Earlier in June, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) leader Syed Zulfikar Abbasi Bukhari — aka Zulfi Bukhari — was in the grip of a controversy involving the leader’s name being on the interior ministry’s ‘black list’ that bars an individual from leaving the country.

The dispute emerged after a picture was floated on social media showing Mr Bukhari with PTI chairman Imran Khan in Medina, despite him [Bukhari] being barred from travelling by the National Accountability Bureau over a case pertaining to an offshore firm that was revealed in the Panama Papers.

As news pertaining to a petition moved in the Islamabad High Court seeking Mr Bukhari’s name being removed from the ECL started doing the rounds on social media, an account impersonating the leader surfaced on Twitter. “I did not charter the plane for Imran Khan, Disinformation is being spread, Imran Khan did not make any call to rescue me,” read one of the tweets sent out by the impersonator.

Given that Zulfi Bukhari was among the top trends on Twitter around the time, the account received high traffic with one tweet praising Imran Khan for dismissing rumours about Mr Bukhari leaving the country receiving 75 retweets and more than 300 likes.

11,000 is the number of followers a fake account of PML-N president Shehbaz Sharif (@m_shahbazsharif) has on Twitter. The account is used to actively criticise performance of the rival PTI and share PML-N’s achievements in contrast on the micro-blogging website as well as on Instagram.

The sole purpose of impersonation accounts is to undermine credibility and disseminate misinformation. For this reason, the emergence of such [fake] accounts is almost always in correlation to ‘trending’ subjects on social media.

On June 21, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz leader Zaeem Qadri became vocal about his differences with the party leadership and announced that he would contest the upcoming general election from Lahore’s NA-133 seat as an independent candidate.

His rebellion against the PML-N leaders drew interesting reaction from the rival PTI as one group was ready to accept the estranged Leaguer in the PTI fold, while the other opposed any such move.

The account — that had been impersonating Zulfi Bukhari — resurfaced on Twitter feeds during this period as @ZaeemQaadri. Its content was targeted against PML-N leaders, inflating the antagonist narrative following Mr Qadri’s press conference.

Impersonating political bigwigs for generating propaganda and targeting opponents is becoming increasingly frequent on the digital political battlefield in the lead-up to general elections.

A fake account of PML-N president Shehbaz Sharif (@m_shahbazsharif) has 11k followers on Twitter. The account — which has over a 1,000 tweets — is used to actively criticise performance of the rival PTI and share PML-N’s achievements in contrast on the micro-blogging website as well as on Instagram.

“Ppl of KP r politically aware. They will not allow fake change makers 2 cheat them again. Real change is the one that touches people’s hearts & makes their lives better. Upcoming election is an opportunity 2 reject those who indulged in politics of agitation & abuse & wasted time,” reads a tweet.

Earlier in March, social media erupted at the Pakistan Peoples Party as news spread that the party stalwart Farhatullah Babar had been sidelined by co-chairman Asif Asif Ali Zardari after he had delivered a hard-hitting farewell speech in the Senate, criticising the institutions as well as his own party over their failure to assure across-the-board accountability.

As conversation on Twitter was dominated by mentions of the former Senator, multiple accounts by his name were established during the period.

“There should be free and fair elections in the country and if there is any kind of interference, it will be dangerous for the future of the country. It is time that all institutions function within their domains and not intervene in another’s business,” reads a tweet posted by a ‘fan’ account of the leader on June 24, which received over 700 retweets and 2.4k likes.

Interestingly, multiple [fan] accounts quoting the leader continue to operate despite Farhatullah Babar’s statement about the same earlier this year.

In a tweet sent out by the PPP’s official account, the leader had said that he was not operating any account on social media and that if an account was being operated on his name, it was fake. He also clarified that he had no link with any social media account whatsoever.


How to spot an impersonation account?

• Type in the name yourself.

• Lookalike account names use a different spelling or font. Example the extra ‘a’ in Qadri @ZaeemQaadri Explore the account’s tweet history.

• A spoofed account may have changed the name and

biography details of an existing account. Check the follower and following

• A fake account will have a disproportionate follower and following count and the users may not be of diverse backgrounds.Analyse the content

• Has the account’s activity peaked recently? Is the content agenda-driven?

Published in Dawn, July 2nd, 2018

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