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Explained: How This US Govt-Funded Think Tank Targeted BJP Supporters And Hindus; And Its Link With 'The Wire'

Author: Swarajya Staff
Publication: Swarajyamag.com
Date: March 4, 2023
URL:     https://swarajyamag.com/world/explained-how-this-us-govt-funded-think-tank-targeted-bjp-supporters-and-hindus-and-its-link-with-the-wire

Independent journalist Matt Taibbi on Wednesday (2 March), released the seventeenth instalment of Twitter Files that took the social media by storm, especially in India.

Targeting of BJP Supporters And Hindus By US Government-Funded Research Institution

The latest edition of Twitter Files revealed that the US government-funded Atlantic Council's Digital Forensics Research Lab (DFRLab) had tried to censor 44,000 users, including ordinary Americans, for allegedly supporting BJP and Hindu nationalism.

The DFRLab in its communication with Twitter in 2021 said it suspected 40,000 accounts of being “paid employees or possibly volunteers” of India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

"Attached you will find a spreadsheet of around 40k (40,000) twitter accounts that our researchers suspect are engaging in inauthentic behaviour in support of BJP and Hindu nationalism more broadly," Andy Garvin, managing editor and senior fellow, DFRLab had said in an email to Twitter.

However, the list was full of ordinary Americans, many with no connection to India and no clue about Indian politics, Taibbi said.

In response to Andy's email, Twitter's the then head of trust and safety, Yoel Roth, wrote, "Thanks, Andy... I spot-checked a number of these accounts, and virtually all appear to be real people".

What is DFRLab?

The DFRLab is a programme of US-based think tank Atlantic Council.

According to the Atlantic Council website, DFRLab operationalises "study of disinformation by exposing falsehoods and fake news, documenting human rights abuses, and building digital resilience worldwide".

DFRLab is funded by the US government's Global Engagement Center (GEC), which is listed as a State Department entity and was created in the last years of the Obama administration.

Taibbi said that GEC is an interagency group “within” State department, whose initial partners included FBI, DHS, NSA, CIA, DARPA, Special Operations Command (SOCOM), and others.

On the surface, it has the same mission the United States Information Agency (USIA) fulfilled for decades, with a catch that USIA focused on foreign “disinfo", Taibbi said.

"It’s an incubator for the domestic disinformation complex,” Taibbi quoted a former intelligence source as saying.

DFRLab's statement on Twitter Files, and The Wire connection

In response to Twitter Files story, DFRLab on Friday said that some of the points Taibbi made in his story are "wrong, misinterpret events, or do not incorporate our responses made in good faith".

However, what was hitherto unknown has been the fact that DFRLab had collaborated with The Wire for creating the dataset of 40,000 Twitter accounts that it sent to the micro-blogging website.

DFRLab said that the dataset was "part of an investigation into alleged coordinated disinformation and online harassment in India, conducted in parallel with the Indian outlet The Wire,".

DFRLab further added that "one of The Wire reporters at the time collected the dataset and shared it with our team; he attributed the tweets to the BJP, but his analysis failed to meet our research standards".

"The DFRLab therefore decided not to publish that investigation, terminating our collaboration with The Wire in October 2021," it said.

"When an investigation necessitates it, the DFRLab shares our findings with social media platforms to help ensure our research is accurate. This was the case with the alleged BJP dataset; we shared it with Twitter solely as part of our due diligence," it added.

As neither our internal research staff nor Twitter could find a connection between this particular dataset and the BJP, we decided to not move forward with the research, the DFRLab said.

"We stand by that decision," it added.

The statement also notes that The Wire eventually published its own investigation into the alleged dataset, which referred to the now retracted TekFog story of the leftist portal.

DFRLab emphasised that it thoroughly vets all research prior to publishing, particularly when it involves data received from outside sources, and that it shares its initial findings with outside experts as part of its vetting process.

"This type of information sharing, exchange, and due diligence is standard across many of the professions we work with including media, academia, and industry," DFRLab said.

However, DFRLab clarified that it does not make content moderation decisions and that there is no expectation that outside experts, particularly those at social media platforms, will take action based on DFRLab's initial research.

Hindu advocacy Groups' response on DFRLab's statement

After the Twitter Files story was published, Hindu advocacy groups called it dual loyalty smear and had sought explanation from DFRLab as to why it profiled so many Hindu Americans and falsely labeled them suspect or supporting "Hindu nationalism".

"Reckless labeling of Hindus as "Hindutva," "far-right" or "nationalist" has always been about ostracizing Hindus speaking out," Hindu American Foundation (HAF) had said on Friday (3 March).

However, DFRlab's response doesn't seem to placate the Hindu advocacy groups, with HAF questioning why the list of Hindu names was not authenticated by the organisation before submitting it to Twitter as suspect.

Further, the HAF has questioned as to why the DFRLab didn't announce to the public or Twitter, if the organisation's "due diligence" revealed fraud at The Wire.

"Hindus already face hate groups seeking FBI/CIA surveillance of their temples and charities and targeting over caste, diet and festivals," HAF said.

"Even if DFRLab was an unwitting part of this saga, their partnering with an openly biased outlet like The Wire raises serious red flags," it added.

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