AN investigation by The Wirefor over two years into the workings of a highly sophisticated app, ‘Tek Fog’, has revealed shocking details about how it was “used by online operatives to hijack major social media and encrypted messaging platforms and amplify right-wing propaganda to a domestic audience.”
The investigative report uncovered a vast operation with alleged links to Bharatiya Janta Party’s (BJP) IT Cell and its youth wing, Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM). It also points towards “the existence of a group of public and private actors working together to subvert public discourse in the world’s largest democracy by driving inauthentic trends and hijacking conversations across almost all major social media platforms.”
The extent of the operation is genuinely shocking. While, in the past, various investigations have looked at BJP IT Cell’s usage of Google Docs and other similar platforms for propaganda purposes on Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, etc., this report highlights how operators utilise ‘Tek Fog’ to not only disseminate fake information but also to create fake accounts, generate auto-retweets and auto-shares to make particular extremist narratives and political campaigns appear more popular than they are.
One alarming feature offered by the app “is its ability to allow individual operatives to hijack ‘inactive’ WhatsApp accounts of private citizens and use their phone number to message their ‘frequently contacted’ or ‘all contacts’, using a technique resembling ‘token theft’.” This feature was tested by the authors of the report using their source. The addition of private citizens into the database used for online harassment and trolling purposes makes it quite dangerous and striking.
Two private companies, namely Persistent Systems and Mohalla Tech Pvt. Ltd., have been named in the report with links to the whole operation. Unsurprisingly, one of the companies has been favoured by the central government in the recent past with contracts.
In July 2018, Persistent Systems, a technology service company, was chosen by India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare “to build a digital data hub that would record, store and process health information across ten Indian states.” Mohalla Tech Pvt. Ltd. is the company behind the app Sharechat. As per the report, the app has been used “to test and curate fake news, political propaganda and hate speech before automating it to other popular social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp.”
“Given the operation’s ideological nature, the true motive behind Persistent Systems and Mohalla Tech Pvt. Ltd. involvement in the BJP’s organised social media manipulation campaign remains opaque. What is clear, however, is that the potential scale, sophistication and pervasive nature of the Tek Fog operation provide unprecedented evidence of private actors engaging in the application of dubious digital practices – typically seen in totalitarian and closed societies…,” the report said.
The online operators who work with the app to trend political campaigns favourable to BJP are, as per the source, employed by Persistent Systems as ‘social media incharges’. The company’s corporate office is based out of Nagpur, India. To work with the Tek Fog app, the operators are required to collaborate with Sharechat as it is available in multiple Indian languages and has a database of users, categorised on the basis of gender, region, caste, etc.
Devang Dave, the former National Social Media and IT Head of BJYM and the current election manager for the BJP in Maharashtra, has been named by the source as their immediate supervisor. When The Wire contacted Dave, he denied the claims.