Planet-scale influence operation strikes at the heart of polarised Indian polity

TL;DR: The largest known foreign disinformation network targeting India. Iranian in origin, possibly operated via a front in Pakistan. May have physical presence in India. Garnered hundreds of thousands of social media impressions. Legitimised by the top leaders of mainstream political parties in the opposition.

Edit, 30th November, 2018: Reuters published a special report on the scope of the Iranian disinformation operations today.


In August this year, FireEye reported an influence operation — purportedly of Iranian origin (but with a perplexing Russian operational signature) — leveraging a network of inauthentic news websites and social media accounts. In a coordinated move prior to the disclosure, Facebook, Twitter and Google brought down hundreds of fake news accounts and pages linked to it.

In October, Twitter also released a downloadable archive of nine million tweets traceable to the same operators, to encourage the integrity of elections.

Upon further digging by open source intelligence (OSINT) analysts and journalists, it was discovered that the scope of the influence operation extended to many geographies including India. However, its local impact and reach were ascertained to be minimal.

After a fresh assessment of the case, I have reasons to strongly dispute that claim. Not only was the campaign highly successful in engaging and polarising the Indian polity but displayed a sophisticated understanding of behavioural science.

By exploiting the growing sense of alienation among the Indian minorities and weaponising the left-liberal discourse, the threat actors built a propaganda machine that cut across party and ideological lines. It engaged top political leaders and possibly hundreds of thousands of Indian users in the process.

It could very well be the most systematic attempt at foreign interference in India, meeting the thresholds of cyber-enabled information warfare. If left undeterred, such subversive networks could sway a decisive chunk of the populace in the 2019 general elections.

Facing extreme isolation due to sanctions and a hostile media narrative, Iran may be justifying the use of such propaganda machinery to further its own interests. It could, in fact, be the only medium via which Iran exercises its soft-power across its sphere of influence in Eurasia. Continue reading “Planet-scale influence operation strikes at the heart of polarised Indian polity”

Why I should not be talking about an Indian cyber mercenary

Even ten years ago, as we bootstrapped cyber operations in the government, a subtle tension always brewed when it came to contractors.

I belonged to an archaic school of thought believing that such capabilities need to be internally fostered. As Dave Aitel rightly says: you build competencies [over generations] rather than tools. Continue reading “Why I should not be talking about an Indian cyber mercenary”

My opinion of the think tank ORF’s cyber policy work

So, a journalist emailed me asking for my opinion of the Observer Research Foundation’s (ORF) cyber policy work. It’s a Reliance-funded organisation and thought to be India’s most prominent think tank. It also hosts the annual Raisina Dialogue on foreign policy with the Indian government, and the CyFy conference on technology and the cyber issues. My reply is pasted below:

Continue reading “My opinion of the think tank ORF’s cyber policy work”

Cyber power & the Huntington-ian cliche we love to hate

Most of the media coverage around the sustained Russian disinformation campaign against the US and Ukraine portrays post-Soviet Kremlin as some rogue aggressor devoid of ideology or belief. As the perfect villain, its purported aim is to foment chaos and merely revel in it.

If there is any allusion to strategy — some method in Russian madness — then it is limited to the exponents of tactical hybrid warfare like Gen. Valery Gerasimov, not going any deeper.

But if there is one cliche that fully applies to cyber-enabled information warfare, it is that we are witnessing the veritable clash of civilisations in its most primitive form — whose seeds were sown in the computing architecture that predated the internet. It’s a cliche we love to hate — because of Samuel P. Huntington’s appropriation by the American neoconservative thought. Continue reading “Cyber power & the Huntington-ian cliche we love to hate”

USCYBERCOM’s cyberwar: the Great (Video) Game?

The US Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) seems to be adapting and responding to the Russian disinformation threat in some bizarre ways.

Here’s the developing story:

Continue reading “USCYBERCOM’s cyberwar: the Great (Video) Game?”