Journalists targeted with coordinated smear campaigns online

Published April 27, 2019
Researcher Saeed Rizvan’s network analysis of the group allegedly involved in the campaigns.—Saeed Rizvan/Twitter
Researcher Saeed Rizvan’s network analysis of the group allegedly involved in the campaigns.—Saeed Rizvan/Twitter

KARACHI: Twitter users on Friday raised serious concerns over the increasing weaponisation of social media and online smear campaigns against several Pakistani journalists.

The first series of the malicious hashtag campaigns emerged as the top three Twitter trends in Pakistan on Wednesday. The trends accompanied by scurrilous trolling, misinformation and doctored images targeted Marvi Sirmed, Mubashir Zaidi and Umar Cheema.

According to social network analysis of the trends, the campaign against Marvi Sirmed generated the most tweets (over 11,000) within a span of two hours.

On Friday, seven other journalists were subjected to abuse and defamatory content. They included Saleem Safi, Arshad Waheed Chaudhry and Fakhar Durrani, who were accused of being ‘paid’ or supported by opposition parties.

PM’s focal person calls out institutional failure of FIA

Arshad Waheed Chaudhry, for instance, was criticised after someone accused him of asking a ‘planted’ question to Pakistan Peoples Party chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari. Mr Chaudhry later responded via a tweet that such campaigns showed ‘how bothered they were’.

According to Saeed Rizwan, a social researcher, users populated the hashtags using a structured network. Sharing multiple graphics showing how the network had trended the hashtags, Mr Rizwan spotlighted four major Twitter accounts coordinating with a group of seemingly suspicious accounts.

According to Twitter, the platform prohibits behaviour that encourages others to harass or target specific individuals or groups with abusive behaviour. “This includes, but is not limited to, calls to target people with abuse or harassment online and behavior that urges offline action such as physical harassment.”

However, given the rising trends of abuse on Twitter, journalists and policy workers expressed disappointment over the platform’s inaction against accounts propagating abuse and hurling threats at critical voices.

Television host Ammar Masood termed fake accounts the biggest hurdle to freedom of expression. “Malicious campaign of #abusive #twittertrends against Pakistani journalists. It’s mostly by fake accounts and trolls who r working on a specific agenda. #twitter should take notice of it and expose and remove these fake accounts. They r the biggest hurdle in freedom of expression,” he wrote.

Former MPA Bushra Gohar said that such “cowardly attempts to gag free press won’t succeed”. “The ongoing abusive trends & malicious attacks on journalists in #Pakistan are despicable. Strongly condemn the attacks & stand with the courageous journalists. #Free­PressUnderAttack #DefendFund­amentalFree­doms,” she tweeted.

However, there was no acknowledgement of the smear campaigns from the government or the political circle.

When asked what the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government was doing to ensure journalist safety online, Prime Minister’s Focal Person on Digital Media Dr Arslan Khalid said such campaigns depicted failure of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and the interior ministry. “We strongly condemn the campaigns. Abusive and defamatory behaviour is punishable under the cybercrime law and this should be investigated,” he said while speaking to Dawn.

Mr Khalid, who was the PTI’s social media secretary before assuming office, refuted allegations that the accounts running the campaigns were associated with the PTI. “This is despicable and the party has zero tolerance for abuse,” he said.

When contacted, Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari was not available for comment.

Action under Peca

Speaking to Dawn, lawyer Waqqas Mir said that the campaigns were a violation of Section 20 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca) which criminalises, among other things, displaying, exhibiting or transmitting information which one knows to be false and intimidates or harms the reputation or privacy of another.

Section 20 pertains to offence against dignity of a natural person.

“In addition to that, Section 499 of Pakistan Penal Code criminalises defamation while Section 503 of Pakistan Penal Code criminalises intimidation,” he said, highlighting that in order to pursue a case against the campaigns, the content should be reported to the FIA which will investigate a complaint and then register an FIR under these provisions of Peca.

Published in Dawn, April 27th, 2019

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