A website spread disinformation about Canada. Why did major Indian outlets treat it as news?

A website spread disinformation about Canada. Why did major Indian outlets treat it as news?

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A report about a conference in Toronto on Sikh terrorism was posted in May on the website of a now defunct Canadian-based think tank.

The problem?

There’s no evidence the Star could find that the conference took place or that the listed speakers even exist. But multiple Indian news outlets picked up the report, treating it as news.

The website, which appears to be the last active Canadian node of a previously identified fake news network, points to the difficulties of stopping the spread of disinformation and how quickly stories with dubious sourcing can be treated as factual. It also highlights how disinformation can be weaponized to distort and misrepresent Canada to outsiders — and how it can malign Indo-Canadian communities in the process.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s national security adviser said in June that India is among the top sources of foreign interference in Canada, but experts say authorities have let India’s activities fly “under the radar” and that it’s time they paid closer attention to disinformation linked to Indian sources. Canada is home to the world’s largest Sikh diaspora.

The think tank, the International Forum for Rights and Security or IFFRAS, and its website were created in 2012 to promote global human rights and security. Documents show that IFFRAS was legally dissolved in 2014 and Mario Silva, a former Liberal MP and now vice-chair of the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, was the website’s domain owner until 2015.

A visit to the website today generates this message: “Our site was recently hacked. And a lot of articles and wrong information was posted … We are doing some work on the site and will be back shortly.”

Idrisa Pandit, an independent scholar and former director of Islam studies at the University of Waterloo, said the website’s content is consistent with disinformation from Indian actors, including a preoccupation with the alleged ubiquity of terrorist cells in North America threatening the Indian state.

“These are sophisticated and purposeful activities meant not just to support the false information ecosystem within India for local consumption but to present false information to outsiders — including politicians and the public in Canada,” she told the Star.

What do we know about IFFRAS?

Since 2020, some two dozen articles about fake conferences on security topics have been posted on the IFFRAS website. The article topics include: a Montreal conference about the Muslim Brotherhood’s presence in North America; conference summaries quoting multiple University of Toronto professors who don’t exist; as well as an ebook on “Growing extremism from South Asia to Canada” that contained numerous factual errors. Such posts were frequently used as the basis of articles in prominent outlets such as Asian News International (ANI), India’s largest multimedia news agency, and the Hindustan Times, an English-language newspaper that is also one of India’s largest.

According to a February 2023 report by EU DisinfoLab, a Brussels-based non-profit research firm, when news platforms republish false content, “readers can easily lose track of the original sources and actors involved in the amplification loop. The narratives then become so sedimented in the public debate as legitimate positions that it becomes literally impossible to challenge them.”

But it is unclear who has been posting articles through the IFFRAS website.

A phone number that was listed on the website was not in service. IFFRAS.org is registered under a third party web hosting platform, which allows for the redaction of ownership information.

According to incorporation documents, the think tank was founded in 2012 by Silva, who represented the downtown Toronto riding of Davenport from 2004 to 2011.

In a 2019 report by EU DisinfoLab, a network of websites masquerading as legitimate, and with names like Toronto Mail, the Quebec Telegraph and Times of Manitoba, were publishing flattering articles about the Indian government and spreading disinformation about India’s main political rival, Pakistan, as far back as 2010, but disinformation seems to have started appearing on IFFRAS.org after the think tank was dissolved in 2014. The articles also labelled as terrorists those who support a separate Sikh state of Khalistan, in India. Most were registered to the Srivastava Group, an Indian corporation based in New Delhi, while IFFRAS.org was hosted by the same servers as the Srivastava Group.

In 2019, after the first EU DisinfoLab report came out, Silva told CBC he was unaware of any connections to India and the websites and newspapers in the alleged disinformation network, and he “emphatically” does not have “any connection” with any of the organizations.

He said at the time that IFFRAS, as a think tank, was already inactive and his original involvement “was limited solely to advocacy for human rights in a broad sense.”

The Star reached out to Silva via the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario as well as to several email addresses, but a tribunal representative said Silva declined to comment after reviewing the Star’s request.

After other sites shut down, the IFFRAS site remained active and was producing articles as recently as June, when the Star made inquiries based on an updated report in February from EU DisinfoLab.

Why would India be interested in Canada?

Canada is home to the world’s largest Sikh diaspora, the country’s fourth-largest religious group making up more than two per cent of Canada’s population. This helps to explain why the Indian government is frequently preoccupied with Sikh Canadians, including naming Canadians as terrorists despite evidence to the contrary, intelligence experts say.

So why would large Indian media companies pay attention to a website containing fake Canadian experts and a former Canadian MP who has denied involvement?

Balpreet Singh, legal counsel for the World Sikh Organization, said the appearance of Silva’s leadership as well as the fake names of Canadian experts “grant legitimacy” to a narrative from the Indian government that Canada harbours Sikh terrorists, a claim he said lacks evidence. (A March 2023 report from Public Safety Canada said there were “smaller pockets of individuals” suspected of raising funds in support of violent means to establish an independent state within India.)

Singh said the role of major Indian news outlets in painting Canadian Sikhs as a danger is consistent with a sharp decline in India’s press freedoms in recent years. According to the latest review by Reporters Without Borders, India has dropped to 161 out of 180 countries in the 2023 World Press Freedom Index.

“For example, many Indian outlets repeated false claims that protests took place outside the Indian embassy in Ottawa where a grenade was thrown by Sikh protesters. That was absolutely false,” Singh said.

A 2018 government report obtained by The Canadian Press warned that Indo-Canadians were among the diaspora groups facing the risk of “being influenced, overtly or covertly, by foreign governments with their own agendas.”

That year, a federal security committee also issued a public report on allegations relating to India’s foreign interference in Canadian political affairs following Trudeau’s visit to India, where he was dogged by vitriolic and unfactual media coverage.

What is Canada doing about Indian interference?

National security experts say that compared to other countries such as China and Russia, Ottawa has been relatively soft on pushing back against India’s alleged activities.

“The (Indian state) has worked to malign the Sikh community in Canada, misconstruing dissent and a support for Khalistan with terrorism,” said Dan Stanton, director of national security at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute and a former intelligence officer of 32 years with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).

“There are strong tensions in the community and feelings of support for an independent Khalistan, but as far as a national security threat, Sikh extremism (in Canada) has been almost non-existent for years … But India won’t let it go.”

The High Commission of India in Ottawa and India’s National Investigation Agency did not respond to the Star’s emailed requests for comment on alleged disinformation activities.

Canada currently has no centralized ability to counter disinformation online. Global Affairs Canada has attempted to tackle Russia’s use of disinformation to spread false narratives about its invasion of Ukraine, and the country leads a G7 initiative aimed at monitoring state-sponsored disinformation targeting democracy and national security.

Canadian Heritage, meanwhile, funds research projects that boost civic, news and media literacy in an effort to combat disinformation online. The federal government is also expected to introduce online safety legislation this year, though the impending bill was not initially intended to address disinformation. An expert panel tasked with crafting the framework for the bill concluded that legislation must tackle the issue in “some capacity,” but cautioned that Ottawa was at risk of government overreach or censorship if it went too far.

A spokesperson for Heritage Canada declined to comment on any work on Indian disinformation in particular, and Global Affairs similarly declined to comment, but a spokesperson said the department “closely monitors and reports on the evolving information environment … to support decision-making in areas such as international cyber policy and countering foreign interference.”

With files from Raisa Patel

Joanna Chiu is a B.C.-based staff reporter for the Star. She covers global and national affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @joannachiu

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