Facebook looked the other way under pressure from Indian Govt: Washington Post
NEW DELHI: Srinagar-based Chinar Corps of the Indian Army operated hundreds of fake accounts to create a sustained narrative in praise of the Indian Army and to defend the crackdown on civilians as well as target Kashmiri journalists with allegations of sedition and separatism, a report in the Washington Post pointed out.
About three years ago, a network allegedly created by the Chinar Corps created a network that used hundreds of fake accounts on the social media till it was unveiled by the propaganda hunters on the social media giant, Facebook. The Facebook and Twitter, with whom the former shared its findings, immediately acted against the network. However, both Facebook and Twitter went silent over the role of Army’s Chinar Corps, even as the findings of its whistleblowers was damning.
The report points out that the network was being operated from a two-storied building inside the Badami Bagh Cantonment in Srinagar.
It was through the geo-spatial location tracking by the Facebook experts that they could track the operation of this big network to one building in the cantonment. How that could be done with the technology available with the social media giant is unknown to average people in Kashmir or in rest of India.
Interestingly, a year ago, a Stanford Cyber Policy Center’s report titled ‘My heart belongs to Kashmir: An analysis of a pro-Indian Army covert influence operation on twitter” conducted a study of 1198 dubious social media accounts. The research speculated a likely link to the Chinar Corps of the Indian Army but could not establish a conclusive connection.
About three years ago, a year after the abrogation of Article 370 that stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its autonomous status and its bifurcation into two Union Territories of J&K and Ladakh, Kashmiris were alarmed by the sudden flooding of pro-Indian Army posts from different Facebook and Twitter accounts which many alleged were dubious. However, no one knew that these were co-ordinated and systemic, tied to an artificially created network.
Facebook’s findings were thus mind-boggling.
A report in ‘The Washington Post’ on September 26, 2023 titled ‘Under India’s pressure, Facebook let propaganda and hate speech thrive’, said, “When Facebook’s U.S. investigators first saw the posts from accounts that purported to be residents in Kashmir, it wasn’t hard to find evidence of a central organization. Posts from different accounts came in bursts, using similar words. Often, they praised the Indian military or criticized India’s regional rivals — Pakistan and its closest ally, China.”
The report further elaborates that “The technical information about some of the accounts overlapped, and the geolocation data associated with some accounts led directly to a building belonging to the Indian army.”
The report points out that the disinformation hunters also found that the fake accounts often tagged the official account of the Chinar Corps, India’s main military force in Kashmir, showing that they were not putting great effort into disguising themselves.
For a couple of months, employees said, the Facebook team mapped out the network in preparation for rooting out the whole operation, a standard procedure for combating coordinated inauthentic behavior, the report said.
Often, the accounts operated by the Chinar Corps, promoted YouTube videos about problems in Pakistan. Some featured a channel run by Amjad Ayub Mirza, a writer from the Pakistani-controlled part of Kashmir who has declared that Muslims are treated well in India and has called on minorities in Pakistan to rise up against the government.
The report notes, “The reality is that the people being persecuted inside India and also outside the country are actually the Hindus,” Mirza once told an interviewer. “One has to ponder over the question — where did terrorism start from? Terrorism started from Pakistan.”
Covert Network and Hashtags
In just 32 minutes on May 24, 2021, The Washington Post review found, 28 accounts from the covert Chinar Corps network on Twitter shared a post criticizing Pakistan’s treatment of Muslim Uyghurs who had fled oppression in China. Some made the point in English or Hindi that “Pakistan is not a safe place for Muslim minorities.”
The report quoted, Jibran Nazir, a Kashmiri journalist working in central India, who said he was “shocked” to one day find his photo adopted as the avatar of two anonymous Twitter accounts spreading the #NayaKashmir, or “New Kashmir” hashtag, which touted Kashmir’s prosperity under New Delhi’s control.
The report quotes Nazir as saying, “They were recently created accounts that had more than 1,000 followers each. The accounts wanted to show Kashmiris are doing well, which they’re not.”
The Chinar Corps’ stealth operation singled out independent Kashmiri journalists by name, disclosing their personal information and attacking them using the anonymous accounts.
In one post of the Chinar Corps, the target was journalist Qazi Shibli and his publication, the Kashmiriyat.
The report said, “@TheKashmiriyat posts #fake news on the various operations conducted by the #IndianArmy causing hate amongst people for the #Army,” @KashmirTraitors wrote in a series of tweets. “Even the positive things like ration distribution that are happening in #Kashmir are shown in a negative prospect in posts of @TheKashmiriyat.”
“The #traitor behind this account and website is @QaziShibli (born in 1993) who has been detained numerous times under various charges for cybercrimes and posting content against national security,” the report added.
Shibli’s home was raided, and he was jailed repeatedly in 2019 and 2020 and detained under Public Safety Act. The pressure online was crippling, Shibli told The Washington Post. “A lot of people left work at the Kashmiriyat” because of the attacks. It got to the point that a lot of people were not willing to work with us. Sources dried up and that even personal friends grew afraid to speak with him,” he said to The Washington Post.
Twitter Database and Stanford Research
Twitter released its database of network account activity to researchers last year, and The Washington Post obtained it. Though the database did not attribute the accounts to any entity, employees at Twitter and Facebook told The Washington Post they were from the Chinar Corps.
Based on the released database, a research team at the Stanford Internet Observatory which last year pointed to circumstantial evidence of a connection between the accounts and the Indian Army noted that the content of the Twitter network is consistent with the Chinar Corps’ objectives, praising the work of the Indian Army in Kashmir.
“The official Chinar Corps Twitter account, @ChinarcorpsIA, is the seventh most mentioned or retweeted account in the network,” the report pointed out that a handful of the Twitter account bios, under study, were linked to Facebook or Instagram accounts. Some of these Meta accounts are live, others are down.
On June 6 Twitter suspended Chinar Corps accounts but resumed it the next day. Facebook and Instagram accounts for the Chinar Corps were again suspended on January 28, 2022, for “coordinated inauthentic behavior” but were restored on February 9, 2022, the Stanford report said.
The Stanford Internet Observatory noted that Chinar Corps Facebook Page and Instagram account did not post between January 28, 2022 and February 9, 2022. It also noted that though the account was created in 2017, the oldest post was dated January 31, 2022.
According to the Stanford study, Kashmir was the most frequently used word in the hashtag, followed by Pakistan, India and Indian Army. Top domains shared by the network included YouTube, Facebook and several news outlets including three from Jammu and Kashmir.
It goes on to say that “At least 43 tweets contained some version of: My religion is Islam, but my culture is Hinduism. Another dozen said the account holders were Muslim but ‘Indian first’.”
Many of the accounts in the network claimed to be Indians, often Kashmiris, and frequently said they were located in Kashmir. One bio said “Proud Indian and Proud Kashmiri. My Heart belongs to Kashmir, Soul to India and Life to Humanity.” It was common for account bios to say that they were relatives of Indian army soldiers; one, for example said, “My father served in the Indian Army was martyred.” Accounts claimed to be freelance reporters or volunteers in Kashmir; one said they were an aspiring YouTuber. Many claimed to be students. One of the suspended accounts was a Kashmiri digital marketing firm.
Many of the bios had a nonsensical series of characters, a single word, or follow back language. Account bios frequently linked to Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube accounts, some of which are live and some suspended. The suspended network’s tweets tagged both authentic and suspended accounts, including regional journalists, politicians from the Balochistan province in Pakistan, and Indian politicians.
Tweets tagging journalists aimed either to bring events to the attention of reporters, or to bring the reporter to the attention of followers—often in an apparent attempt to target the reporter for what was framed as anti-India content. There were two accounts in the network that existed to target reporters, activists, and politicians in this way.
The accounts had similar usernames and tweets: @KashmirTraitors (created in July 2020, with a bio that said “Busting fake news, bringing you the real truth of Kashmir”), and @KashmirTraitor1 (created in January 2022, with a bio that said “Exposing the traitors who call them #Kashmiri but are working towards destroying #Kashmiriyat….!!!!!”, see Figure 6 on the following page). The @KashmirTraitors bio linked to a YouTube channel, Traitors of Kashmir, created in 2014.
The Twitter accounts and YouTube channel targeted specific individuals, focusing on what the account deemed “anti-India” journalists, calling reporters “#whitecollarterrorist,” for example; saying that they were working to corrupt the minds of Kashmiris; and accusing them of taking money from Pakistan. The accounts also targeted activists. One @KashmirTraitor1 thread, for example, targeted the activist and author Pieter Friedrich (see Figure 7 on page 8). These two Kashmir Traitor accounts also targeted the Pakistani government.
Almost 400 tweets from @KashmirTraitors received at least 500 likes. Its most popular tweet targeted journalist Fahad Shah, who has been imprisoned since March 2022. The tweet, from January 17, 2021, said: 6 Figure 6: The suspended @KashmirTraitor1 account. “#FahadShah unveiled #thread (1/n) Fahad is the founder and editor of the #Kashmir Walla magazine and claims himself an freelance journalist on the other hand rigorously publishes content on anti- #India sentiments. Mr #Fahad how can you call yourself independent journalist?” The tweet got 2,440 likes.
In calling out particular individuals, @KashmirTraitors would sometimes tag the official Chinar Corps account, @ChinarcorpsIA, to draw their attention to a thread.
The official Chinar Corps account @ChinarcorpsIA, was mentioned or retweeted almost 4,000 times. One tweet, for example, said: “Indian Army – Nation First! The best video on the Social Media showing the bond shared by the soldiers and countrymen in the valley! #Kashmir #HatsOff #IndianArmy”
The network praised the Indian Army, particularly for their military successes and provision of humanitarian services in Kashmir
One tweet said: “IndianArmy on Thursday destroyed at least 10 Pakistani army posts along the Line of Control in Pakistan occupied Kashmir […]” Other tweets were more generic, simply saying: “I have full faith in the #IndianArmy. People stay united and stand with the Army!”
This suspended network promoted the activities of the Indian Army, particularly in Kashmir, and criticized Pakistan and China. Two accounts in particular, @KashmirTraitors and @KashmirTraitor1, stood out for targeting individuals deemed anti-India.
The Stanford Internet Observatory requested journalists and researchers to find more about these co-ordinated Kashmir based links. The Washington Post expose can be seen as a follow-up to that research.
Facebook did not act under pressure
Washington Post has also made damning revelations about the role of the Facebook and Twitter managers in India and for ignoring the brazen violation by the Chinar Corps’ created network, giving the latter a leeway for over a year.
The newspaper report quotes US-based supervisor of Facebook’s Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior (CIB) unit as saying that the unit wanted to delete the network’s pages but the executives in the New Delhi office pushed back. The managers in India warned against antagonizing the Indian government over actions in the territorial jurisdiction it controls.
The reaction of the Facebook’s senior managers was not only different but also surprising for CIB unit. They wanted to consult the local legal experts within the corporation for the fear of being hauled up and imprisoned for treason by the Indian government.
The objections from the Indian management of Facebook delayed the action for close to one year while Indian Army continued to peddle fake news and spread disinformation that put the lives of many Kashmir journalists in danger. The impasse was resolved only when the top executives from Facebook ordered deletion of fake accounts. The episode did not end here.
“It was open-and-shut” that the Srinagar-based Chinar Corps had violated Facebook’s rules against using fake accounts to surreptitiously promote a narrative, said an employee, who worked on Kashmir project in an interview to The Washington Post. “That was the moment that almost broke CIB and almost made a bunch of us quit,” an unidentified employee has been quoted in the report.
Three other individuals, who were involved confirmed the previously unreported internal battle. Most of those who spoke to The Washington Post discussed company matters on the condition of anonymity.
The Washington Post report said that the Facebook did not dispute the account. The report adds that this was only one example of how Facebook has lagged in its professed ideals in India under pressure from the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). In the last one decade, BJP has been accused of abetting violence and fanning hate speeches against Muslims to gain support from its political base. The Facebook has been reluctant in taking action against BJP politicians and their allies when harmful content was spread on the social media platform.
The Washington Post report said that Facebook has denied acting to favour the BJP.
The report mentions that Facebook said it did not preserve its accounts, making research more difficult.
The Washington Post report said, “A security official recently based in Kashmir with knowledge of the matter confirmed the existence of the Chinar network, saying it was a failed attempt to counter narratives from Pakistan.”
A couple of months into its investigation, Facebook’s coordinated inauthentic behavior team handed their findings to supervisors and security policy chief Nathaniel Gleicher, who then informed Facebook’s team in India, the report said.
History of Political Pushback
Executives based in India began raising objections. It wasn’t the first time they had. There were several reasons. One was the overwhelming bulk of the sheer number of languages and cultures that make up India. Inflammatory speech was often coded with slang or references that eluded those unfamiliar with India’s political history, culture or the latest memes, the report pointed out.
The second problem was the political pushback. A former employee familiar with the India team of Facebook told Washington Post that during internal discussions with executives in California and elsewhere, India-related content-policy employees “would use a case-law-setting tone, instead of what human harm was being done.”
The Washington Post report quotes several instances.
“After U.S. Facebook employees in 2020 warned that Indian Hindu nationalist groups were spreading the hashtag #coronajihad, implying that Indian Muslims were intentionally spreading the coronavirus in a conspiracy to wage holy war, a content policy staffer for the region pushed back, arguing that the meme didn’t amount to hate speech because it wasn’t explicitly targeting a people, two former employees recalled,” the report mentions.
In late 2019, Facebook data scientist Sophie Zhang tried to remove an inauthentic network that she said included the page of a BJP member of Parliament. She was repeatedly stymied by the company’s special treatment of politicians and partners, known as Xcheck or “cross check.” Facebook later said many of the accounts were taken down though it could not establish that the BJP member of parliament’s page had been part of the network.
The report adds, “The following year, documents obtained by Facebook employee-turned-whistleblower Frances Haugen show, Kashmiris were deluged with violent images and hate speech after military and police operations there. Facebook said it subsequently removed some “borderline content and civic and political Groups from our recommendation systems.”
“In one internal case study on India seen by The Post, Facebook found that pages with ties to the Hindu nationalist umbrella organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) compared Muslims to “pigs” and falsely claimed that the Quran calls for men to rape female family members. But Facebook employees did not internally nominate the RSS — with which the BJP is affiliated — for a hate group designation given “political sensitivities,” The Post said.
Talking to Washington Post, Facebook said it has hired more staff, now reviews content in 20 Indian languages and has partners that can fact-check in 15 languages.
“We prohibit coordinated inauthentic behavior, hate speech and content that incites violence, and we enforce these policies globally,” Facebook spokesperson Margarita Franklin told the newspaper.
Chilling Impact on Facebook
When Facebook’s investigators brought their Kashmir findings to the India office, they expected a chilly response. The India team frequently argued that Facebook policies didn’t apply to a particular case. Sometimes, they argued that they didn’t apply to sovereign governments, the report states.
But this time, their rejection was strident.
“They said they could be arrested and charged with treason,” said a person involved in the dispute, the report added.
Facebook’s India team, including policy chief Thukral and communications head Bipasha Chakrabarti, was especially nervous after police raids on Twitter, two people recalled. In 2021, the Indian government was feuding with Twitter over its refusal to take down tweets from protesting farmers. Officials dispatched police to the home of Twitter’s India head and anti-terrorism units to two Twitter offices. Some officials publicly threatened Twitter executives with jail time.
Two former Facebook executives said they had believed that their colleagues’ fears were genuine, though no legal action was ever taken against them.
Blocked by their own colleagues, Facebook’s U.S. threat team passed the Chinar Corps information to their counterparts at Twitter.
Facebook employees said they had been hoping that Twitter would follow the leads and root out the parallel operation on that platform.
The team’s members also hoped that Twitter would do the first takedown, giving Facebook political cover so it wouldn’t have to face government retribution alone and its internal dispute could be resolved.
Twitter, which had been more forceful in pushing back against the Indian government, took no action. It told Facebook staff that it was having technical issues.
As Facebook’s India team delayed acting on the Chinar inauthentic network, the propaganda investigators in Washington and California worked on less controversial subjects.
“You have only so much time in the day, and if you know you are going to run into political challenges, you might spend your time investigating in Azerbaijan or somewhere else that won’t be an issue.
Call it a chilling effect. That dynamic is real,” said Fishman, the former senior Facebook executive.
Facebook has routinely announced significant removals of disinformation with an aim to increase transparency and prevent spread of disinformation. Smaller takedowns are described more briefly in quarterly summaries. However, in the Chinar Corps network case, to save the Indian military and the government from embarrassment, the fake accounts were removed in 2022 but Facebook didn’t disclose the takedown.