Social media was once again a major tool for political parties to reach out to the public
indh has successfully concluded the highly anticipated second phase of local government elections. The Pakistan Peoples Party and Jamaat-i-Islami have emerged victorious, with Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf coming in third, showing a significant presence in the province’s grassroots level governance structures for the first time. Social media was once again a major tool for political parties to reach out to the public and generate real-life support on polling day.
Twitter and Facebook have a history of being used as influential platforms for running campaigns during major political events worldwide. This is due to the fact that they enable netizens to compete with their opponents’ views and propagate narratives quickly, efficiently and in a cost effective way. It is not always a fair game.
In Pakistan, it would be ironic to claim that any political or religious group is unaware of the influence of social media and the methods used to mobilise netizens online and convert online support into real-life action. However, most ordinary social media users, even institutions like the Election Commission of Pakistan, may not be aware of the tactics employed by political parties and religious groups that may undermine democratic processes. These may include, but are not limited to, the use of influence operations, disinformation, hate speech, and in some cases, coordinated inauthentic behaviour. The term propaganda is, in modern times, being redefined to describe what is happening in developing countries like Pakistan.
Recent research by Bytes for All Pakistan, a digital rights organisation, has established that the online space in South Asia is plagued with disinformation and influence operations. According to their data, out of 69 in-depth case studies that were mapped out in Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka on elections, human rights, public health, national security and socio-economic development themes, at least 61 percent were diagnosed as disinformation, 22 percent as influence operations and 16 percent as misinformation.
The Sindh local government elections have also witnessed several trends, particularly on Twitter, where politico-religious groups have been found guilty of perpetuating hatred to mobilise their vote bank. Social media scraping around these campaigns presents a strong likelihood of bot activity when it comes to manipulating traffic and creating distortion in public political narratives around the democratic activity. For example, the trend on Twitter #Karachi_TLP_Ka, which surfaced in Pakistani Twitter spaces two days after the Sindh High Court’s dismissal of Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s plea regarding delimitations in Karachi, was thoughtfully launched at a time; i.e. 8:06 pm, when usage is dropping off on Twitter, and it is easier for a bunch of coordinated people to crawl in with their campaign in the top trending list. Within no time, the hashtag was ranking among top trends in Pakistan. It contained inflammatory content, including memes and tweets, provoking people in the name of a popular religious narrative and labeling some political parties’ leaders as traitors and anti-Pakistan.
At least 61 percent of online campaigns were diagnosed as disinformation, 22 percent as influence operations and 16 percent as misinformation.
From the time it was launched until the end of polling day, the trend generated over 5,140 tweets and 58,597 retweets. In the first 12 hours, its reach was recorded at 492,871 with 691,352 impressions, which is considered high. However, the campaign’s engagement map shows at least 40 nodes with a strong likelihood and 55 nodes with a moderate likelihood of bot activity. In total, 126 out of 268 nodes were potentially backed by bots. Additionally, at least one clear coordinated inauthentic-behaviour node was traced in this trend that was also trying to manipulate and/ or amplify the hate narrative around LG elections.
It is important to note that bots are not real accounts. These are created and managed through software with the intention of manipulating social media traffic and amplifying tweets and content in bulk. It is also important to understand that bot activity works in conjunction with human intervention, meaning that humans train bots to exhibit certain behaviour on social media. The technical term for this is machine learning.
The analysis of the content produced and shared indicates that several accounts tweeting on the #Karachi_TLP_Ka hashtag have been promoting hate against rival political parties, including the PPP, the PTI and the JI. Additionally, they have been depicting past incidents related to blasphemy in Pakistan, such as violent protests against France. Dehumanizing behavior can also be observed in this campaign, as influencers have used offensive language to portray political leaders as less than human. Some of the conversations include below-the-belt attacks and abusive language directed at supporters of various political parties. Other memes have drawn parallels with the Turkish TV series Ertugrul, conveying messages such as “no pardon for the cruel and traitors” if their party wins the election race.
Such targeting campaigns were not limited to one political or religious group during the current elections. Rather, almost every other party was using similar tactics. Fortunately, these campaigns were not successful in manipulating or causing violent incidents on the ground during the elections. However, they are clear violations of the laws of the land.
The boundary between free speech and dangerous speech is indistinct. Over the past decade, intolerance on social media has led to unfortunate incidents like killing of citizens belonging to the Ahmadiyya community and other vulnerable groups. With upcoming general elections, mainstream political parties are already devising their communication strategies for reaching the public through social media. Some of them have more advanced skills and knowledge of social media tools. If such coordinated inauthentic behaviours, disinformation campaigns and influence operations remain unchecked, they may not only be intrusive and interfere with the democratic process, but could also incite violence and vigilante attacks.
Several solutions can help prevent untoward situations on the ground, such as election violence, sectarianism, and “mob justice.” One possible solution would be to initiate a national dialogue led by the Election Commission of Pakistan with all stakeholders, particularly political parties. The one-point agenda should be to come up with a consensus policy under election laws that discourages the use of hate narratives and coordinated inauthentic behaviours by politico-religious groups as tools for election campaigning. Such a policy would not only help mitigate election violence but also limit the spill-over of disinformation implications for future smooth, free and transparent elections in the country.
The writer is a journalist and a digital rights activist. He can be reached at Twitter: @advertbalcha