Pakistani users and bots had a hand in trending #GoBackModi on Twitter

Under Twitter attack.
Under Twitter attack.
Image: Reuters/ India's Press Information Bureau
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India’s neighbour may be taking Twitter warfare pretty seriously.

When Indian prime minister Narendra Modi was holding an “informal summit” with Chinese president Xi Jinping in Chennai on Oct. 11, over 12,000 tweets under the #GobackModi hashtag originated from Pakistan, fact-checking firm Logically AI found. The company, which uses both human and artificial intelligence, traced this activity using network analysis.

Total engagement—likes and retweets—under this trending hashtag, which came from that country surpassed 80,000. These include accounts actively engaging with authentic tweets under the hashtag to boost them. After all, Twitter trends are region-specific so Indian tweets on the issue need to proliferate for impact.

“The primary objective to spread misinformation and disinformation through these accounts is to disturb the civil discourse,” said Lyric Jain, founder and promoter of Logically.

Using social media to churn out fake news was exploited during the Brexit debate as well as the 2016 US presidential election. Even in India, this nefarious activity surfaced in the first half of this year, during the Lok Sabha elections, the 23-year old Cambridge, MIT, Harvard graduate said. Logically had busted fake news accounts from China and Pakistan then.

Jain is convinced that, like in the past, there has been a concerted, targeted effort this time, too.

Locking the target

The hashtag isn’t brand new. It trended in January, when Modi went to lay the foundation for the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Madurai. A few weeks later, when Modi came to Tiruppur, it trended again. In March, when Modi was visiting Kanyakumari to launch projects, it resurfaced.

However, its recent revival seems planned. A lot of the activity Logically saw came from handles created on or after Sept. 30—nearly 34% of them—suggesting that they were created solely for this purpose.

There were a total of 1,273 accounts that originated from Pakistan. Out of them, majority (834) were bots. These accounts were identified because they are either completely automated or they use some script to do a lot of retweets and so on.

Then, some of the human run accounts from Pakistan, are posing as Indian users belonging to Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, and Haryana. Logically found out that self-declared location of these accounts and the geolocation of each tweet were irregular and had discrepancies.

This location deception is “often done a lot to gain other users’ trust,” Jain, founder and promoter at Logically, told Quartz. “A lot of these bots end up being followed by (a) lot of authentic users. And if you’re in a similar area, you might expect similar world views.”

However, this instance, unlike during election season, is a little out of the ordinary.

“Usually, this kind of activity from Pakistan stems when there are issues that concern Pakistan, such as Kashmir. Sometimes, religion also comes into play,” Jain said, adding that this time “maybe India’s relations with China could have a potential impact on China-Pakistani ties.”