‘Cyber warriors’ sway Indian election

An Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) volunteer for their social media team working on a mobile phone in the "war room" ahead of the national elections at the party headquarters in New Delhi. (File/AFP)
Updated 16 May 2019
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‘Cyber warriors’ sway Indian election

  • The ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and opposition Congress party have thrown armies of “cyber warriors” into a bitter social media war
  • No blow has been too low in the war of words and videos between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and opposition leader Rahul Gandhi

NEW DELHI: India’s election watchdog says it has forced Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to take down hundreds of posts during the country’s election but experts say it is just a drop in an ocean of misinformation that has engulfed voters.
The ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and opposition Congress party have thrown armies of “cyber warriors” into a bitter social media war for the six weeks of voting that ends Sunday.
The arch-rivals accuse each other of deploying social media dark arts such as automated bots and trolls to bombard voters with messages, fake and real.
No blow has been too low in the war of words and videos between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and opposition leader Rahul Gandhi.
Real-life insults traded by the two — Gandhi calling Modi a “thief,” Modi deriding his opponent as “pappu,” or fool — get shared thousands of times on WhatsApp and Twitter within minutes.
But so do photoshopped images of longtime foe Pakistan’s flag at Gandhi rallies, or Modi eating with Imran Khan, prime minister of Pakistan.
The origin of these images is unknown, but both have been debunked by AFP fact-checkers during this campaign. And experts say the fake news on a host of apps is swaying votes.
The 2019 poll has been “an app-based election where along with the positive voter engagement drives, WhatsApp, ShareChat, Helo, TikTok, Instagram are being used for propaganda and misinformation campaigns,” said Asia politics researcher Sangeeta Mahapatra.
Senior Congress politician Shashi Tharoor said in a recent editorial that there was a “danger” that “many votes will be cast on the basis of disinformation.”
Both the BJP and Congress have each spent tens of millions of dollars to reach the 900 million electorate who have become huge consumers of phone content.
Some 500 million Indians have Internet access — with 300 million on Facebook and more than 250 million using Whatsapp.
The BJP, the bigger and richer of the two parties, and Congress have hundreds of full-time social media workers. Tens of thousands of volunteers back them up by circulating the parties’ messages on Whatsapp and other platforms.
Congress social media head Divya Spandana told AFP the party has 300,000 Whatsapp groups and can get messages to up to 20 million people each day.
Spandana said her party only aims to be heard rather than attack. “We do social media trends organically, unlike the BJP who use bots,” she said.
BJP social media head Amit Malviya hit back. “Rahul Gandhi’s Twitter account has been called out for using bots from Indonesia, Russia, Uzbekistan for powering his Twitter presence,” he told AFP.
The BJP has not given details on its network, but media reports say it has many more full-time workers and Whatsapp groups than Congress. BJP president Amit Shah calls the workers his “cyber warriors.”
Mahapatra, Asia specialist at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies in Hamburg, said up to one sixth of chat groups on Whatsapp in India are started by political parties.
This “shows parties are complicit in the misinformation malaise India is suffering from,” she said.
“Obviously, their messages are not going to be hamstrung by ethics of objective reporting. It is an open secret that the IT wings of most parties are peddlers of misinformation.”
Access to Whatsapp, the main weapon in the election war, is virtually impossible for law enforcement and fact checkers, as it is encrypted.
Messages spread en masse on Whatsapp were blamed for lynchings in India last year. The Facebook-owned company has since restricted to five the number of times a message can be forwarded.
Backstreet stores sell software that can get around the restrictions however.
India’s election commission said that as of Monday, 637 Facebook posts, 145 Twitter posts, five YouTube videos and 31 forwarded Whatsapp messages have been taken down following approaches to the tech giants.
One police case has also been registered. Police have set up their own teams in different states and say they have had misleading videos taken off YouTube.
Authorities have not named any party, even though experts say it is inevitable that the big two, and their rivals, have a hand in the misinformation.
“There is desire and a lot of great people looking at this problem, but the technology is not mature enough to handle such misinformation, involving images, video and local language text,” said Kiran Garimella, a researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology monitoring fake news in India and other countries facing crunch elections.
“We can also see that political parties are clearly invested in this, as we observe from special Whatsapp strategies by the IT cells of various parties,” he added.


US says anyone who allows Iran tanker Adrian Darya I to dock risks sanctions

Updated 21 August 2019
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US says anyone who allows Iran tanker Adrian Darya I to dock risks sanctions

  • Greece says it received no docking request from tanker
  • Iran says Iranian court to hear case of detained UK tanker

UNITED NATIONS: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says anyone who “touches,” supports or allows an Iranian tanker carrying crude oil to dock risks US sanctions.
He told reporters Tuesday that if an Iranian supertanker that left Gibraltar on Sunday again heads to Syria, “we’ll take every action we can consistent with those sanctions to prevent that.”
Greece said earlier in the day that it had not had a request from the Adrian Darya 1, the vessel at the center of a dispute between Iran and the United States, to dock at one of its ports, as Washington warned Greece against helping the vessel.
The tanker, formerly called Grace 1, left Gibraltar on Sunday. Ship-tracking data on Tuesday showed the vessel was heading toward the Greek port of Kalamata on the southern coast of the Peloponnese and was scheduled to arrive next Monday.
“We have made clear that anyone who touches it, anyone who supports it, anyone who allows a ship to dock is at risk of receiving sanctions from the United States,” Pompeo told reporters at the United Nations.
He said that if the tanker’s oil was sold, the revenue would be used by elite units of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. “We want to deny them the resources to continue their horrific terror campaign,” Pompeo said.
The tanker is carrying about 2 million barrels of oil.
“The vessel is cruising at low speed and there is still no formal announcement that it will arrive at Kalamata. The Merchant Marine Ministry is monitoring the matter along with Greece’s Foreign Ministry,” a Greek Shipping Ministry spokesman said.

The Iranian flag flies on oil tanker Adrian Darya 1, previously named Grace 1, as it sits anchored in Gibraltar, Spain, on August 18, 2019. (REUTERS/Jon Nazca)

The ship, which is now sailing under an Iranian flag, was released from detention off Gibraltar after a five-week standoff over whether it was carrying Iranian oil to Syria in violation of European Union sanctions.
Soon after the detention order was lifted, a US federal court ordered the seizure of the vessel on different grounds, but that petition was rejected by Gibraltar.
Tehran said any US move to seize the vessel again would have “heavy consequences.” The United States in turn has also conveyed its “strong position” to the Greek government over the tanker.
Washington wants the tanker detained on the grounds that it had links to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, which it has designated a terrorist organization.
The European Union, of which Greece is a member, bans oil sales to Syria and the United States has sanctions on Iranian oil sales.

Impact on detained UK tanker?
The fate of the Adrian Darya 1 could also have a bearing on that of a British-flagged tanker seized by Iran in the Strait of Hormuz leading into the Gulf two weeks after British Royal Marine commandos seized what was then known as the Grace 1.
Speculation has mounted that the Stena Impero could be freed once the Adrian Darya 1 had set sail, although Iranian officials have denied any link between the two cases.
Deputy Transport Minister Mohammad Rastad said the case of Stena Impero had been submitted to a court in the southern port city of Bandar Abbas, the semi-official news agency Tasnim reported, without giving a date when it would be heard.
The handling of the Adrian Darya 1 will be a major foreign policy test for Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, a pro-Western conservative elected in July.
Any efforts to assist the tanker could be construed as providing material support to a US-designated foreign terrorist organization, which has immigration and potential criminal consequences, a US State Department official said.
A Greek diplomatic source cited by the state Athens News Agency said the country was in communication with the United States on the matter, but did not say what Greece would do.
“(The US) position on the specific issue is known and has been communicated not only to Greece but other states and ports in the Mediterranean,” the source said.
It is standard practice for a vessel to give 48 hours’ notice before docking at a port, Greek officials said.
It was not clear where the ship might head if Greece refused it permission to dock.
Cyprus, farther east, has bitter experience from seizing Iranian products destined for Syria. Munitions it confiscated exploded in 2011, causing the island’s worst peacetime disaster.