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How Sikh farmers fought a war against fake social media profiles

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On November 19, 2021, farmers in India celebrated the victory of their year-long protests as PM Narendra Modi announced the repeal of the contentious farm laws in his address to the nation. The three farm laws proposed by the national government were supposedly meant to reform the archaic agricultural sector by rolling back subsidies and price regulation on crops. However, the farm laws received massive backlash from Indian farmers as the government passed the laws without any consultation. According to the farmers, the reforms put their livelihoods at risk by giving control over the pricing of their crops in the hands of private corporations. On November 26, 2020 farmers marched towards Delhi marking the beginning of a year-long farmers’ movement.

Throughout the year of protests, farmers were met with a harsh response from the state as it tried to dismiss the farmers’ cause and efforts. This was done physically as farmers were met by barricades, tear gas, and water cannons on their way to the capital. Those leading the protests were regularly cast as terrorists and anti-nationals conspiring against the Indian government. In February 2021, the government also resorted to internet shutdowns in districts where the farmers were protesting. In addition to this, one of the biggest enemies of the farmers’ protests has been ‘misinformation’. The Quint’s WebQoof has debunked 101 pieces of misinformation between October 2020 and October 2021 and they found that the most prevalent narrative in the items analysed was the targeting of the farmers – little over 39 percent of the sample – thereby trying to discredit the protests.

Even though farmers have successfully resisted the farm laws, they are still being targeted by this flurry of ‘misinformation’ and ‘fake news’. An investigation carried out by a UK-based non-profit called ‘Centre for Information Resilience’ (CIR) has found a network of fake social media accounts of people impersonating as Sikh influencers (the community to which majority of protesting farmers belong) to discredit the farmers’ protests in India, and label Sikh interests as extremist. 80 accounts were identified in the network which operated across different platforms including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. These accounts which worked to promote Hindu nationalism and pro-Indian government narratives have now been suspended as they were fake. 

The network used so-called ‘sock puppet’ accounts. This means instead of using automated ‘bots’, accounts were handled by real people posing as independent individuals. The fake profiles claimed to be ‘Real Sikhs’ by using Sikh names. They also used hashtags like #RealSikh to endorse and #FakeSikh to discredit different political viewpoints. Most accounts used profile pictures of celebrities, including actresses from the Punjabi film industry. The report says that the use of celebrity profile pictures combined with the co-ordinated messaging, frequently used hashtags, similar biography descriptions and follower patterns, pictures added to the evidence that each of these accounts was not genuine. “Our research shows a coordinated effort to distort perceptions and discredit the push for Sikh independence, label Sikh political interests as extremist, stoke cultural tensions within India and international communities, and promote Indian government content,” said Benjamin Strick,  author of the research and CIR’s director of investigation. 

Some accounts framed diasporic communities in the US and Canada as nurturing the Khalistan movement. All these accounts used repetitive hashtags such as #RealSikhAgainstKhalistanis #Khalistanis #SikhRejectKhalistan.

“The network increased its activity since the commencement of the farmers’ protests in India. Both the farmers’ protests and the Khalistan independence movement have been the two most frequently targeted subjects of the core network of fake accounts,” the report stated.  According to the report many of the memes and tweets shared by these accounts were framing a narrative that the farmers’ movement was about ‘terrorism’ and ‘Khalistan’. 

The accounts had thousands of followers, and posts from the network have been liked and retweeted by real influencers and quoted on news sites. Mostly, such influence operations fail to get the attention of the public and to get people to interact with them. But in the case of this operation, it was found that verified accounts of public figures shared and interacted with posts shared by these fake accounts. Experts describe this as “amplification”, the more engagement the network receives, the more impact it can have. 

Farmers have survived the attacks from the government, the police, ghastly winters and the pandemic to achieve the repeal of the three controversial farm laws. But they are still battling with the fake news and misinformation spread to discredit their efforts and movement. The Internet has been a digital battleground for farmers protesting throughout the year. Farmers created their own IT cell consisting of a group of tech-savvy young farmers. This was with an aim to present their own narrative and combat fake news about the protests in mainstream media. The Internet was used by the farmers as a tool to amplify their movement which led to their success. At the same time, the internet has also produced hurdles for the farmers such as this influence operation revealed by the CIR. Indian farmers have won the fight against the three farm laws, but their fight against ‘fake news’ is far from over. 

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