Pro-Khalistan supporters use bots to amplify violence

Jul 20, 2023 02:01 PM IST

The bot activity first came to the fore in summer last year as the series of desecrations of Hindu temples & statues of Mahatma Gandhi occurred in the country.

From propagating conspiracy theories to targeting India’s senior-most diplomats in Canada and its missions in the country, pro-Khalistan bot activity has escalated in recent times on social media.

Two Khalistan supporters were arrested after clashes broke out in rallies outside Indian mission in Toronto. (AFP)(HT_PRINT)
Two Khalistan supporters were arrested after clashes broke out in rallies outside Indian mission in Toronto. (AFP)(HT_PRINT)

That bot activity first came to the fore in summer last year as the series of desecrations of Hindu temples and busts and statues of Mahatma Gandhi occurred in the country. As Hindustan Times reported at the time, many of the handles involved appeared to be linked to Pakistan and were generated days before swamping Twitter with propaganda. Those events usually featured pro-Khalistan slogans and videos of the vandalism were tweeted out simultaneously.

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That activity has become even more pronounced this year: First during the manhunt for Waris Punjab De leader Amritpal Singh in India, following the murder of Sikhs for Justice’s principal figure in British Columbia Hardeep Singh Nijjar in the parking lot of a gurdwara in Surrey on June 18.

This activity may be part of a larger pattern as suggested by a report released by the Princeton, New Jersey-based Network Contagion Research Institute or NCRI.

Responding to queries about the recent spurt of activity, NCRI’s chief operating officer Jack Donohue said their report “confirms that a subset of these accounts, roughly 20%, were self-identified Pakistani accounts based on user descriptions and user reported locations.”

“The involvement of these self-identified Pakistani that are “bot-like” (accounts exhibiting coordinated inauthentic activity) suggests not just bot-like activity but raises the possibility of a broader effort for covert influence. The operation of these accounts align with Pakistani strategic interests, suggesting the possibility of state-involved influence,” he added.

The bots amplified the infamous ‘Kill India’ posters targeting senior diplomats not just in Canada, but also the United States, United Kingdom and Australia. They propagated the SFJ allegation that India was behind the “assassination” of Nijjar, while the Integrated Homicide Investigation Team or IHIT has yet to complete its investigation. In fact, on July 4, a report from the agency Canadian Press stated that “police say they have found no link to India in their investigation.”

In fact, following a funeral ceremony for Nijjar late last month, the bots posted that an ‘Indian spy’ had been arrested at the venue. However, on June 27, the Surrey detachment of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police or RCMP said, in response to emailed queries, “We are aware of information circulating on social media and want to clarify that no one was arrested at the Gurdwara on Sunday.”

The bots recently targeted India’s diplomats and amplified protests outside its missions in Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver on July 8. Thereafter, they have pushed the agenda of the missions being besieged on August 15, while targeting Canadian journalists who have reported on Khalistani activity in Canada, veteran mediaperson Terry Milewski and this correspondent.

Their research focused on the phenomenon of the desecration,.Donohue, a former Chief of Strategic Initiatives at the New York Police Department, said the “narratives amplified from this network appears to precede real-world unrest and incidents (vandalism) against Hindu houses of worship.”

“As online activity within the network grows in intensity, frequency and negative sentiment and its persistence in the face of Twitter’s limited moderation efforts raises concerns,” he added.

The bots also push conspiracy theories, like that of India being responsible for the bombing of the Air India flight 182, the Kanishka, on June 23, 1985. The reality is that multiple Canadian inquiries have shown it was carried out by Khalistanis, and Talwinder Singh Parmar, then based in Burnaby, British Columbia, being among the leaders of the plot.

The report, released on April 11, noted, “NCRI assesses that attacks against both Hindu houses of worship and Indian government buildings are likely to come under direct threat internationally, which may merit a heightened defensive posture by law enforcement officials and social media platform trust and safety teams; this assessment is supported by the recent escalation of unrest in Punjab.”

Among its major findings was that “Cyber-social Khalistani extremist rhetoric is growing in intensity and frequently amplifies calls for attacks and celebrates vandalism against Hindu houses of worship and Indian government buildings.”

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    Anirudh Bhattacharya is a Toronto-based commentator on North American issues, and an author. He has also worked as a journalist in New Delhi and New York spanning print, television and digital media. He tweets as @anirudhb.

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