Khalistani movement in Punjab using Twitter to spread anti-India hate speech

SAN FRANCISCO — Amid the growing conflict between the Indian government and followers of the Sikh religion, some supporters of a separatist movement are using automated Twitter accounts to promote acts of vandalism and sometimes violence around the world.

Some sponsors of the Khalistani movement are using multiple networks of linked accounts to release videos and calls to action simultaneously, before Twitter’s thin security staff can respond.

They are also using evasive tactics, such as deleting tweets afterwards, and avoiding suspensions by celebrating the planting of a “device” instead of a bomb and calling for the “political death” of Indian leaders, according to an investigation by the Network Contagion Research Institute. .

The bursts of activity come as Indian officials launch a hunt for separatist leader Amritpal Singh and protesters vandalized Indian consulates in San Francisco and around the world and assaulted Indian officials and journalists in America.

The campaign shows that even as it tries to cut down bots that promote violence, Twitter remains fertile ground for sowing discontent and real action.

In the Indian state of Punjab, the separatist movement has gained significant support among a Sikh farming population that has seen agricultural prices fall and jobs evaporate. A heroin epidemic, locals say, is sweeping the state.

Singh shot from obscurity to prominence last year by touring the Punjab countryside, flanked by heavily armed men, to deliver fiery speeches condemning drug use and calling for a separate homeland.

India recently cut off Punjab’s internet access.

Many of the tweets captured by the NCRI urge protesters to rally or take unspecified direct action against these power plants, railways and other strategic targets in India, as well as facilities abroad. A widely shared video credited an expatriate Sikh group, Sikhs for Justice, with harmful a railway

Sikhs for Justice did not return a call seeking comment.

NCRI found 359 accounts active in the campaign since January. They often worked in networks of 20 to 50 accounts to promote messages or videos, many with the founder of US-based Sikhs for Justice, which is banned in India. Each account would retweet the same thing dozens of times, tagging different journalists and other public figures to increase visibility.

“When you look at the escalation and the intensity of the rhetoric, and how that precedes events that take place in the real world that result in vandalism or violence, that’s where the concern is,” said Jack Donohue, chief operating officer of the NCRI and former head of cyber intelligence for the New York Police Department.

Donohue said he would send an NCRI report first shared with The Washington Post to local law enforcement in cities with likely targets.

The investigation also provides strength for those who claim that the Khalistanis are receiving significant support from the government of Pakistan, India’s neighbor and strategic rival.

About 20 percent of the accounts identified as part of Twitter’s networks claim to be located in Pakistan. And some of them have tweeted that Sikhs should thank Pakistan or support one of the main Pakistani political parties, the report said.

Attempts to reach some of the accounts considered by NCRI to be at the center of the efforts were unsuccessful.

“The involvement of a self-identified Pakistani network of SFJ supporters therefore suggests not only bot-like activity, but raises the possibility of a broader effort at covert influence,” the NCRI wrote . “For this network of self-identified Pakistani accounts to amplify attacks on Hindu houses of worship, stir up terror and attack Indian consulates, aligns well with Pakistan’s strategic interests.”

This, however, is far from proof and could be misdirection. Indian officials have an incentive to point out that foreign powers are behind the internal unrest to discredit activists and protesters. Pakistan’s embassy in Washington did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Since Elon Musk bought Twitter in October and forced out more than half of the company’s staff, researchers and activists have detected a rise in various forms of hate speech, a reform of many banned users previously to spread lies and the growing connections between online and real campaigns. – Global confrontations.

In this case, Twitter has acted against the Khalistani campaign, suspending accounts, including one that referred to the widespread use of hand grenades against enemies, the NCRI said. A research showed that it had restricted others. But the people behind the accounts have gone above and beyond Twitter, for example returning with slightly altered names.

Twitter’s head of trust and security did not respond to an email. The company’s press department responded with an emoji.

The US State Department declined to add to a spokesman’s March 28 criticism of the US attacks.

Gerry Shih in New Delhi contributed to this report.

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