Controlling dissent

February 9, 2020

Governments have been found involved in hiring troll armies to drown out dissenting voices

There is no denying that the narrative built online widely affects political opinions offline. The Russian meddling in the 2016 US elections suggests that governments fully recognise the influence of social media on offline political opinions of their voters and are willing to engage in engineering online spaces to achieve the desired results.

Social media was once seen as a medium used to reach wider audiences, bypassing the heavy censorship on mainstream media. However, in recent times, critics online bear the brunt of heavy regulation used to silence them. Once seen as spaces to freely exercise political expression, these platforms are now seen as toxic spaces where dissidents experience hate and anger in response to criticism of state policies. These critics face egregious online harassment that gets as serious as physical threats. If one happens to be a female critic, these extend to rape threats.

Governments have been found involved in hiring armies of trolls assigning them tasks to divert attention from real issues, sway public opinion and shape them to project grassroots support for government policies drowning out dissenting voices. The adoption of these methods is due to lack of tolerance for criticism of government policies. Not very long ago, Fawad Chaudhry, the then information minister in the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf government, had termed a comment calling his government fascist as ‘hate speech’. This resulted in trolls accusing dissenters online of hate speech against the government and dissenters being charged with such offenses offline.

A recent instance is the case of a journalist, Izhar-ul-Haq, who has been charged with hate speech along with other offences for criticising former military dictator General Pervez Musharraf. The lack of tolerance for criticism within governments is what inspires troll armies online to carry forward hateful trolling, forcing people into self-censorship. Creation of bots – automated accounts pretending to be humans – is also used to advance these purposes. Investigations show the rise of creation of bots during the 2018 general elections that fed into trends supporting certain political parties.

Once seen as spaces to freely exercise political expression,

social media platforms are now seen as toxic spaces.

Another instance was in April 2019 when Facebook said it had discovered inauthentic behaviour on its platform linked to employees of the Inter-Services Public Relations. It removed a number of pages, groups, and accounts for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behaviour on Facebook and Instagram posting content on or operating military fan pages; general Pakistani interest pages; Kashmir community pages; and hobby and news pages. It said that these pages were removed for “creating networks of accounts to mislead others about who they were and what they were doing”.

The ruling PTI is said to be a pioneer in the use of social media attempting to engineer politics through online spaces. Other parties have followed suit. Currently, all parties, irrespective of how big or small they are, have functional media cells. The job of these media cells is not only to put forward a positive image of their parties but also to counter any criticism directed at them. Such criticism is drowned out through coordinated attacks as a result of which critics, including prominent figures of opposition parties, are attacked through hashtags trending on social media.

Several global reports have testified to the same.

The 2019 Freedom on the Internet report states that coordinated and inauthentic accounts are involved in manipulating content online and spreading disinformation. “Online journalists and activists, especially those scrutinising the military or intelligence agencies, have also testified to the existence of state-sponsored ‘troll armies’ being employed to silence dissent,” the report states.

In its 2019 report, the Freedom on the Net has termed the internet “not free” in Pakistan with the country scoring 26 out of 100 – a one point decline from 2018 when the score was 27. The report stated that the “authorities upped their efforts to silence critical journalists and activists using a range of techniques.”

A report from the Oxford Internet Institute released in September 2019 identified Pakistan as having coordinated cyber troop teams with full-time staff members employed to manipulate the information space. The report says such teams work to support preferred messaging of their clients, attack the opposition, and suppress critical content. Pakistan is alleged to have fake accounts run by both bots and humans that often manipulate content on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

According to a report of Digital Rights Monitor investigating the trend #ArrestAntiPakJournalists that surfaced in July 2019, the tweets accompanying the trend contained manipulated information about prominent journalists assumed to be ‘critical’ of the ruling party. The investigation concluded that several accounts and tweets engaging with the said hashtag exhibited signs of being automated. It observed that the hashtag started trending following a tweet from Team #IK_Warriors (@Ik_Warriors). This account announced the “launch” of the hashtag by calling upon followers to “grab the keyboard and start trending”. The tweet posted images of journalists and anchorpersons alleged to be “members of pro-India, anti-Pak media group”.

Ironically, in July 2018, the PTI government set up a fake news buster Twitter account aiming to combat fraudulent content. This account is often seen attacking any news critical of the government and terming it as fake news.

Trolling and threats are then used as an excuse to increase regulation of the digital space. The regulation then ignores troll armies as unidentifiable mobs and instead works towards scrutinising dissenting voices. Recent trends show criminalisation of criticism of government policies on social media. The highly controversial Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, opposed by free speech defenders, despite containing no provisions on criminalising defamation of government or hate is used to charge dissidents with these offences. Misuse of the law may not lead to convictions but is enough to create a chilling effect for free speech, forcing people into self-censorship. The law, meanwhile, does include provisions that allow the government to censor online content.

The writer is a lawyer and a researcher working for digital rights and free speech

Controlling dissent: PTI a ‘pioneer’ in using social media to engineer politics in Pakistan