The Government of Maldives has been trying its best to denounce the spread of fake information that’s been doing rounds in the news lately. It’s not the first time that some people are trying to divide Maldivians by spreading false information on social media. While we move forward for the upcoming Presidential elections in 2023 , once again propagandists have started picking up their pace. The pattern seemed quite similar to how things went down in the past — when faux news articles ran the highest in the country to create a certain opinionated notion in the public. Especially when important political events cornered the calendar.
A jog down the memory lane:
Ahead of the elections scheduled in Sept of 2018, there were concerns of how certain websites carried out propaganda against the opposition in Maldives. These eerie speculations were not without a spine, because the misuse of media to shape public’s opinion was visible from the time Maldives fell under the state of emergency in early Feb of 2018.
Despite the nation being in chaos under Yameen’s rule, websites such as the Maldives Wire ran news titled, “Life is Normal Here on the Sunny Side of Life”. This attempt by the authors of the site to portray the nation to be in a peaceful state regardless the 45-day imposed state of emergency, was an effort to divert attention from the horrific state of affairs in the country.
Web of lies spun to cradle the world: The article talked about how citizens enjoyed their normal daily lives and everyday functioning of the small island nation were at its best. They tried to collude facts and made it seem like the opposition were staging a scenario to show Maldives under a panicked and distressed light. Much to people’s dismay, the situation in Maldives became a worldly concern as Yameen issued a decree suspending several fundamental rights and used police to carry out raids without warrants. Misusing his state of power, he jailed two Supreme Court judges, former prosecutor general and a former police commissioner. Many prominent news websites and broadcasting stations were also attacked or shutdown due to lack of security. The UN even went ahead to call his actions as an all-out assault on democracy.
Chains of networks involved: Even though there were much bigger issues that needed addressing in the nation, a chain of websites were busy trying to spread misinformation, strategically all similar in pattern and the motive being to show incompetence of the opposition MDP-led. A rough study in the working of these websites were undertaken using DNS analytics. It revealed the existence of nexus of anti-establishment websites being run in Maldives.
WHAT IS DNS Analytics?
DNS Analytics comprises the various methods of conducting surveillance of DNS traffic within a network. These analytics determine who is querying for what information, how often and from what location – essentially what domains are checked and the numbers of queries over various time scales.
The research concluded by the study revealed that many of these websites were relatively new. Some that were formed a year before the Presidential election took place and remained inactive after that and some that were formed after Solih and his government came to power, followed by a series of scrutinizing content regarding his ways of governing.
This cluster of networks included websites that were news based, tourism based and blogs.
themaldivesreport.com: The most influential amongst these websites was themaldivesreport.com, that became active in 2018, right after Solih took in-charge of his office. The site was short-lived as it became inactive after the parliamentary elections in 2019.
Taking a closer look at the type of content that ran in this website, it could be seen that it was trying to defame President Solih and his government with its misleading titles and headlines, stating distorted facts and creating fears in the hearts of the public by attacking government on its foreign policies with its neighbors.
Though there are series of articles that is very questionable, their focus on one report stating how the government was going to sell the island nation to India, which will turn it into a military camp was very baseless and unaccounted for as official sources in the Indian government clarified that it had made no request to build any kind of military facility in return for any kind of financial assistance.
Through DNS analytics it was found out that themaldivesreport.com shared the same AdSense number— ca-pub-6955009918722743 — with many different news websites and blogs that were also engaged in spreading misleading, factually incorrect information.
AdSense Number: The AdSense code is the name of the HTML snippet you put on your site to get auto ads and a range of other AdSense features. It is unique to every website but it often so happens that when same group/person is running different websites, they tend to use the same AdSense code.
Chart: Lists of names of the websites and the people behind it.
Maldives Wire: Created in Jan 2018 and has been inactive since Oct 2018. The timeline from when it was created till the time it stopped being active, aligns with when bells of elections rung the highest in Maldives. Their activity included creating doubts and listing demerits in MDP, suggesting that they are in support with Indian military to launch a coup against the then incumbent government.
The story made rounds when the Maldives Army surrounded the Island’s parliament in 2018 after the Supreme Court’s verdict on the immediate release of jailed political leaders.
While the news story did not have any substantial evidence to back its claim, it instigated Chinese interests at play.
China’s interest are not just reflective on what’s written in the stories of the website but also in the writers/contributors of the websites.
Midhuam Saud: He is the Vice-President of the Maldives-China Trade and Cultural Organization. (MCTCO).The MCTCO is a non-profit organization based in Male and was inaugurated in 2016. Sauds’s contribution towards the website, maldiveswire.com has been very active. He is not only a very vocal and vivid supporter of China but also shares close ties with Yameen and his ministers.
Pic: Midhuam Saud with former President Abdul Gayoom Yameen during MCTCO inaugration
Through his social media posts, it can be seen that he is very loyal and praises China and its capacity to provide loans to other countries whenever possible.
Maaldif.com: Another network sharing the same AdSense number as the above mentioned two websites is Maaldif.com. It is a website in Arabic that promotes Maldives as a tourist destination in the Arab world.
The website may look like any other tourism website but it has direct links to the anti-establishment created within Maldives. Dr. Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed is the chairman and Ali Ahsan is the director. Both of them shares very questionable history and their doubts and displeasure towards the opposition government has been publicly expressed many times.
Dr. Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed: Saeed was Maldives’ former Islamic Affairs Minister who had gone into self-exile after 2018 elections. He was running mate of Abdulla Yameen in the presidential elections, but left PPM and relocated overseas to work for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) following the defeat in the elections. He rejoined the political arena as Progressive Party Of Maldives(PPM) and People’s National Congress(PNC) coalition as advisor after returning from his exile in 2020.
He was also infamously popular in news, speculating his statement over the murder of religious scholar and former Ungoofaru MP, Dr. Afrasheem Ali. The Presidential Commission on Investigation of Murders and Enforced Disappearances reports revealed inconsistency between Dr Shaheem’s statement regarding a television programme that Dr Afrasheem was scheduled to appear on the night he was killed and a number of text messages exchanged between the two.
However, all accusations were denied by Saeed stating that his statement was truthful.
Dr. Saeed also has connections with Ali Ahsan who is considered by many as one of the masterminds behind the coup carried out in Maldives on Feb 2012. Ali was arrested for creating fear in the hearts of the people by issuing death threats online and Saeed, as his lawyer, facilitated his release.
Ali Ahsan: Ali Ahsan is the director of Maaldif.com who is also a journalist and a web designer. He is the owner of Islamic Fundamentalist online news portal Dhiislam.com. A controversial personality known for his role in the 2012 coup when Mohamed Nasheed was arrested and made to resign from the post of President.
His website also runs anti-government and pro-Islamic, radical content, which played a significant role in building religious intolerance in the country.
Ahsan called for a mass protest through his website and gave open warning, that anyone going against the doctrine of Islam would not be spared. He was later arrested on grounds for spreading death threats online.
PIC: Disturbing and strong words used by Ahsan in his social handle to demean the opposition
His close association with radical groups is visible from his posts. This reflects that the 2012 coup carried out was a pre-planned strategy to overthrow the government, especially by using religious angle.
Siru Arts: Another website that has gone inactive after creating very disputable content and rift in the hearts of the people, shares the same AdSense number as the rest of the websites mentioned above.
It uses graphic illustration by making posters to spread misinformation and portrays the government as anti-Islam.
It was also found out that most of their content were plagiarized from different sites, so their credibility for the websites were zero to none, except for the parts where they had to spread hate and misinformation through fake news.
Yameen’s government foresaw the outcome-
Seeing the similar pattern in the working of these networks, it can only be concluded that some external foreign force is funding them to collude the minds of the public by establishing anti-sediments against the opposition led government.
Their timeline of being active to their time of complete disappearance from the public domain, only adds to the weightage of this assumption. This propaganda run by the mentioned networks under one big umbrella in the pretext to show Solih’s incompetence to run the nation was because there were fears of Yameen losing the presidential election and they were trying every possible outcome to prevent this from happening.
During his tenure, there were many violations to the rights exercised by the public. Citizens wanted a change in the political scenario. This change in the people’s heart must have been noticed by the running government and such drastic measures were taken, misusing the 4th estate of the country.
After losing the elections, an investigation over the number of deals sealed during his tenure was carried out. In the year 2019, Abdulla Yameen was sentenced to five years in prison for money laundering but due to health related issues, his jail term was shifted to house arrest. As of 1st Dec 2021, Yameen has been released after winning an appeal for his case, allowing him to now fully make a return in politics.
With these recent developments in Maldives, it is not long before we see a chain of websites birthing again and spreading malign information, at least that can be anticipated.
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