While Twitter trends may be artificial, hashtag merchants are real people.
On July 4, a hashtag calling for the arrest of journalists became the top Twitter trend in Pakistan.
The #ArrestAntiPakjournalists campaign circulated a composite photograph of prominent journalists and TV anchors, some of whom regularly criticise the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) of Prime Minister Imran Khan and the military.
“Hang them all #ArrestAntiPakJournalists,” posted a member of a coordinated network, ‘IK warriors,’ who trend hashtags on Twitter.
The campaign, initiated by a smaller network of accounts, drew widespread reaction on social media as users with a large following used the hashtag to condemn it.
In fact, it was the widespread reaction that magnified the reach of the trend.
The hashtag was originally tweeted out by 2,493 users, but it became a top trend after it was retweeted more than 44,000 times.
Such influence campaigns in Pakistan are artificially amplified, wherein supporter groups materially distort Twitter traffic from a very small base of human users to force hashtags into the “trending” panel, a Dawn investigation has found.
Almost 95% of the trending political campaigns in Pakistan are boosted artificially to mislead the public, giving a false impression that there is genuine grass-roots support or opposition for a particular group or narrative.
While the trends are artificial, hashtag merchants are real people. This investigation found that influence campaigns in Pakistan are run by humans, not bots. Bots are automated or semi-automated accounts, programmed to engage in specific behaviours usually at frequent intervals.
Hashtag merchants, who run real and authentic accounts, propose and trend a campaign every day for Twitter users and sub-networks to amplify, rally retweets and celebrate when any of their hashtags makes it to the trending panel.
As per Dawn’s findings, an influence campaign involves a number of seemingly connected accounts (connected by biography, ideology, communication) tweeting or engaging in high volumes on a specific issue, repeating un-nuanced and similar talking points, aggressively.
Twitter’s trending topics section is essential to the propaganda effort in Pakistan, wherein influence networks push a daily hashtag on the platform to spread certain messages or to highlight important milestones or achievements of a political entity.
The networks operate openly, and rather proudly, each with their unique team labels such as ‘IK warriors’ and ‘Team Pak Zindabad’. They claim to be activists not influencers, patriots not propagandists, supporters not members of a political or military group. They believe they are cyber troops fighting Pakistan’s information wars.
To understand the mechanics of trending a hashtag and analyse the extent of manipulation involved, Dawn approached Farhan Virk, a leading hashtag merchant, to get a completely random hashtag onto Pakistan’s trending panel.
After a series of negotiations over the choice of hashtag via WhatsApp, Virk decided to trend #BoycottTomatoes. To ensure maximum impact, it is important to relate the hashtag idea to the surrounding conversation. “We need to stop using tomatoes to restrict the price hike,” Virk said, as he proposed to trend the campaign on November 18, 2019, when the tomato prices across the country had sky-rocketed.
The first tweet of the campaign, according to Virk, is aimed to judge the public’s response to the hashtag idea. “Friends if you are in agreement then tonight at 11 p.m. we will trend on boycotting tomatoes. If we stand up against the price hike mafia, then those creating artificial inflation will be defeated. If you are ready to trend then reply,” he tweeted on his account, followed by over 260,000 people.
“The first tweet’s impressions are 211 (within five minutes). If they rise over 5,000 in 15 minutes then it means that the public is interested in running the campaign,” he shared.
In the meantime, Virk looked up images of tomatoes on Google and among meme-worthy images of the vegetable, he also saved a screenshot of a DawnNews tweet about the news of the price hike. “We want the content ready before we start the campaign. Usually, we collect images from previous Twitter campaigns or sometimes ask graphic designers in our teams.”
At 11 p.m., the campaign took off.
“Guys, Grab your keyboards and start trending #BoycottTomatoes as we need to boycott tomatoes if we want cheap tomatoes,” he tweeted with a poster of a ‘tomato boycott movement’. The tweet was retweeted 75 times.
From a network of 2,000 members, at 11 p.m., Virk said only 350 users were active. The ‘TeamIK’ — led by Farhan Virk — coordinates over several WhatsApp groups, each with their own network of influencers [accounts with a following of over 10,000 users]. “We usually don’t trend at 11 p.m. At night the trends are occupied.. morning panels are the easiest,” he told Dawn.
By 11.30, #BoycottTomatoes had hit the trending panel in Pakistan despite only 2,000 tweets/retweets. In fact, the hashtag beat #JusticeForSaleinPakistan on the panel, a massive campaign that had generated almost 16,000 tweets at that time. For a trend to outpace another that has generated far more tweets is dependent on several factors that are discussed in detail ahead.
Virk identified at least five influencer accounts, four of whom are on his team, who pushed the traffic towards the campaign. “In these 1,900 tweets, around 600 are from my team while remaining are from normal people who just follow my Twitter,” said Virk, whose profile alone generated nearly 660 retweets.
Dawn’s analysis of the campaign confirmed that a total of 594 users posted up to 1,120 tweets using the hashtag, while most of the traffic was generated through (6,277) retweets.
Another major determining factor of a trend’s success is the potential impact and reach of the hashtag. Potential reach is the number of unique users that could have seen the hashtag. Potential impact is the number of times someone could have seen the hashtag.
“We have to break a certain barrier to enter the trends panel. At 11 p.m., the threshold is at least 600,000 potential reach. #BoycottTomatoes had a potential reach of over 700,000 users,” Virk explained.
Besides the temporary validation stemming from being part of a network running top trends, hashtag merchants find the effort personally rewarding as it contributes to profile growth as well.
“A user with 5,408 followers individually made over 600,000 impacts in the boycott trend. This is how hashtags dynamically improve profile engagement. This is how users get incentivised as the activity gives them a platform to grow,” Virk pointed out.
By late midnight, public users started to post about the hashtag — most out of curiosity or to condemn the absurd trend — bringing further traction to the campaign started by a smaller set of coordinated accounts.
Twitter’s trends list is a real-time gauge of what people are talking about on the network.
What goes on the trending list is governed by an algorithm that measures not only sheer popularity (i.e. the total number of tweets) but velocity — in other words, how fast certain topics are surging on the network.
People involved in trending a hashtag know the key: maintaining coordination of volume and influence in a short period of time.
Twitter’s algorithm determines what is trending by favouring sharp spikes rather than gradual sustained growth. It is also much easier for a term never seen before to become a Twitter trend than one used often.
Twitter examines three indicators: the average number of tweets (including retweets) per user; the percentage of retweets as a proportion of total traffic; and the proportion of traffic generated by those 50 accounts which used the given term most often.
These three factors indicate whether Twitter traffic was generated organically by a large number of users or pushed by a small one; whether it was driven by a high proportion of original posts, or by large-scale retweeting; and whether it was driven by a small user group or a broader movement.
It is also extremely important to consider the surrounding conversation in the region or network at the time of planning a campaign. Sometimes hashtag with lesser posts end up on the top in the trending panel. This shows that even if the total number of tweets might be low, the hashtag was able to develop a conversation sooner than the other topics on the trends panel.
Companies can pay Twitter to appear on the list. But these “Promoted Trends” are clearly marked as advertising. This is not the case with artificial Twitter trends.
Interviews with hashtag merchants revealed that trending a campaign on Twitter is rather easy. The real effort goes in coordination and network building on the platform.
Trend-setters make sure that they get authentic and influential accounts to help push an influence campaign. The idea is to get as many accounts with high follower numbers to work in coordination and amplify each other, as well as to amplify other lesser-known accounts that are also using the hashtag.
Dawn found dense connectivity between influence networks who have a clear understanding of how information flows across participants. Users in these groups not only follow each other at significantly higher rates compared to the general Twitter user but also clearly know who is a hub — who has the ability to accelerate the flow of information.
A search of the term “follow karein” in Urdu on Twitter leads to dozens of accounts offering a ‘follow for follow back’ deal. The follow-networks are subdivided into supporters of different parties, including Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz such as ‘MNS Followers Team’ and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf such as ‘PTI Follow Team 50k’.
“Turn on my notifications. I will help you to gain new active followers, retweets and likes,” reads the bio of one such account with a following of over 34,000 users.
“By following 400 people daily, you will get 400 followers in return. This is how small networks grow,” Virk told Dawn.
Teams also collaborate to expand their clout. For instance, supporters of Imran Khan may unite for a ‘trend-based collaboration’ to grow their network and increase follower base.
Twitter, however, claims it does not allow attempts to game trends on its platform.
“We do not allow platform manipulation on our service, regardless of the political views expressed. This means that coordinated abuse, hateful conduct, attempts to game trends, and the spread of disinformation at scale are all violations of our policies,” a Twitter spokesperson told Dawn.
While trend-setting seems to be a growing industry, network leaders interviewed shared that Twitter’s tightening of policies against fake accounts and crackdown of anti-India campaigns had severely impacted their hashtag operations.
“We have cut down our operations by 50 per cent. During every campaign against India or in support of Kashmir, we face a loss of 15 to 20 big accounts. This has become a serious problem now,” lamented Virk.
Other hyper-nationalist groups echoed similar sentiments. “Our trends with up to 50,000 tweets have not managed to trend because they were led by small accounts. India is actively reporting our major influencers,” Ishaaq of Team ‘IK Warriors’ told Dawn.
“There are unconfirmed reports that PML-N and other anti-PTI groups have joined the Indian team at Twitter to suspend our accounts. This is just a rumour but you see, only PTI is facing the loss,” he said.
“Fifth-generation warfare is real. We are facing it every day,” said another group leader requesting anonymity. “We will not give up. They can suspend as many accounts they want but we will continue making new ones. I myself have been suspended at least 15 times. This is an information war, and we are its warriors,” he said.
Making use of the mass reporting technique, these networks have also started reporting to Twitter hashtags and tweets they deem ‘unpatriotic’. “If each member from a group of 100 users reports at least 200 tweets to Twitter for spam, it will not make it to the trends panel,” explained a member of Team Pakistan Zindabad.
The reporting is not limited to hashtags only. Recently, coordinated groups are mass reporting Twitter accounts of critical journalists. In November, Umar Cheema’s account was locked from access after a group of small accounts mass reported his profile to Twitter.
According to Virk, journalist Hamid Mir lost around 25,000 followers after his team trended #UnfollowHamidMir. They developed the campaign after Prime Minister Imran Khan unfollowed the journalist on Twitter after Mir made remarks on rising press censorship under the PTI government.
Pakistan’s hashtag merchants are not trained professionals. They are students working day and night to push out hashtags, which they believe is the ‘need of the hour’.
When asked to define fifth-generation warfare, the network leaders said it was a national duty. “Our friends and family are exposed to negative fake news and misinformation on social media. They are being misled. They don’t know the reality. We want to show them the truth,” said Ishaaq.
According to them, foreign and anti-Pakistan elements want to create divisions within the Islamic community and in the country. “Negative sentiment sells on media. Everyone is against each other. We want the nation to unite...for Pakistan.”
“People have turned against Imran Khan because of inflation and media is only reporting that. This is why we run pro-Imran hashtags every day to highlight his achievements too. We are supporters of Imran Khan. We don't believe in PTI without Imran. There is an ongoing information war so we are playing our part,” he asserted.
‘TRENDS OPEN TO ALL'
Surprisingly, the hashtag operations take place overtly.
During the reporting period, Dawn came across a number of WhatsApp group invite links posted on Twitter that allow you to join the networks. Most invite links on Twitter are shared by religious influence groups, particularly of Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP).
“We are doing this for the Islamic Ummah. It is our collective duty to call out blasphemy online,” said a user posting pro-TLP hashtags.
Even hyper-nationalist groups seek a wider support base through WhatsApp invite links.
“We post our links on Twitter. Anybody willing to support our campaign is welcome to join. Veena Malik helps us a lot. We tell her to post our hashtag and she gets us good traction,” head of ‘Team PakZindabad’ Yasif told Dawn. Paid trendsetters, on the other hand, work differently.
“Bloggers know what content to run. Unlike public campaigns, we don’t copy-paste. We can trend with 1,100 to 1,200 tweets in five minutes,” Huzaifa, a social media activist who works for hire, told Dawn.
Huzaifa cites a hefty rate of Rs50,000 to 60,000 for a trend. “For Bahria Town, we have even charged Rs90,000,” he claimed.
“Prophet's Warriors! The time is upon us to unleash Jihad. To humiliate enemies of Islam, today, Thursday at 8 p.m., stop everything and join the battle against enemies of Islam with this hashtag #AntiIslamPTI_NoMore,” read a tweet posted by a TLP supporter, @Waqarha30333098, on December 27, 2018.
The account of the announcer for the hashtag was created on December 26, 2018. It has under 200 followers and follows around 371 accounts.
A majority of this account’s tweets came on December 26, 2018, to January 11, 2019 date range, which is when the hashtag campaign was started and most active.
In December last year, Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan chief Khadim Hussain Rizvi and his fellow party leaders were accused of staging violent protests, passing incendiary remarks against the judiciary and the prime minister as well as provoking the military to stage a mutiny — all in the aftermath of the Supreme Court's acquittal of Aasia Bibi in a blasphemy case.
What followed was a tirade on social media against the PTI government and in support of the TLP leadership. Other hashtags run by the same network included #MyProphetMyPride (1,490 tweets), #ReleaseKhadimRizvi (1,207), #ReleaseTLPLeaders (346) and #HangBlasphemerAsia (280).
Through such campaigns, the religious groups propagate extremist content and hate speech that widely goes unchecked by the authorities, Dawn found.
Despite a government crackdown on the religious group spreading provocative material and hate speech on social media, the hashtag against PTI trended in Pakistan from December 27 to 31st with over 24,288 tweets. It witnessed sporadic activity up until August 2019.
A key component of the campaign was that the accounts participating published and shared the same content over and over. The same text was circulated by different accounts up to 50 times while the hashtag trended, indicating that the campaign was coordinated and planned.
The party supporters also take pride in association and a majority of them have TLP in their handle and/or bio, with pictures of Khadim Rizvi as header and profile images. The TLP network is vast but is led by hubs of smaller accounts. Despite their low follower counts, the hashtags run by TLP networks have often registered on the trends panel. This may be because of the wide impact of pro-religious sentiment that they bank on.
The anti-PTI hashtag was amplified by 2,840 accounts, with some users posting over 1,000 tweets. One such account @MalikChohan26, who was the top contributor to the hashtag, sent out 1,059 tweets and contributed 961 retweets to the campaign. Dawn’s analysis of the profile found that that account was created recently in 2018 and had sent out a total of 5,411 tweets since its creation — over 1,000 of those were for the anti-PTI campaign alone.
Interestingly, given Malik’s massive contribution to the campaign, his clout appears to be small. Analysis shows a majority of MalikChohan26’s followers have a following of 100 to 499 users. Only 19 of his followers have 10,000 and 50,000 followers and only two accounts have followers in the 50,000 to 150,000 range.
His network’s major influencer is the account @samina___ch with over 130,000 followers. This account is just a little over two years old.
A key contributor to the TLP campaigns is Shaheer Sialvi, who has a following of 46,000 users. @ShaheerSialvi has shared YouTube links on his profile 40 times. Analysis of his YouTube account shows that the content [683 videos] is centred on blasphemy, anti-military, identifying ‘traitors’ and religious bigotry.
Sialvi’s Twitter account is also followed by lawyer Jibran Nasir, the Deputy Commissioner Islamabad account and Senator Sarfraz Bugti.
“Today we are going to trend #BringBackTraitors to urge the government to arrest traitors. Draft guidelines: Expose Traitors, Appeal Gov for arrest, Laws and punishments for traitors,” read a WhatsApp alert on a group comprising over 190 users.
The WhatsApp group was accessed using an invite link posted on Twitter by members of ‘Team Pakistan Zindabad’.
Members of the group titled ‘BringBackTraitors 3 p.m.’ were instructed to post at least 30-50 tweets and over 300 retweets. They were asked to prepare draft tweets in the meantime so that they could be sent out at the given time to make the hashtag trend.
At 2.45 p.m., the announcement tweet for the hashtag was posted on Twitter on actor Veena Malik’s official and verified account.
“Today at 3 p.m. I will trend #BringBackTraitors. These traitors have fled the country and speak ill of Pakistan abroad. They should be brought back and punished in public. I will expose them. Whoever is with me type #BringBackTraitors and reply to this tweet,” she wrote.
The tweet received nearly 2,000 retweets — the highest for this trend.
Tweets for the campaign peaked on October 17 in the afternoon, witnessing around 1,675 tweets sent out in one hour. Besides that one burst of activity, the trend was generally slow and saw short bursts of activity — the sharp spike making it easier to trend.
“You can see the hashtag name as a group title. You just have to copy-paste the hashtag and post anything you can think of. One or two words would do. Just keep posting,” the network leader said on the group.
It comes as no surprise then that the campaign was led by accounts replicating the same content. Over 700 tweets analysed under the hashtag had no content but just the hashtag.
Veena Malik’s tweet with the announcement was quote tweeted with the hashtag over 100 times.
The hashtag was also clubbed with a separate campaign #VeenaSlappedTraitors. At least 32 tweets were sent out without any text but just the two hashtags.
“Today we will do a contest between new and old members. New members are more in number while old members are more experienced. We shall see who makes a top trend,” the instructor on the WhatsApp group said.
“Today we are experimenting to see if two hashtags can be trended simultaneously. Next time we will try three trends at the same time. You just have to change the hashtag, rest can be copy-pasted. You can use content from yesterday’s hashtags. If each person sends out 50-100 tweets, the trend will make it to the panel in 3 minutes.”
By 3.30 p.m., both hashtags run by Team Pakistan Zindabad were trending on the panel.
Dawn’s data shows a link between the two hashtags. The announcement appears to lead to the supplementing hashtag to show Veena led the campaign and succeeded.
@TeamPakZindabad was created in April 2019. By November, the account had sent out 303 tweets and had 8,462 followers. In return, the account only follows seven accounts, including Prime Minister Imran Khan, both official and personal accounts of military spokesperson Asif Ghafoor, and Veena Malik.
The account’s bio reads: “We are defenders of our motherland we'll lay our last breath for Pakistan ✊ Official Account of #TeamPakistanZindabad.”
Other prominent hashtags used by ‘TeamPakZindabad’ include #WeStandWithPakArmy, #BoycottIndianProducts, HangRapistsPublicly and #MediaAccountability.
Dawn found 130 accounts with #TeamPakistanZindabad on their Twitter bios.
Combined, these 130 accounts have a total of 264,452 followers and a total of 1,439,713 tweets.
Of the 130 accounts, five have insaf.pk— the PTI’s official website— listed in their URL section.
Dawn’s analysis of the two campaigns found that they were both run by ‘Team IK warriors’. However, the first account for the network @IkWarriors was suspended by Twitter earlier this year. Another account set up later by the group, @ikwarriors_ was also suspended.
We found at least 32 accounts with the suspended handles in their bios.
Currently, the network operates using @TeamIk_warriors, with a following of over 1,000 users.
Team IK warriors tweets in support of Imran Khan, Pakistan Army and Kashmir. Besides the above-mentioned hashtags, the network has trended #IAmPakArmy, #LeKarRahenGeKashmir, and #ImranKhanVoiceOfKashmir.
This account had a total of 62 tweets with overall 2,218 retweets.
This is one of the more active accounts for the above-mentioned hashtags. Their bio states this person is a senior admin of IK_Warriors (the suspended handle is in the bio).
One of the networks top contributors is @HajiGul_bangesh.
Out of the total 3,164 tweets from this handle’s timeline, 2,739 were retweets and 251 just tweets. This is a fairly young account and was created just a little under two years ago.
Interestingly, this person runs another account @HajiGul_bangash which is just as active.
“A lot of our accounts were suspended earlier this year. But now thankfully it has slowed down and we are expanding again,” he told Dawn.
Five trending hashtags of varying political alignment were selected for this story to analyse different influence networks. Hashtags include: #MaryamBilawal_Pashteen, #ArrestAntiPakJournalists, #Anti_Islam_PTI_NoMore, #BringBackTraitors, and #VeenaSlappedTraitors.
The reporting period was December 2018 to November 2019. The data for each hashtag was downloaded using a custom data scraper that helps extract data that you need into a spreadsheet.
For each hashtag we collected the following data:
Initial analysis covered total tweets, retweets and users for each trending hashtag. Using simple analysis, we looked at most retweeted tweets, peak periods for the hashtag, users with most tweets for the specific hashtag and duplicated content.
The initial analysis was then used for a more in-depth look at the accounts involved in the above-mentioned areas.
In-depth analysis of users covered the account creation date, other hashtags used by the user since account creation using sample data, their most “important” tweets or tweets with most reach (that is retweets + favourites).
We also looked at the follower and following data for these accounts, and looked at key areas such as account ages of their followers and the accounts they follow, most common words in their Twitter bios, and the accounts they interact with most (that is who they retweet and quote the most).
Ramsha Jahangir is a staffer at Dawn. She writes on technology and human rights, mis/disinformation and internet censorship. She tweets @ramshajahangir
Shaheryar Popalzai is a digital strategy consultant with Dawn Media Group. He tweets @spopalzai
Header graphic credit: Leea Contractor