As per a report by an OSINT investigative team DisInfo Lab (www.thedisinfolab.org), Sri Lanka has become a pawn in the strategic game in South Asia between two big neighbors. The report, titled ‘Anatomy of Pakistan’s 5th Generation Warfare’, indicates that a state-backed propaganda machinery is taking advantage of social media to target its arch-rival India, and in this great game of information warfare, Sri Lanka and its social media users are being used as pawn.
This info-war is not new. It can be recalled that immediately after the gruesome terror attacks in Sri Lanka about two years ago, a similar misinformation campaign was launched from Pakistan based social media users taking cover of a fake Sri Lankan Brigadier and accusing the Indian agencies for the attack. After the role of ISIS and Islamists surfaced behind the attack, this lie was exposed by Sri Lankan media.
The same story and the same methods however have continued, and despite getting exposed earlier, it seems that the Pak based fake news infrastructure has only further intensified its efforts to target India by stealing identities of various Sri Lankan entities including its politicians, models and even lay persons. Fake Ids in Sri Lankan sounding names such as Sanath Pradip; Harit Belani etc have been created by Pakistani users to target India. It is another matter that they do not understand the Sri Lankan names or culture, and end up creating weird sounding names.
As exposed by the Report, the Pakistani fake news industry has managed this by exploiting a Twitter loophole which does not provide details of the changes in handle’s profile which means that one handle can acquire one Avatar today and can change into entire Avatar next day depending upon the kind of messaging it wants to propagate. The samples given by the report indicate that handles have been changed several times and each time the agenda has remained as same which is to spew anti-India venom, and on the sly project Pakistan as a friend of Sri Lanka – while at the same time actually stealing identities of unsuspecting Sri Lankans to target to India. This Pakistani fake handle (now suspended) uses Sri Lankan model’s pic.
The Hidden Agenda
While on the face, it seems a small attempt to target India from Sri Lankan identity; but the real agenda behind this is far more sinister. For a common social media user in India, it would look like it’s a Sri Lankan person is falsely accusing and abusing India; and in retaliate they may resort to their own abuses and accusations. This will however be targeted not only at the particular handle that is abusing but could also be to other Sri Lankans, which could create another cycle of retaliation.
The objective is that seeding fake news over a period of time to create rifts between the two countries’ social media users that could escalate into actual antipathy.
The Nepal Example
This experiment is not limited to Sri Lanka but has been repeated in other countries as well including in Nepal, Bangladesh and Maldives. In all these places, the method remained same – a Pakistan ID fakes itself as a Nepali, and abuses India in order to provoke Indian users to target Nepal.
That this method could be incredibly effective was seen during a recent border dispute between India and Nepal where fake Pakistan handles were created as both Indian as well as Nepalese – abusing each other. The common users in India and Nepal however did not realize that actual actors behind these handles are Pakistanis; and fell for this charade. What was planted as the fake news escalated into a full blown social media war between two countries users.
The State’s Involvement
In a startling revelation the DisInfo Lab Report has given evidences that this was not some rookie social media users in Pakistan carrying out information warfare, but that the full State was behind this info-war operation including Pakistani Cabinet Minister Jahangir Khan Tareen as well as the ruling party PTIs core social media members. A fake South Asian organization – SAUSMF was created, which was hosted on Tareen’s server.
(Cabinet Minister Tareen with Pak PM Imran Khan)
After the expose, Twitter has acted swiftly, and has suspended several fake handles, including the fake Sri Lankan handles such as @IAmandaChathu and others. However, there could be several other similar fake handles, hiding behind Sri Lankan identities which need to be exposed further. Likewise, after the expose, the SAUSMF site has been removed from Taeens’s server, and has been now on shared hosting with a Noida (India) based company, which has about 100 more other domains. While this may be to hide the present existence, this doesn’t remove the threat of further misuse of this platform.
Lessons for Sri Lanka
While the Pakistan establishment has mastered this info war, Sri Lankan social media space is also not aloof from such DisInfo; and while not exposed so far, it is unlikely that there are not similar info war tactics targeted as Sri Lanka and it is social media users to influence it in a desired direction. There is urgent need both on behalf of the Government as well as from the user to build capabilities and awareness about the menace of the social media DisInfo campaign, if it is to remain a healthy space.
The Age of 5th Generation Warfare: Is Sri Lanka Prepared?
It appears that the entire South Asian has crossed into the 5th generation at warfare, which was also the title of the report. Today, it was India at the receiving end, but if these shenanigans continues, and social media is continued to be weaponised, then anyone could be a victim. There is an urgent need, specially for the countries in South Asia, to evolve some kind of mechanism to resist the temptation of using info war against each other; as info-war create rifts between societies that are difficult to trace and impossible to heal.