Researchers have uncovered today a network of 265 online news sites using the names and brands of defunct newspapers from the 20th century to push anti-Pakistan media coverage inside the regular news cycle.
Discovered by the EU DisinfoLab, an EU-based NGO focused on researching sophisticated disinformation campaigns, this network of fake news sites was traced back to a group of Indian companies, NGOs, and think tanks.
The EU DisinfoLab team believes the goal of this global network of fake news organizations was to influence international institutions, elected representatives, and public perceptions on Pakistan by multiplying the same negative anti-Pakistan press coverage.
Furthermore, the fake news sites were also meant to reinforce the legitimacy of anti-Pakistan NGOs by providing linkable press materials to reinforce an anti-Pakistan agenda.
This was done to "add several layers of media outlets that quote and republish one another, making it harder for the reader to trace the manipulation, and in turn (sometimes) offer a 'mirage' of international support," the EU DisinfoLab team said.
Tensions between India and Pakistan are well known, both being at odds with one another since 1947 due to soverignity rights over the Kashmir region.
The entire scheme operated based on a similar and rather simple pattern.
All news sites were registered to use a domain that either mimicked the name of a popular local news site or used the name of a defunct newspaper.
For example, in Romania, the group operates an English news site located at frontulplugarilor.com, mimicking the name of Frontul Plugarilor, a pro-communist newspaper published in Bucharest between 1945-1953.
Similarly, in Turkey, the group operates a website at hamevasser.com, mimicking the name of a Zionist Hebrew-language weekly newspaper published in Constantinople (now Istanbul) in the early 1900s, between 1909-1911.
Among the sites it operates in the US, there's the metroeastjournal.com, which imitates the Metro-East Journal, a newspaper that shut down in 1979; or saltlaketelegram.com, which mimics the Salt Lake Telegram, a local newspaper that operated between 1915-1952.
A comprehensive list of all the sites operated by the group can be found on this interactive Google map.
According to the EU DisinfoLab team, all the 265 websites published English news articles, despite using the names of local newspapers.
Most of the content was syndicated from Russia Today, Voice of America, KCNA, and Interfax, researchers said.
However, hidden in the syndicated content, were articles critical of Pakistan. A search for "pakistan" on one of the sites part of this network yielded the results below, all critical of the Pakistani government.
The EU DisinfoLab team said that links between all the 265 fake news sites were also easy to find. In many cases, several news sites listed a contact address in the same co-working space/office, while in other cases, they shared web servers.
The NGO plans to release a more in-depth report in the coming weeks. In the meantime, the organization has documented their findings in a blog post and a series of Twitter threads [1, 2, 3, 4].