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Pakistan

November 3, 2019

How Azadi March has spawned a dirty battle of narratives on social media

Pakistan

Sun, Nov 03, 2019
JUI-F members recieving social media training in Karachi. Photo by Zia-ur-Rehman

Parallel to our TV screens there’s another battle going on.

The ongoing Azadi March led by Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) Ameer Maulana Fazlur Rehman against Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government has triggered a social media war between the two sides.

Prominent leaders of major political parties and even ministers are active on social media amid tense environment in the federal capital. The official social media channels of major parties, too, are fully engaged in this battle of narratives in the cyber space.

Weeks before the planned anti-government march, the JUI-F had started training its workers on how to use Twitter and Facebook effectively, according to a report in this paper.

Sami Swati, JUI-F’s Sindh leader had told The News that the party had made a strategy to strengthen its social media presence at the national, provincial, divisional, district and even neighborhood levels.

The JUI-F leaders are of the view that they are being restricted on mainstream media, and blamed the ruling party for the blackout. A few weeks before the Azadi March, a list of instructions was spread online to create controversy about the objectives of the protest rally, which was strongly rejected by the JUI-F, which blamed the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf for it.

Since the launch of march from Karachi on October 27, the social media trends have been dominated by the political sloganeering of the opposition and ruling parties.

Social media platforms have become a powerful tool. This is nothing new and not confined to Pakistan. PM Imran Khan is one of the most followed leaders on social media and the PTI is among the most active political parties in the cyberspace.

Joint strategy

While all the major opposition parties are battling hard to claim online space during the Azadi March, the PML-N is going extra mile in helping the JUI-F build their strength.

Zia ur Rehman, who first reported about JUI-F’s online strategy, said the PML-N has helped the JUI-F social media team learn the techniques of disseminating news in case of a media blackout.

When asked to comment on how far the religious party has been successful in its strategy, Rehman said that so far they have been effectively pursuing their agenda in digital space.

Talking to The News, PML-N social media team lead Atif Rauf confirmed that they are coordinating with JUI-F and Pakistan Peoples Party.

Twitter, in particular, has become a vital tool in political campaigning in Pakistan. The microblogging site may only have a fraction of users from Pakistan when compared to Facebook, but it is far more influential, and content from Twitter makes its way to the mainstream media regularly.

Disinformation

Despite strict laws being implemented in the country, there’s enough misinformation being spread online, so much so that it sometimes becomes ectremely difficult to separate the truth from lies — a concern shared by Asad Beyg, the founder of Media Matters for Democracy (MMFD), a media literacy organisation.

Twitter remains extremely easy to manipulate, and research conducted by the MMFD has uncovered and documented various evidences of paid social media networks aka bots propagating political content often rife with dis/misinformation.

Similar activity on Twitter was observed during the JUI-F's Azadi March, he said, adding that multiple instances were identified of dis/misinformation targeting various political personalities and even journalists.

“One specific example is that of a viral image of Hamid Mir on Azadi March's container. The image was shared with all sorts of false accusations, where in reality Hamid Mir was there to ensure access of women journalists to cover the congregation,” Beyg said.