A network of fake social media profiles of people claiming to be Sikhs, and promoting divisive narratives, has been exposed.
A new report shared exclusively with the BBC ahead of its publication on Wednesday discovered 80 fake accounts on the network, which have now been suspended.
The influence operation promoted Hindu nationalism and pro-Indian government narratives through accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
According to the report’s author, Benjamin Strick, the network’s goal appears to have been to “alter perceptions on important issues surrounding Sikh independence, human rights, and values.”
There is no evidence that this network is linked directly to the Indian government, which has yet to respond to a BBC request for comment.
Instead of automated “bots,” the network used so-called “sock puppet” accounts, which are fake accounts controlled by real people posing as independent individuals.
The fake profiles claimed to be “Real Sikhs” and used Sikh names. They used the hashtags #RealSikh to support various political viewpoints and #FakeSikh to debunk them.
According to the report from the non-profit Centre for Information Resilience (CIR), many of the accounts in the network used the same fake profiles across multiple platforms. These accounts had the same names, profile pictures, and cover photos, as well as the same posts.
Many of the accounts used celebrity profile pictures, including actresses from the Punjabi film industry.
Using a celebrity profile picture does not prove an account is fraudulent. The pictures, however, added to the evidence that each of these accounts was not genuine, according to the report, when combined with the coordinated messaging, frequently used hashtags, similar biography descriptions, and follower patterns.
The BBC attempted to contact eight of the celebrities whose images were used in order to obtain comment. One responded via their management, confirming they were unaware their image had been used in this manner and promising to take action.
Another celebrity’s management stated that there are thousands of such fake accounts associated with their client and that there was little they could do about it.
On Friday, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the repeal of three controversial farm laws after a year of farmers protesting against them.
The farmers’ protests, which began a year ago this week, and the decades-old Khalistan independence movement were the two most frequently discussed topics on the network. According to the report, the accounts sought to delegitimize the farmers’ protests by claiming they had been hijacked by “Khalistani terrorists” and to label any notion of Sikh independence as extremist.
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Previously, the Indian government claimed that the farmers’ protest had been “infiltrated by the Khalistanis.”
Farmers who are still protesting believe this was a deliberate political move.
“We believe these accounts were set up at the government’s request and were done to set a narrative against the protests,” said Jagjit Singh Dalewal, leader of the Bharatiya Kisan Union, one of about 30 unions protesting.
According to some accounts, the Khalistani movement is being supported by diaspora communities in the United Kingdom and Canada.
The accounts had thousands of followers, and posts from the network were liked and retweeted by real influencers, as well as quoted on news websites.
Impact and influence
Many influence operations fail to engage real people with the phoney accounts they create. However, in the case of this network, the study identified posts that were interacted with and endorsed by verified accounts of public figures.
The report also identified content from the bogus profiles that were embedded on news blogs and commentary sites.
This is referred to as “amplification” by experts in influence operations, and the more the network receives, the more impact it can have.
The BBC contacted some of the verified accounts that had interacted with network posts.
Rouble Nagi, a humanitarian and social worker on Twitter, had responded to one of the fake accounts’ tweets with two clapping hands emojis. She expressed regret that the account was a forgery.
Col Rohit Dev, a geopolitical military analyst, responded to one of these accounts’ posts with thumbs-up emojis but told us he didn’t know who was behind the handle.
According to Nikhil Pahwa, a digital rights activist and the editor of the technology policy website MediaNama, these influence networks target individuals with a specific point of view.
“These 80-odd accounts will not necessarily make something trend, but they will try to discredit a point of view with consistent posting,” he said.
“This appears to be a sophisticated approach that is part of a larger operation.”
Almost all of the content was in English, with very little in Punjabi – the most widely spoken language among Sikhs in India.
Mr Pahwa points out that there was political activity around the farmer’s protests from all sides, with people trying to support and discredit them.
“It’s all a part of the game to win the political narrative war.”
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The BBC requested comment on the report from Twitter and Meta, the company that owns Facebook and Instagram.
Twitter suspended the accounts for violating the platform’s rules against “platform manipulation” and fake accounts.
“At this time, there is no evidence of widespread coordination, the use of multiple accounts by single people, or other platform manipulation tactics,” a Twitter spokesperson said.
Meta also deactivated the accounts on Facebook and Instagram for engaging in “inauthentic behaviour.”
The accounts “misled people about the origin and popularity of their content and used fake accounts to spam people and evade our enforcement,” according to a Meta spokesperson.