Are men such as Farhan Virk — a banned Twitter celebrity who peddled nationalist propaganda— dispensable in social media warfare?
“Every day,” as a popular aphorism on social media holds, “the internet picks a hero and a villain”. The advice is that no one should want to become either. Farhan Virk, however, wanted to be both. Languishing in obscurity, he first surfaced after creating a fake account in the name of the founder of Pakistan’s nuclear programme, earning a vast following as he roused hyper-nationalist feeling and menaced Indian social media users with dark talk of several cities being annihilated at once.
Perhaps it says something about Dr A.Q. Khan’s own record of public statements that the account was deemed genuine by many. Its tweets featured in the Pakistani and Indian media, and were even highlighted in the London Review of Books as offering an exposition of contemporary Pakistani nationalist thought.
A decade or so ago, Twitter in Pakistan was a sedate platform, dominated by liberal and progressive voices for whom English was the primary language of communication; they were equally at ease with Western and Pakistani cultural references, and were mainly based in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi. They were lawyers, journalists, writers, musicians, politicians, or just the well-heeled and well-spoken. With a few hundred followers each, they shared their thoughts, forged friendships, reported the news early and responded to it with a mix of insights, commentary and wit, in what was regarded as a safe space, beyond the reach of the authorities. They freely engaged with each other, on a public platform, as if no one else was watching.
Pakistan was also a big international story at the time, and Pakistanis on Twitter attracted much notice from those in other countries, forming connections with those in the US, the UK and India. When, in 2011, the Express Tribune published a list of ‘140 Pakistani Twitterati worth following’, it didn’t include a single conservative or right-wing voice. There were irruptions of abuse, but it was tame by today’s standards.
That world slowly vanished. As more people poured on to social media, the grip of the English-speaking elite was weakened.
Twitter today is a battlefield, where users are besieged by ghost brigades formed of nameless and faceless attackers, who punish them for issuing even a whisper of dissent. It’s a place where facts seem inconvenient, and where fake news and smears can attract a wider hearing than the truth. Where women endure misogynistic attacks. And where threats of rape and other forms of violence, including murder, have become the price people are forced to pay for merely logging on.
This is true not just in Pakistan, but across the world. It strains credulity to even speak of ‘social media’ with sociability becoming increasingly scarce. Many of the site’s oldest users have been forced to make a retreat and either limit their use to stave off the abuse they are subjected to, or quit the platform altogether in search of more civil means to access the news and communicate with people.
In Pakistan, there are many players who are responsible for this irretrievable decay. Many of them are not known to us and won’t make their identities public. But whether it’s fair or not, Farhan Virk’s name bulks large among those responsible for the toxicity that is glaringly apparent on Pakistani Twitter today.
For Virk, Twitter served two key purposes: it was a place where he wanted to make a name for himself, and a battlefield where he went to fight each day. As he concedes early on in Hasham Cheema’s extraordinary new documentary, War, Lies & Hashtags — produced for Al-Jazeera English’s “Witness” series — Virk was an avowed troll. “Lots of people in Pakistan call me a troll, and I definitely was a troll,” he says disarmingly, with a light laugh that bears a trace of relish. “I have no issues with that.”
For Virk, then a young fresh-faced doctor from Sialkot, assuming false identities was a means by which to claim the recognition he craved. The A.Q. Khan identity was one incarnation. In another, he allegedly posed as Geoffrey Langlands — something Virk strenuously denies — the revered former English army major and teacher at Aitchison who counted Aitzaz Ahsan, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Imran Khan and others among his students. Langlands, who passed away last year at the age of 102, did not own a computer and was not acquainted with Twitter.
There were other mysterious accounts that suspiciously used a similar idiom when tweeting that were rumoured to be run by Virk. Such was the notoriety Virk earned that, whenever such accounts surfaced, he was immediately blamed for them, whether he was behind them or not. Virk, who was routinely suspended by Twitter for violating its standards, operated multiple accounts in his own name as well, as a contingency for when one of them would be struck down. One of them was the A.Q. Khan account, which was suspended by Twitter but ultimately handed back to him, allowing him to turn the nuclear scientist’s nearly 30,000 deceived followers into his own.
Virk became better known as a fervent supporter of another Khan, the prime minister, while he was still in the opposition. As Imran Khan sought to rouse the anger of a new generation of Pakistani youth, Twitter became the place where many of them rallied, guided by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) fledgling social media teams. One of these teams, Team IK, was led by Virk.
Disparagingly termed youthias, they cohere around a loose set of political views: they espouse a militarised form of hyper nationalism that enthrones the army as the central actor of the state, they revile the political dynasts at the helm of the two other main political parties as venal and inept, they are strident in their embrace of religiosity, and they despise liberals, progressives and feminists as carriers of a treasonous, Western-tainted subversive and irreligious creed.
Imran Khan didn’t always share their views. During the Musharraf years, he was sharply critical of the military, supporting the lawyers’ movement for the independence of the judiciary and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) as they sought to restore civilian democratic rule. Imran Khan was among the earliest opponents of military operations inside Pakistan and highlighted many of the human rights violations that took place there as a result, including the enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions that the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) highlights today. Now, the most fervent supporters of the army and the sharpest critics of PTM are to be found among PTI’s supporters online.
There are now at least two different sides to Imran Khan. One is the self-styled reformer, who occasionally surfaces, bearing some resemblances from the past. This is the politician who, after winning the 2018 election, vowed to not seek political revenge, to protect the rights of Pakistan’s minorities, to tackle the ravages of climate change, to feed and school the millions of undernourished and illiterate Pakistani children, and to bring peace and trade to a wider region where both have been in low supply.
Twitter today is a battlefield, where users are besieged by ghost brigades formed of nameless and faceless attackers, who punish them for issuing even a whisper of dissent. It’s a place where facts seem inconvenient, and where fake news and smears can attract a wider hearing than the truth.
The other Imran Khan is the one that his online fans rally behind: the chest-beating, thin-skinned populist who takes umbrage at the faintest criticism and mounts containers to issue crude jibes and threats against his political opponents, vowing to destroy them. This Imran Khan is at home on a world stage that is now crowded by strongmen such as Erdogan, Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orban and Rodrigo Duterte — and he has zealous supporters, like Virk, to rival these strongmen’s own enraged bases of support.
“Team IK is here to change the history of Pakistani social media forever,” Virk once tweeted. It was no empty boast. Exhorting his followers to “grab [your] keyboards”, he would tweet out a fresh hashtag, taking aim at one of his many favoured targets, triggering a torrent of venomous abuse. Pakistan’s politicians, who had long been accustomed to a degree of deference in the media, soon discovered that there was no insult too vicious to be directed at them or their families.
Journalists were also prey. I remember one prominent television anchor telling me, as he clutched his ears, that the politest thing now said about him and other media colleagues is that they are in the receipt of envelopes filled with cash by the opposition. And in a vocabulary that strikingly echoed the Hindutva-led mobs on the Indian Twittersphere, liberals and progressives were frequently smeared as traitors and “libtards” on the payroll of a Western capital or, worse, one in a neighbouring country.
By the time Cheema encounters Virk, he has already become an accomplished hashtag warrior. Sitting on the steps of his apartment on the edges of Islamabad, Virk is goaded by his wife to unleash a new hashtag that he has just minted. Within moments, it’s trending. This would have excited Virk in earlier years; now he has an extensive network of supporters who hasten to do his bidding and send the hashtag escalating up on Pakistan’s trends within moments. I’ve personally never understood the appeal of hashtags which, with a single click, are now revealed to be a partisan ploy. But for Virk, they were a key indicator of success for his “social media activism” — one he sought to replicate on a daily basis, taking on rivals in other parties in an exhausting, ephemeral battle.
Once the hashtag is trending, Virk nonchalantly announces that he’s off to the office of Jahangir Khan Tareen, the onetime PTI grandee, or “JKT” as he’s better known.
There were several questions raised about alleged irregularities leading up to and on the night of the 2018 elections, but all sides acknowledged that social media had become a factor. The three main political parties began investing in resources to replicate the imprint Virk and others were making on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. Consultants were lured on generous salaries to help devise social media strategies, which included promoting smears and outright falsehoods for partisan advantage.
At JKT’s office, we see one of the better-greased operations. One wall is bedecked with 12 television screens, each showing a different news channel. In cubicles, gleaming Macs show in-house staff updating the Lodhran politician’s Facebook page or conjuring up new memes to circulate that day. Only a few of the staff, however, appear to know much about what they are doing. The person in charge asks Virk what the day’s analytics are looking like, apparently unable to glean this information from the vast technology arrayed around him. Virk effortlessly reels off the figures, much to the man’s satisfaction. It’s clear that Virk, though an outsider, is much better skilled in the dark arts than they are.
In one amusing scene, he’s leaning over one of the trolls on JKT’s payroll while he patiently spells out the word “stupid”. “S-T-U-P-I-D” Virk intones, leaving the viewer wondering if the word is as much a judgement on the amateurs he’s surrounded by as it is intended for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the target of a new meme.
Throughout the film, Virk is a person on the periphery, a Twitter exhibitionist who ironically spends much of his time in solitude. He’s rarely seen with people other than Iram, his wife. There is no regular group of friends he conspires with in person. The few encounters we see are fleeting. At a protest against India’s 2019 airstrikes, we see Virk briefly exchange pleasantries with Hamza Shafqaat, the unfailingly polite Deputy Commissioner of Islamabad, who enlists his support for an afforestation drive in the capital. In another, poignant scene, he cheerfully announces the name of an approaching PTI minister. The minister briefly grips his hand, flashes a grin and brushes past. It’s emblematic of his relationship with other ministers or senior party officials: when they need him in a crisis, they come calling. When the crisis fades away, so do they.
On Twitter, Virk was someone you tried to stay clear of. His brash, abrasive style marked many of his appearances in people’s notifications. In person though, Cheema reveals him to be a self-effacing and even kind person. Virk’s relationship with Iram, whom he gifted a fake account with 200,000 followers on the night of their wedding, is warm and affectionate. On one winter night, they slip into a cab to share a Chinese meal. The cold has fogged the car’s windows and Iram draws a heart out of the mist. When they get out, they take each other’s hands, carefully negotiating the puddles around them as they bob and weave to avoid the drizzle overhead. Over dumplings, soaked deep in hot sauce, Virk tells her of the 24 dollars he’s earned.
If tweets paid, Virk would be a wealthy man. But in the absence of an income, he’s been making videos surprisingly styled on American alt-right demagogues such as Alex Jones and Steve Bannon, eking out a modest income stream from the ads that run on his YouTube channel. Iram is supportive, but wryly notes that all they’ll be able to afford are some snacks.
Iram has her own opinions and her own ambitions and, in many ways, is just as compelling a figure, as one journalist noted on Twitter. She delights in teasing the Indian media by planting bits of fake news about the treatment of its soldiers. By the end of the documentary, six months later, she is on a show of her own, interviewing the former High Commissioner to India. It’s the start of a journey that will lead to her own fame and recognition, she says. If Cheema were to make a sequel, he may want to make a documentary about her.
While many so-called “social media activists” have found full-time employment, and are plying a lucrative trade, amounting to hundreds of thousands of rupees each month to act has the online enforcers of a political party or the military, there is little evidence in Cheema’s film that Virk has other sources of income. To muffle the echo in his sparsely furnished apartment, he buys a filthy, second-hand mattress for a couple thousand rupees, dragging it down the street before installing it in his personal studio. Virk appears given to few extravagances, except for the vast data bill he must generate each month. When an electricity bill arrives, he shudders and asks a friend to pay it off so that he can keep his smartphone and laptop alight.
If Virk had been born into a known political family, or had wealth of its own, or spoke English fluently without an accent, his obvious talents would likely have earned him far more success.
Virk doesn’t come from a well-off family. We see him with his loving and supportive parents at their home in Sialkot and imagine that their main focus was putting him through medical school. The fact that Virk qualified as a doctor is plainly a source of pride for them. And though they wish he would go back to looking after patients, they don’t appear to discourage him from a life devoted to social media. They even sportingly indulge it, laughing off the abuse that is directed at them from Virk’s online detractors.
Admirably, they want their son to pursue his passion, much like the parents struggling musicians hope for while they are hustling for gigs to play at, or aspiring novelists carefully carving the sentences they hope will one day land a book deal. They clearly see in Virk’s eyes the excitement that sets them ablaze when a tweet of his, peddling propaganda, catches fire. Watching the film during a pandemic, it’s startling to hear Virk claim that he can achieve more through social media than he could working shifts at a hospital, but there’s no doubt that he clearly believes it’s true.
The flashes of excitement that light up Virk’s timeline, the same ones that send us back to our phones to check our own mentions, are addictive, but they don’t last. Like a drug, they arouse a transient high before giving way to a longer lasting low. The perpetual sense of precariousness takes its toll on Virk.
On social media, we rarely glimpse each other’s private anguish. We actively guard against the possibility of revealing it, holding up stoic versions of ourselves instead for the world to behold. On camera though, Virk opens up about the low moments he hits and how he seeks solace at the shrine of Bari Imam. We see Virk, better known for his rowdy insults, sink silently into prayer as he kneels at the shrine and kisses it. Much like a doctor who is at ease in smoking heavily and courting diabetes through a steady addiction to Coke and sugary tea, Virk appears unaware of the apparent contradiction.
There are others. For a strident nationalist, who says his “ideology” is the “national interest”, it’s curious that he styles himself on Jones and Bannon, both notorious for their antipathy towards Muslims. Both men who likely share as much of a revulsion for Pakistan as Virk does for America. Virk doesn’t take pause to reflect on this, of course. The fact that Jones and Bannon have taught him how to lash out at liberal elites and the mainstream media suffices as recompense for the hours he must have spent on YouTube watching them. Like Bannon, it’s also striking that Virk casts himself as an outsider, when it’s his side that’s in power. This is also Virk’s tragedy.
In December 2019, Virk’s account was, finally, permanently suspended. He always knew it was a possibility, negotiating his way through earlier suspensions, but he appeared crestfallen when it finally happened. For him, it was like being an athlete banned from the sport he or she loves.
Virk’s dwindling ranks of supporters urged Twitter to reconsider, but to no avail. The ban came about at a time though when Virk’s own vision had won out. The same Imran Khan he had cheered on for years was now prime minister. The army he supported was by Khan's side. The politicians he inveighed against were either dispatched into exile, spending nights behind narrowly spaced bars, or shuttling between court visits. The journalists and liberals he took aim at either grew quieter or fell silent altogether. And his vision of social media as a battlefield was elevated to the status of a military doctrine as “fifth-generation warfare”.
It’s a tribute to Cheema that he chose to film the documentary without a narrator’s voice, without a forced narrative arc, and without a hint of editorial judgment. This way, the film is one that both Virk and his critics can appreciate. Its signal triumph is that it humanises its subject, leaving viewers, who may only ever have viewed Virk with suspicion or hostility, feeling a sense of sympathy for him. Towards the end of the film, we see Virk at Islamabad’s D-Chowk, where Imran Khan used to hold his sit-in rallies, threatening to bring Nawaz Sharif’s government down, and where Virk was first converted to his cause, as he told Vanity Fair last year, when he was interviewed for a profile of the prime minister.
As Virk walks towards Constitution Avenue, where the Prime Minister’s House and Parliament are arrayed alongside the Presidential Palace and Supreme Court, we imagine what a different life for him would have looked like: one where he would have joined his fellow PTI supporters in government, taking up a job in a ministry or a seat in parliament. Now, he’s not even part of PTI’s social media team. They have moved on and he’s still at D-Chowk, lingering in the wilderness, searching for a way to reclaim his dream, whatever it is.
If Virk had been born into a known political family, or had wealth of its own, or spoke English fluently without an accent, his obvious talents would likely have earned him far more success. But it is perhaps because of his own background that Virk forged the path that he did, lashing out against the English-speaking elites who may now feel embattled themselves but who dominated the world of social media when he arrived, who remained unaware of their own privilege or condescended to the Urdu-speaking majority, and who wouldn’t have taken the slightest notice of him unless he confronted them with the ferocity of a troll.
Cheema’s film also prompts reflections on how different the world is now that many people experience it mainly through a screen and a data package. Social media brings us all in closer proximity to each other, but does so at an extreme physical distance, something we are all having to get used to as a new reality during the pandemic. Without having to sit physically in front of each other, or even hear each other’s words spoken, we communicate in ways that heighten the possibility of conflict and actively diminish the possibility of understanding. In doing so, we only offer a partial side of ourselves; an artifice, at the cost of sharing the vulnerability that makes each of us neither a villain, nor a hero — just human.
The writer covered Pakistan for TIME Magazine from 2008-2016
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 26th, 2020
The article has been amended to include Farhan Virk's denial that he was behind the fake Geoffrey Langlands Twitter account