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.

Introduction

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”