DHAKA, Bangladesh - Hundreds of articles purportedly written by independent experts praising Bangladeshi government policies have appeared in national and international media. Still, according to an AFP investigation, the authors have questionable credentials fake photos, and may not even exist.
Commentators say it is evidence of a sustained disinformation campaign by unknown actors ahead of elections scheduled for the end of January. Still, it appears to benefit Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government.
Such articles have appeared in the Chinese state news agency Xinhua, leading Asian media, and have been cited in the South Asia Brief of the Washington-based Foreign Policy magazine.
Rights groups and foreign powers, including the United States, have long expressed concern about Hasina's government's efforts to silence critics and crush political dissent.
According to AFP, names from a network of so-called experts regularly publish op-ed pieces, with some falsely posing as academics from leading global universities, others using stolen headshot photos, and still others making up quotes from real analysts.
"It's a well-coordinated influence operation," says A al-Mamun, a journalism professor at Bangladesh's Rajshahi University. "These articles primarily promote narratives favorable to the current Bangladesh government."
When Bangladesh's foreign ministry called for "good columnists" to counter negative "propaganda," a flood of articles appeared online around September 2022.
AFP sent multiple requests for comment to Bangladesh's foreign and information ministries but received no response. Foreign Minister A K Abdul Momen told AFP that he did "not have enough time" to comment.
AFP examined over 700 articles published in at least 60 domestic and international news sites with bylines attributed to 35 different names, all of which were published for the first time online last year.
The articles overwhelmingly support Dhaka-pushed narratives, with some appearing on Bangladesh government websites.
Many are staunchly pro-Beijing and harshly critical of Washington, which has repeatedly warned Dhaka about the importance of free and fair elections.
While it was impossible to determine whether the 35 names investigated by AFP were genuine, there was no online presence other than their articles, no visible social media profile, and no research papers published in academic journals.
At least 17 of the 35 claimed affiliations with major Western and Asian universities, but AFP's digital verification reporters discovered no such records.
Eight major universities confirmed they had never heard of nine alleged writers working for them, including the University of Delaware in the United States, the University of Toronto in Canada, the University of Lucerne in Switzerland, and the National University of Singapore.
"We checked our school records and did not find his name on our rolls," India's Jawaharlal Nehru University said of a suspected writer.
Eight of the reported columnists' headshot photos belong to others, including a famous fashion influencer on Indian social media.
AFP also discovered instances of the same article being published under different names in English and Bengali.
After reading their academic backgrounds and seeing them published elsewhere, newspaper editors said they printed the articles in good faith.
"We trusted the credentials," said Mubin S Khan, feature editor of the Business Standard in Dhaka.
Nurul Kabir, the editor of Bangladesh's daily New Age, said he received a slew of op-ed pitches in early 2023, "mostly on topics like Bangladesh's relations with India, China, and the United States."
He later stopped publishing them, fearing they were "mercenary writers" pushed by "vested" interests but was surprised to discover they were fictitious.