A study done at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has revealed that fake news travels six times faster than the real news on social media. The report had claimed that false stories “diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information.”
The information being circulated on these platforms eventually influences the political and Geo-strategic outcomes as well, and hence makes them a lucrative tool for info-war.
While it is hard to trace the first such instance, one of the earliest examples of this coordinated warfare in South Asia was seen in Sri Lanka in 2019. Immediately after Easter bombings, a series of fake news was planted, targeted at Sri Lankan audience as part of a well-orchestrated dis-info network, being run from a friendly neighborhood.
As we set foot to decode the pattern of this network, we unearthed a massive social media design being run in the region with the aim to create conflict among the neighboring countries in South Asia or aggravate existing conflicts with misinformation.
One of the key tools of this dis-info is a Twitter loophole. The tool is found to be so useful that a whole fake organization has been created to take advantage of this loophole, the organization came to be- South Asian United Social Media Front (SAUSMF).
On 21st April, 2019, about 300 innocent people lost their lives and more than 500 people were injured in the one of the biggest terror attacks in Sri Lanka. And while the rest of world was in shock, and the name of radicals Islamist groups had already surfaced, a ‘friendly neighbor’ of Sri Lanka smelled an opportunity to use this tragedy to score ‘psy-war points’ against India. They started pushing the narrative that it was India who was behind the bombings by targeting Tamil minorities in Sri Lanka. They caught hold of their old accounts and solely dedicated themselves in commenting upon the tweets of the reports regarding the Sri Lankan blasts. They flooded the comments by proliferating the narrative that it was India who was involved in the bombings.
It’s anyone’s guess who this ‘friendly neighbor’ is in South Asia?
Gradually, a number of Pakistani social media ‘experts’ jumped in with their bogus narrative that – it was India’s RAW and Sri Lankan Tamils’ handiwork.
Eventually it was revealed that names of radical Islamists group ISIS & National thowheeth Jama’ath were involved behind the attack.
Once the news became mainstream, the Pakistani handles became even more aggressive to deflect the blame. They decided to push this fake story through a ‘Sri Lankan’ id – by exploiting what Twitter calls ‘name change facility.
Several Pakistani handles changed their Twitter name, bio and Twitter ids and became ‘Sri Lankans’ overnight. One such viral tweet was from a handle @cmd_artillery claiming to be a Commander of Sri Lankan Army Artillery – Brigadier NLK Samrasinghe.
There were several red-flags about the handle that could have raised suspicion, but in a chaotic situation, it was hard to scrutinize and the citizens were quick enough to respond to their so-called ‘Brigadier’
A Sri Lankan fact check site exposed this handle with some very interesting facts:
- The account was created in February 2019 but made its first tweet in April 2019, only after the bombings.
- This account was earlier being run in the name of Hubaib (@Lewany_yam), Twitter ID 1101055967872069633
- A “Sri Lankan Brigadier” had almost all followers from Pakistan and none from Sri Lanka.
- The first audiences of the Tweet were also Pakistani – which is unlikely if it was a Sri Lankan handle.
The original Pakistani id (@Lewany_yam which changed into @cmd_artillery) was run along with another Pakistani Id as ‘Tribal with Pak Army’ which share close ties with Pakistan army.
The handle changed its identity frequently like @da_watan_lewany, @da_Army_lewany, @cmnd_BT, @cmd_CTT, and the last username which was traced before being suspended was @cmd__BT.
How Identity Theft Works
Twitter allows changing both username and display name without going through any verification process. This has often resulted in identity theft; one such example has been Elon Musk. After reports of fake twitter account impersonating Musk, Twitter introduced the verification process. It also barred any other account by the name of Elon Musk, not even a parody account.
However, that was a customized facility for the richest man in the USA, not applicable in a poor third world country like India, irrespective of the amount they are victim of dis-info war.
There is a pattern where accounts from Pakistan change their identity to other nationality whenever there is any political development in any of the South Asian countries.
Decoding the Pattern
- Create an account with Pakistan identity, preferably ‘patriotic’/ ‘pro Pak Army’ to gain easy followers.
- Gather Pakistani followers with help of existing troll industries/ networks such as Team IK, PTI, PakDefence etc. The higher the number of followers more the sense of credibility; as no one generally checks who the followers are.
- Once there is a political development in any South Asian country (e.g., terror attack in Sri Lanka) Change name, bio, location and Twitter id; delete all previous posts as well. Use pics of respective country national, preferably girls for generic ids.
- Starts tweeting posts related to the particular event, laced with Pakistani agenda. This makes it look like the post is coming from the country itself.
- If a post or the account is reported, quickly change name, delete previous posts and morph into another identity ready to spread disinformation in another country.
- If there is some break, change back to Pakistani id (Team PTI/ Team IK/ Team ISPR) and indulge in domestic politics, targeting opposition and gaining followers.
1. The Curious Case of ‘Harith Bilani‘
The motive of Pakistan’s keyboard army has been to discredit India’s image and to create disharmony among neighbors in South Asia. The Pakistani info-war machinery has mastered this Twitter tool is evident from a particular case, where the identity is changed not once or twice but multiple times.
They have been constantly changing their username, display picture, bio, date of birth and deleting their old tweets – to avoid identification as Pakistani handles. However, the unique identification number, allocated for each handle remains the same regardless of the name-changing game, which is how they get exposed.
An account named Harith Bilani (faking to be Sri Lankan) surfaced in October 2019, comprising of anti-India posts, targeted directly at India-Sri Lanka ties. The account had decent following and reach which is why its fake posts managed to engage audience of around 10k. At the same time, another fake, originally a Pakistani account looked out for an opportunity out of this and misused his identity along with the profile picture, turning it into a futile sham and the vicious game of Harith Bilani begun.
Here is a brief Chronology of how this handle worked:
1st Avatar: The Pakistani handle first renamed itself as @SirisnaJayasena with the profile picture of former Sri Lankan president Ranil Wickremesinghe and a bio in Sinhalese. The posts, as expected were targeted at India and promoting Pakistan. Shockingly, even man of substance like Jan Achakzai, who is a Geo-political analyst and an ex-advisor GOP has retweeted several of its tweets, emphasizing the lack of political awareness and social responsibility.
2nd Avatar: Once the @SirisnaJayasena started getting exposed, the account changed its name to @SanithPradeep and shared fake news of ‘Indian spy’ being caught. The image (taken from gettyimages) was actually of Sri Lankan police escorting the security guard of their petroleum minister Arjuna Ranatunga in Colombo on October 29, 2018. Either as a means to add credibility, or probably paying off the Chinese favor, the handle boasted about the role of ‘Chinese Intelligence’.
3rd Avatar: After getting exposed, the handle yet again changed its identity to @HarithBelani in November 2020, and continued to tweet on Kashmir and other topics like Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which is a known sensitive topic between Indian and Sri Lanka. The posts boasted of Pakistan’s support to Sri Lanka in “defeating Tamil Tigers”.
4th Avatar: As farmers’ agitation grew stronger in India in late 2020, the handle re-invented itself as @ManandepSingh, claiming to be a former Western Army Commander and pro Khalistani, and as expected, posting against India and supporting Pakistan.
5th Avatar: After the handle started getting exposed one more time, it again changed to @diyaanhhh and yet removed all its previous posts. This time it chose an acronym which could be used in any context, but finally Twitter seems to have caught up with it and suspended the account.
Here is the followed pattern of the account:
Amanda Chathu: Sister of Harith Bilani?
Another account which is busy in spreading misinformation is Sri Lankan ‘activist’ Amanda Chathu @IAmandachathu, which uses the picture of a Sri Lankan model Puimi Hansamali.
She’ (most likely a ‘he’ from Pindi) doesn’t only uses the picture of Sri Lankan model for DP, but even tweets other pictures of the model to add credibility (and some sunshine) to the account.
And despite being a Sri Lankan model, the followers are mostly from Pakistan!
And if one was wondering about the agenda:
There are hundreds, if not thousands such handles which keep changing identities to suit the occasion. But throughout the change two things remain same – their Unique Twitter ID Number and their agenda.
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