Media is the most important tool of every democracy. In India, it is considered to be the fourth pillar of our democracy. It serves as essential to safeguard the transparency of democratic processes and is supposed to act like a ‘watchdog’.
With the growing sources of media, come increased sources of disinformation. The phenomena of disinformation and fake news can create several complications and change the mindset of several people negatively. Disinformation is one of the biggest and fastest tools used by political parties to spread their agendas and destroy the harmony of a country. Various fact-checking portals help people to combat disinformation. However, what if these fact-checking portals are pro-governmental and are functioning to spread their agendas?
In a recent report released by Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), it has come to light that a Canada-based PR firm has created a website that represents itself as a fact-checking portal.
According to the report, India Vs. Disinformation (IVD) , which is created by a Toronto-based PR firm Press Monitor, is used to promote and support the narratives of the Indian government.
DFRLab in its report said, “Press Monitor created India Vs. Disinformation (IVD), a spurious news and fact-checking outlet populated by content generated by its companion site, India News Network (INN). While projecting themselves as independent media outlets, they were both managed by the PR firm.”
Under the tagline “Truth Matters,” IVD presents itself as “an online news portal which brings to you authentic information about the world’s largest democracy.” The about page of the portal, though, gives the strong impression that the site exists to counter foreign propaganda and negative coverage of India from western news outlets.
According to an analysis done by DFRLab using the social media monitoring tool BuzzSumo, IVD had drastically increased the rate with which it was publishing the articles on its website. It began publishing articles in April 2020, which were eight and by June 2020, it was publishing 67 articles.
“Many of these articles amplified pro-government narratives around controversial policy decisions enacted by the Indian central government, including the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which defines Kashmir’s relationship with India, the enactment of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, which includes a loophole that allows for religious persecution, and the targeting of Muslims amid sectarian violence in Delhi,” mentioned DFRLab in its report.
“A #Toronto-based PR firm created a network of websites impersonating domestic media outlets that engaged in “fact-checking.” Articles from their sites manipulated public perception in favor of #India and #Modi’s #BJP government on a range of policies,” DFRLab said in a tweet.
Press Monitor also manages the social media accounts of India Vs. Disinformation on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.
India Vs Disinformation also disregarded several articles published by international media outlets reporting on India and its current government. All these articles have been categorized under the header “Disinformation.”
In response to the questions of DFRLab, Abhay Aggarwal, the owner of Press Monitor, said that he ran IndiaVsDisinformation independently.
Several websites were hosted on the servers of Press Monitor. Among others, two websites affiliated with RSS are included. “Aggarwal registered one of the RSS sites, Swayamsevak, in 2016, according to a historical WHOIS search on Domain Big Data.”, said the report.
According to Aggarwal, IndiaVsDisinformation was developed to showcase the firm’s ability to produce videos, graphics, and other types of content. He also confirmed with DFRLab that he had registered the RSS-affiliated domain Prachar Vibhag and others to re-sell them in the future, confirming that he intentionally cyber-squats certain domains.