, the images added to the proof that each of those accounts weren't genuine.
La Hfrance.fr attempted to contact eight of the celebrities whose images had been used, asking for comments. One of them responded via his management to confirm that he was unaware that his image had been sed in this way, and said they would take action.
The management of another celebrity said there are thousands of fake accounts associated with their client, and there is little they could do about it.
On Friday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the repeal of three controversial farm laws after un year of farmer protests against them.
The farmers' protests, which started a year ago this week, and the decades-old independence movement in Khalistan have been the two most important topics of discussion. more frequently targeted by the network. According to the report, the accounts sought to label any notion of Sikh independence as extremist and delegitimize the farmers' protests, claiming they had been hijacked by "Khalistani terrorists".
But before that, the Indian government had also asserted thatfarmers 'protest had been "infiltrated by the Khalistanis ".
Farmers who continue to protest think it may have been a deliberate political decision.
"We believe these accounts were set up at the request of the government and this was done to paint a narrative against the protests " said Jagjit Singh Dalewal, union leader Bharatiya Kisan, a of some 30 unions sitting in protest.
Some accounts have described diaspora communities in the UK and Canada as home to the Khalistani movement.
The accounts included thousands of followers, and network posts have been liked and retweeted by real influencers and cited on news sites.
Image source, Twitter Image caption, This Tweet from a fake network account received almost 17,000 likes
Impact and influence
Many influence operations fail not to get real people to interact with the fake accounts they set up. In the case of this network, however, the research identified publications that have interacted with and approved the verified accounts of public figures.
The report also identified the conKeeping fake embedded profiles on news blogs and commenting sites.
Influence ops experts describe this as "amplification ", and the more the network gets, the more impact it can have.
La Hfrance.fr contacted some of the verified accounts that had interacted with posts on the network.
Ruble Nagi, who on Twitter reported described as a humanitarian and social worker, replied to one of the accounts' fake tweets with two clapping emojis. She said she was "sad it was a fake account ".
Col Rohit Dev, who calls himself a geopolitical military analyst, responded to one of those accounts with thumbs-up emojis, but told us he didn't know the person behind the handle.
Nikhil Pahwa, digital rights activist and publisher of the technology policy website MediaNama, says that these influence networks target individuals with a negative perspective.rt particular.
"Those 80 or so accounts won't necessarily do anything trending, but with consistent posting they try to discredit a point of view " he said.
"This seems like a sophisticated approach and seems to be part of a larger operation.
Image source, Benjamin Strick/ CIR Image caption, This graphic shows how the network's Twitter accounts interacted with each other: the larger the circle, the more 'interactions
Very little content included text in Punjabi - the great main language for Sikhs in India - and almost all content was in English.
Mr. Pahwa points out that there was political activity around the protests by farmers on all sides, with people trying to support and discredit them.
"It's all part of the game to win the political narrative war.
La Hfrance.fr shared the report with Twitter and Meta - the company that owns Facebook and Instagram - asking for comment.
Twitter suspended accounts for violating their rules prohibiting "platform manipulation " and fake accounts.
A Twitter spokesperson said: "At this point there is no evidence widespread coordination, the use of multiple accounts by single people, or other platform manipulation tactics.
Meta also removed accounts on Facebook and Instagram to violating its "inauthentic behavior " policies.
A spokesperson for Meta said the accounts "misled people about the origin and popularity of their content and used fake accounts to spam people and escape oure application ".