BJP accused of using App Tek Fog to target and intimidate critics
For much of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nearly eight years in power, relations between social media platforms, journalists and India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have been fractious and vitriolic, and almost always murky. Now we can begin to understand why.
A browser-based application has allegedly been used by the BJP to infiltrate social media platforms to spread misinformation, target female journalists and target anyone it considers an adversary. A report published last week by The Wire, an independent Indian news publication, documented the mechanics and strategy behind the computer program, known as Tek Fog, according to a whistleblower claiming to be a disgruntled employee of the computer cell of the ruling party. It’s unclear when the system came into existence, but The Wire has been investigating claims made by the unidentified source for two years.
Opposition parties have denounced the app as a national security threat and called on parliament to investigate it, while Modi has remained silent on the revelations. His party did not respond to an email seeking comment. The Wire article named Devang Dave, a former BJP youth wing social media manager, as Tek Fog’s agent supervisor. Following the exposure, Dave published an email to The Wire in which he denied that the party had ever used – or known of – a secret app to manipulate public opinion.
The BJP, the best-funded of all Indian political parties, was an early adopter of information technology. He harnessed the power of databases and his well-equipped IT cell to target voters. But misogynistic and abusive enforcement intended to instill fear among journalists and critics goes beyond acceptable political marketing. Indeed, it would be a “travesty of all democratic standards and in violation of the law”, as the Editors Guild of India said in a statement.
For some of the journalists who have been attacked, the revelations are a vindication, even a relief. “I am happy to know that it is not really a human being who lights up my phone daily with disgusting and sexually colored abuse, but bots,” says New Delhi-based investigative journalist Swati Chaturvedi. “Yet what message does it send about our democracy when private citizens are systematically attacked by a hate call center?” Chaturvedi has been the target of harassment since publishing his 2016 book, “I Am A Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army.”
The use of bots to distort public opinion is reminiscent of what Russian agents did on Facebook before the US presidential election.
Tek Fog is much more powerful. From a technical perspective, the scope and effectiveness of this new software are both impressive and deeply disturbing. According to the report, users of the platform could exploit and manipulate trending features on Twitter and Facebook – automatically sharing or retweeting posts and targeting existing hashtags – to commandeer the narrative on the most popular social media services. used in India. This simple tactic could then amplify the propaganda, in order to make a particular idea or opinion appear more popular than it actually was, or to shout opposing points of view.
More alarming is Tek Fog’s ability to access contact lists of inactive accounts on Meta Platforms Inc.’s WhatsApp service to broadcast messages and steal personal information. This allowed agents to be much more specific in their messages, while creating a database of future targets. The result was brutal. Suspected opponents, including female journalists, were then harassed and stalked on various social media platforms in an attempt to scare them into silence.
The fact that such a ruthless campaign could be carried out so effectively may be partly explained by the strategic decision of social media companies to make their products accessible via external connections called application programming interfaces or APIs. This feature is apparently designed for convenience – you can easily tweet a chosen article directly from a news outlet’s website without going to twitter.com.
Internet companies love it. This convenient access ensures more users, greater engagement, and an increasing amount of data that they can then leverage to sell more targeted ads. But there is a flip side to APIs. As The Wire pointed out, Tek Fog made it easy for users to create temporary email addresses and bypass authentication systems – agents could indeed hack into WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Telegram.
And they did. In a follow-up article, The Wire explained how Tek Fog exploited vulnerabilities in these APIs to gain unprecedented levels of access to social media platforms. Additionally, online operators deployed well-known and sophisticated hacking techniques to create fake news that looked like real articles written by the original legitimate authors, with realistic URLs.
With such features at their fingertips, the technical prowess of the world’s most powerful internet companies – from user-friendly apps to efficient data-processing algorithms – could be harnessed by anyone standing in the way of disinformation campaigns that demonize minorities. , discredit opposition policies and stigmatize anyone who opposes government policies as anti-national. Conscientious journalists, lucid citizens and millions of voters don’t stand a chance.
Certain groups are particularly at risk. Indian police recently arrested four suspects, all students, for scraping the social media profiles of Muslim women – activists, journalists, actresses and politicians – and putting them up for sale through an app on GitHub, the development platform open source software owned by Microsoft. .
In contrast, Tek Fog is a military-grade PSYOP – psychological operations – weapon. A capability like this was until now only available to state actors for use against enemy populations, said Anand Venkatnarayanan, an Indian internet security researcher and co-author of a 2021 book on the war. some information. “Putting such a weapon into the hands of non-state actors affiliated with a political party vying for the space of citizens’ minds in a democracy has never been done before.
It is an effective tool for drowning out questioning voices. Rohini Singh, another New Delhi-based journalist who regularly faces online harassment, worries about the future of independent journalism in India, especially as a woman. “When you wake up with 10,000 abuse in your social media mentions, it affects you,” Singh said. “We used to have to worry about the right story. Now we have to worry about rape threats, invasion of our privacy and relentless slander. None of us signed up for that. The journalism is not a crime.”
Governments might be able to tackle the misinformation seeping onto the internet, if they tried. But it is increasingly clear that they cannot be counted on to do so. This is why social media platforms need to take the lead, and the first step will be to crack down on external access via APIs. From there, tech companies need to implement better auditing systems in order to have greater clarity on who is using their platforms and how.
With the Internet now such an important tool in modern society, it is incumbent on the companies that operate it to take back control of the technologies they have built. Democracy depends on it.
(Tim Culpan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. He previously covered technology for Bloomberg News.)
(Andy Mukherjee is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies and financial services. He was previously a columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He has also worked for the Straits Times, ET NOW and Bloomberg News.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV assumes no responsibility or liability for them.
(Except for the title, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)