By Sanjeev Sharma
New Delhi, Sep 2 : The Stanford Internet Observatory has investigated a network of social media accounts originating in Pakistan that posted Pakistani nationalist messages and criticised the Indian government.
There is a possibility that some pro-Indian Army pages were created to identify Indian Army supporters and mass report these accounts. On August 31, Facebook suspended 103 pages, 78 groups, 453 Facebook accounts, and 107 Instagram accounts for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behaviour. Facebook attributed this network to individuals in Pakistan.
Facebook shared a portion of this network with the Stanford Internet Observatory on August 28. The main theme across the pages and groups was Pakistani nationalist content: content praising the military and ISI, and supporting Pakistan in its rivalry with India. There was also content elevating the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-eInsaf (PTI) party and criticism of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party.
Stanford Internet Observatory is a programme of the Cyber Policy Centre – part of the Freeman Spogli Institute for international Studies at Stanford University. ‘Reporting for Duty’ is an investigation into a network of Pakistan-based Facebook and Instagram accounts suspended for coordinated inauthentic behaviour reveals mass reporting to silence critics of Islam and Pakistan.
“Posts also criticised India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, often mocking Modi’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic”, the investigation found. “We observed content critical of the BJP, Modi, and the Indian Army, and messaging that supported the Khalistan movement. Posts mocked Modi’s handling of COVID-19, with statements such as, ‘You cannot find India’s name in the top 40 coronavirus safety countries. Work doesn’t happen just by talking”, the investigation found.
“The page Mujahid Markhour, and its associated (still live) YouTube channel, disseminated content centered on the Pakistani military. Posts and videos were critical of India and praised the feats of ISI. There were also conspiracy theories about the Illuminati and Bill Gates”, the investigation found. The most-viewed video in this network came from Mujahid Markhour. It showed an improvised explosive device attack on Afghan security forces in Afghanistan, with a poem laced with religious imagery praising the Taliban’s faith and resolve. Some of the comments were similarly pro-Taliban.
The Stanford Observatory said in its report, “The network included several Indian Army fan pages and groups. Some of these entities, like the page “Indian Army Lovers,” posted purely positive content about the Indian Army. It is unclear how these pages fit into the objectives of the network. One possibility is that the network used these pages to identify Indian Army supporters who they would then mass report, though we have no evidence to support this hypothesis”.
“Another possibility is that the actors behind the network aimed to subtly put some content aligned with their ideology into these networks. Some pages were generally pro-India but had a handful of posts that were critical of Modi”, the report found. The pages were created over four years, with the earliest page, Indian Army Lovers, first posting in early 2016.
The most prolific page was the Mujahid Markhor (translates to “snake-eating Mujahid”), which had posted 807 times since the end of 2019. The report found that many of the suspended assets link themselves to something called the Pakistan Cooperative. It has a website, which posts content praising the Pakistani military, and a suspended Twitter account. It is linked to the Facebook page Ideology Of Islam & Pakistan, which is not included in this takedown but similarly organises mass reporting.
It refers to its team as the Defenders of Islamic Ideology of Pakistan. The report identified the developer of Auto Reporter as Nasir Ali, who, according to his Facebook profile, is Pakistani and the founder and CEO of Tigerzplace. He is also listed as the tech contact for the tigerzplace.com domain.
“Ali frequently posts Anonymous and pro-Pakistani imagery to his timeline. His Facebook profile also lists him as a web developer at Pak Cyber Experts, whose Facebook Page contains anti-India, anti-Modi, and pro-Pakistan content”, the investigation found. A prominent feature of this network was the coordinated reporting of Facebook and Instagram accounts that were seen as anti-Islamic or critical of Pakistan.
Troll armies with names like Voice of Islam would push posts to Groups and Pages in the network, encouraging users to report up to 80 profiles at a time, with tips on how to do so quickly and with direct links to the reporting sites. Facebook shared 283 profiles and 96 Instagram accounts with SIO. The Instagram accounts appeared to be primarily personal accounts. In Facebook’s takedown report they note that many of the accounts pretended to be Indians. The same themes appeared in the Groups, where Group titles referenced Pakistani and Indian patriotism, and account reporting.
The most popular Group was ‘Indian Peramiltry (sic) Force’, which was created in late 2018 and had more than 300,000 members, the report found. The observatory also highlighted how mass reporting networks operated, with Group and Page administrators mobilising social media users to report accounts that were Ahmadi, or critical of Islam or the Pakistani military or government.
“While we do not know who was behind this operation, we note the repeated invoking of duty towards religion and nation for mass reporting. We also observed a post on the network that stated that a member of one of the mass reporting teams had died, and that not only was he a hardworking, effective ‘patriot’ who worked on social media reporting of ‘subversives’, but that he also worked with ‘agencies’ (implying either intelligence or military) on the ground”, the Observatory found.
At the same time, the quality of the disinformation content did not rise to that of a previously Pakistani military-attributed takedown. “We hope Pakistan researchers and reporters will investigate this network further”, Stanford Internet Observatory said in its research. On August 31, Facebook suspended 103 Pages, 78 Groups, 453 Facebook accounts, and 107 Instagram accounts for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior.
Facebook attributed this network to individuals in Pakistan. Facebook shared a portion of this network with the Stanford Internet Observatory on August 28. “In our investigation, we find that the network engaged in mass reporting: the coordinated reporting of accounts ostensibly for violating a platform’s terms of service. The network encouraged users to mass-report accounts that were critical of Islam and the Pakistani government, and in some cases accounts that were part of the Ahmadi religious community”, the Observatory report said.
“The network also had messaging praising the Pakistani military, along with some Indian military fan Pages and Groups of unclear purpose. The network appears to have primarily targeted Pakistanis and Indians; posts were in Urdu, Hindi, English, and Punjabi. Facebook reports that 70,000 accounts followed at least one of the Pages and 1.1 million users belonged to the Groups”, it said.
Many Pages and Groups posted Pakistani nationalist content, praising the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence agency) and ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. “The network included several Indian Army fan Pages and Groups, which had primarily positive messaging about the Indian military and government. We are unclear what the objective of these entities was”, it said.
Mass reporting mobilisers frequently boasted about their supposed successes. For example, a troll army called Defenders of Islamic Ideology of Pakistan claimed to have gotten accounts suspended on the Group, ‘Pakistan: A love, a madness’. The post includes the name of the accounts and the link so that users can see for themselves that the accounts are down.
(Sanjeev Sharma can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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