On July 22 last year, a rambunctious crowd of over 20,000 Pakistani-Americans gathered in Washington DC to listen to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s speech. They waited for Khan to take the stage, and excitedly posted updates on their Instagram and Twitter feeds.
They were not alone. Thousands of volunteers working for Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s (PTI’s) social media wing had also geared up to take the internet by storm.
Based in different parts of the world, the team had a variety of tasks, including promoting the government’s official hashtag for the jalsa. With over 22,000 accounts posting from several regions, including the UK, Saudi Arabia and (a majority in) the US, #PMIKJalsainUSA became a top trend on Twitter’s worldwide panel — even before the prime minister began his address.
These supporters’ efforts did not go unnoticed. “I would like to thank the volunteers of the PTI social media [team],” Khan tweeted to his then over 11 million followers (the leader now has over 12 million followers on Twitter).
In Naya Pakistan, Twitter trends sometimes seem to matter more than governance. Perhaps this is why Khan’s internet-driven supporter base is so invested in leading a ‘positive’ perception campaign.
Not too long ago, Khan’s PTI was mockingly called a ‘social media’ party. Today PTI seems to be having the last laugh — at least as far as social media presence is concerned. Now every major politician is trying to build an online persona and every party is using platforms like Twitter to propagate their narrative.
But lately the ‘social media’ party has been clutching at straws to maintain the public’s “positive mood”. Although, now is the toughest time to tame. Since coming to power two years ago, the Khan-led administration has lurched from one crisis to another.
Public discourse, hence, is critical amid perceptions of faltering governance in the face of a pandemic, a disgruntled media, a dampened economy, mismanagement of food and other crises, and revelations of infighting and discontentment brewing within the party.
No matter how strong the PTI’s social media team may be at perception management, the cracks are starting to show everywhere — even online.
“Image-building will help Pakistan strategically,” says Imran Ghazali, the newly-recruited head of the government’s digital media wing, who has also previously headed PTI’s social media wing.
With visibility online being the central plank in PTI’s governance, the Khan-led administration is now looking for more ways to structure its communication strategy. In April this year, the government approved plans to establish a digital media wing at the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
With the addition of the wing, the PTI social media wing and the government’s digital machinery will now work separately. Although they still collaborate on hashtag campaigns and promotional content, the teams managing the government’s social media accounts are no longer working for the PTI.
Still, the announcement of the wing has stirred several controversies, including concerns that the digital media wing has been recruited to exclusively defend the policies of Imran Khan’s administration.
“The wing has a broader mandate,” Arslan Khalid, the PM’s focal person on digital media, tells Eos.
Interestingly, despite the high pay scales for the digital media wing, Khalid says his appointment as the PM’s focal person is not salary-based but “voluntary”.
Initially, the cabinet approved the allocation of a supplementary grant of 42.791 million rupees for the wing.
However, according to the Establishment Division notification, individuals will be paid as per their ‘management pay’ scale. The pay scale for the top position (MP-II) is expected to be almost 300,000 rupees, in addition to other perks, with 150,000 rupees being the basic pay.
The pay scale for the posts on MP-III scale is expected to range between 127,000 rupees to 200,000 rupees, in addition to other perks, while 16 others would be paid lumpsum salaries of 75,000 rupees.
PTI rose to popularity claiming that it was the only party that does not rely on a sifarish [nepotism] culture. Calls for accountability and transparency make up its core anthem. But since the formal notification of the appointments, the names selected for the digital media wing have raised eyebrows. What followed was a ‘Sifarish culture bund karo’ [Stop sifarish culture] campaign against the government itself, with disgruntled ‘volunteers’ claiming the appointments had exposed the PTI’s “fake meritocracy.”
Not too long ago, Khan’s PTI was mockingly called a ‘social media’ party. Today PTI seems to be having the last laugh — at least as far as social media presence is concerned.
Having led the PTI’s social media teams in the past, Imran Ghazali’s appointment as the digital media wing head has drawn criticism from even within the party’s social media teams. But Khalid rubbishes these claims. “Out of the six people selected so far, only Ghazali was previously associated with PTI,” he says. “Interviews were conducted by the information ministry and selections were made on merit and skill set only.”
“I have over 14 years of experience in the digital media industry and have previously led digital strategy for brands and public initiatives such as Alif Ailaan,” says Ghazali, who has been involved with the PTI web team since 2007, and has played a central role in recruiting, training and organising hundreds of volunteers.
According to the new recruits, these are “technocratic” positions and not political appointments. “We have to adhere to the strict rules and regulations of PPRA as well as the bureaucracy working in the federal government,” wrote Muzamil Hasan, the wing’s digital media consultant, in a blog post on Medium.
Despite the criticism, the digital team is already at work.
“There is no state presence on social media,” says Khalid. “Only 10 ministries have accounts on social media, 22 others still have no representation. This is why more fake news spreads, as leaders often retweet fake accounts. Authentic information should come from official accounts only.”
According to Ghazali, his immediate goal is to make accounts of ministries operational. “Look at India, all the ambassadors’ accounts are verified. Even Pakistan’s ambassador to the UN’s account was not verified,” he says.
Surprisingly, for his own Twitter account, the prime minister does not have a digital team vetting content.
Despite being the first Pakistani premier to use social media, and one of the most followed leaders in the world, Khan’s tweets as prime minister are sometimes written and, almost always sent out, by his aides.
“The nature of the job is to bring the federal government into the digital age. We hope to do more live streams with federal ministers and officials, so that they can directly answer major questions being asked on digital,” says Hasan, who started out as an influencer on Instagram and YouTube, and has worked as a digital strategist over the last few years.
Hasan is a Naya Pakistan digital success story. Starting out as a passionate young content creator online, he could go on to join the government’s digital wing. Indeed, PTI has engaged with content creators in a way no government in the past has, with varying results.
“Imagery has power, imagery changes perceptions,” says Hasan, talking about the visuals that came from the grand inauguration of the Kartarpur Corridor on November 9 last year. As thousands of Sikhs from across the border arrived in Pakistan to make a pilgrimage to the shrine of Guru Nanak, a group of 25 content creators were live on Instagram.
These content creators, invited from across Pakistan, were given ‘special access’ by the government to attend the event free of cost.
“We created content on the Kartarpur opening driven by human experience, not as a choreographed political event,” says Hasan, the brains behind the initiative.
While the media was flooded with coverage of the prime minister’s speech, the influencers were broadcasting, to their large social media followings, stories from behind the scenes.
“We were not branding the prime minister,” Hasan tells Eos. “We show the world through our own experiences,” he says, adding that the Kartarpur hashtag was trending on Instagram organically.
This was the first of many times that the government reached out to online influencers to help spread their message.
In December last year, around seven to eight YouTubers, including Hasan, were also invited to the launch of the prime minister’s Digital Pakistan initiative. Interaction with government officials during the launch set the path for content creators, such as Hasan and Shahbaz Khan of the digital media wing, to make it into the power corridors of Islamabad.
Later, Hasan helped the Digital Pakistan team build a media strategy for six months. He was also invited to the Covid war room at the National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC), to directly communicate official developments to the public, owing to his large following on Instagram and YouTube.
The biggest breakthrough for the content creators was when the prime minister held a meeting with leading digital media specialists and YouTubers earlier this year. Although the interaction barely touched upon the challenges of digital media, the meeting was successful in winning the trust of digital influencers.
Doing what they do the best, the digital content creators then shot explainer videos and wrote social media posts for their followers to share their experience of meeting the country’s prime minister.
“The Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, called upon individuals from digital media to interact and ask questions first hand. Until now, this opportunity was limited to traditional media, where the youth, and conversations led by the young ones are usually left out,” wrote Salman Parekh, a digital content creator, after attending the meeting.
“For impact, one has to find ways to bring the leader’s voice directly to people,” Hasan says. “The PM’s interaction with us showed that he respects the digital media industry. There is a future for us.”
“The population of Pakistan is mostly young,” Hasan says. “They don’t relate to the way the mainstream media broadcasts news. We have to humanise politicians. Written statements or recorded TV interviews are not effective anymore.”
But while the engagement with young content creators is welcome, the alienation of the mainstream media and curbs on anything critical of the government have not gone unnoticed. On the one hand, the PTI government is increasingly working towards eliminating the disconnect with the public through alternate media while, on the other hand, the government’s relationship with the mainstream media has soured over the years. Many in mainstream media see the alternate media as nothing more than public relationing and consider the new focus a way for the ruling party to bypass critical questioning.
Last year, the official account of PTI fired off over two dozen tweets in English and Urdu, lambasting the press and calling it “Anti-state”.
“Media houses & journalists must take care that, in their quest for criticism on [the] state, they intentionally or unintentionally do not end up propagating the enemy’s stance,” read a tweet, with the hashtag #JournalismNotAgenda.
Acting on the prime minister’s directives, one of the more prominent roles of the PTI’s digital media machinery is expressly to counter what they deem ‘fake news’. Besides official accounts, dozens of ‘volunteer’ accounts have popped up on Twitter recently to debunk alleged fake news and target journalists — some that are regularly promoted and retweeted by government representatives.
“Dear #PTIFamily , you wanted us to prioritise the issue of #FakeNews — we are pleased to share the following resources: 1) Dedicated Fake News Buster Page on our Website — https://insaf.pk/fakenewsbuster; 2) Follow @SHABAZGIL @arslankhalidm @MashwaniAzhar and @PkFakeNews for rebuttals,” the PTI’s official account tweeted on July 2.
While the fake news buster account was officially launched by the information ministry a couple of years ago, it has remained dormant for many months. Other accounts, such as the one called ‘Pakistani Fake News’, are apparently ‘volunteer’ efforts, but are often followed by PTI officials and their social media teams.
‘Pakistani Fake News’, which is followed by over 16,000 people, often directly targets journalists and media organisations, schooling them on journalism and accusing them of spreading lies and disinformation.
The account’s bio reads (translated): “You who fabricate whatever news you please, do not be so bold. You try to pry on people’s secrets, why won’t your secrets be revealed?”
The accounts targeting journalists may be volunteer initiatives, but some government spokespersons’ social media accounts are no different.
“So it’s very very clear that Mir Shakil’s Noukars [servants] will do anything to defame PMIK/Govt and won’t stop propaganda even in this National Emergency,” Azhar Mashwani, the Punjab chief minister’s focal person on digital media, tweeted in March, referring to the Jang Group CEO Mir Shakilur Rehman. “So insafians, buckle up & take them head on,” he encouraged.
In a May 1 threat he highlighted the need to tackle “fake news”, and put out an appeal for recruitment of “active” and “dedicated volunteers.”
“It’s too frustrating to fight #FakeNews 24/7 without any help from #PEMRA or any Department,” he wrote. “We are on our own to counter propaganda against #PTI Govts & #PMIK.”
The volunteers, with direct access to government spokespersons, coordinate on WhatsApp, flag what they deem is fake news, and get the officials to respond online with ‘authentic’ information. Unlike formally-worded newspaper clarifications, the response is mostly on the offensive and personal.
But PTI is no longer the only player in the online sphere. Other political parties, including PML-N and PPP, have followed suit and deserve to be equally condemned for normalising and enabling abuse online, even though it may be on a scale lower.
As a result, more journalists are now opting to go offline, or choose to stay silent on Twitter.
“Discourse on social media is increasingly toxic, especially when one comments on matters related to the current government,” says Usama Khilji, the director of the internet advocacy group Bolo Bhi.
“Senior leadership as well as the younger cadres of the PTI often turn abusive or sarcastic to legitimate enquiries, especially from journalists,” he says. “It should be a matter of embarrassing concern for a government, considering this is the attitude towards taxpayers that pay these officials.”
PTI’s tabdeeli [change] rhetoric was launched online in 2006. The founding PTI web management team then comprised only five members, who moderated comments on the ‘Insaf chat forum’ and posted party press releases.
The communication network, since the very start, was dedicated to spreading and amplifying Imran Khan’s narrative on popular current affairs forums, such as ‘Pk politics’ and ‘Siasat.pk’. To further boost Imran Khan’s branding, the team also published electronic gazettes, namely the Insaf Bulletin and KaptaanTimes.
The gazettes routinely carried claims of how different things would be in the future. There were assurances that, in a PTI-led Pakistan, there would be room for dialogue. There was also an effort to speak to women, to make them feel safe at rallies and dharnas.
But since the party took office, one has seen tabdeelis in many of PTI’s positions. Online platforms, that PTI made use of to criticise the then sitting government, are increasingly becoming spaces where dissent is not allowed. And Khan himself has changed so many of his stances that his critics often mock him for his ‘U-Turns.’
Media commentators point out that the PTI leadership would routinely encourage the mainstream media to question those in power before they were in office.
“Our job is to ask questions from the people in power,” says anchor Amber Rahim Shamsi, who has been trolled at the hands of PTI supporters recently. “If journalists are questioning PTI’s performance, they want things [to be] better for Pakistan.”
“The PTI needs to engage in a more civilised fashion,” she says. “Officials speak in evasive words and then the trolls come after you. The responses are intensely personal...they have made memes on my personal life.”
The targets of recent attacks on the media have often been women with differing viewpoints and those whose reports have been critical of the PTI government.
“The online attacks are instigated by government officials and then amplified by a large number of Twitter accounts, which declare their affiliation to the ruling party. This is a clear pattern,” women journalists wrote in a joint statement last week, calling for the government to immediately restrain its members from repeatedly targeting them (this reporter is one of the authors of the statement).
In what is certainly a well-defined and coordinated campaign, personal details of journalists have been made public, the statement added.
“To discredit, frighten and intimidate reporters, we are referred to as peddlers of “fake news”, “enemy of the people” and accused of taking bribes (often termed as “paid” journalists or lifafas). In some instances, our pictures and videos have also been morphed,” the statement said.
Lately, there have also been attempts to hack into the social media accounts of reporters and commentators, as well as limit their access to information. In some cases, journalists have been locked out of their social media accounts as a result of these hacking attempts.
“The government should send out a clear message to all party members, supporters and followers, to desist from launching these attacks, whether directly or indirectly,” the journalists demanded.
“Disturbing to learn of women journalists being targeted and abused...” Shireen Mazari, the minister for human rights, tweeted in response to the statement. She added that she has requested the information minister to assist in fast-tracking “our Journalist Protection Bill, which is not only an urgent need in Pakistan but an obligation under our Constitution and international law.”
“A provincial minister targeted me on Twitter for posting a story that was not even written by me,” shares journalist Benazir Shah, who has been regularly reporting on Covid-19 developments.
According to Shah, the official’s tweets were followed by a deluge of attacks, with dozens of accounts tweeting the same thing over and over again, implying that it was a coordinated strategy.
In their defence, PTI ‘official’ members say they have been following a strict code of conduct since 2011. “If an official member is found violating the abuse policy, their membership is cancelled,” says Mohammad Kamran, the PTI’s social media head.
The policy, however, does not apply to thousands of accounts using the PTI and IK’s brand to hurl abuses and run smear campaigns. For instance, on the day journalist Matiuallah Jan was abducted in broad daylight, multiple factions of the PTI decided to trend #DramaQueenMatiuallah.
One of the most retweeted tweets under the hashtag was posted by @NabTheDentist who, according to his Twitter bio, is the central deputy secretary info of the PTI.
“He is from a different wing,” says Kamran. “We only take responsibility for the conduct of official PTI members.”
Exacerbating the issue is the fact that there is no social media policy in place for government officials using abusive language.
The defenders of PTI, however, see no issue at all.
“If a few journalists act as political workers and propaganda machines on social media, citing it as their personal account, then they must appreciate the engagement of political workers,” Mashwani tells Eos. “That’s how social media works.”
Arslan Khalid, the PM’s focal person on digital media, believes journalists should also introspect about why they are facing hate. “If journalists are shameless and peddling fake news, why should we not call them out?” he asks.
Not too long ago Khan’s party appeared to value the right to criticism in a way very few political parties in Pakistan do. In opposition, PTI demanded a corruption-free Pakistan and was motivated to dismantle the status quo. From the then prime minister to the former chief justice of Pakistan, no one was left without being called out: “Oye!”
The tables have now turned.
Getting a taste of their own medicine, the tabdeeli warriors apparently feel victimised at the hands of opponents and the media, who they believe heap “undue criticism” on the government.
“We are in retraining mode. Earlier 80 percent of our rhetoric was about targeting opponents. Now we have to reboot and focus on responding as a government,” says Jibran Ilyas, PTI’s Twitter lead.
Interestingly, quite a few campaigns run by PTI’s official social media accounts are still aimed at ‘exposing the corrupt mafia’ — a term Khan uses to describe rival parties and media critical towards him and his party. Some examples include #SicilainMafiaExposed, ‘PIA ke mujrim [PIA’s criminals] Nawaz, Zardari’ and #CriminalsRulingSindh.
“We exposed the Sindh government with a hashtag during the Karachi rain,” claims Ilyas.
“The opposition, anchors, media and influencers divert the public’s attention from their corruption and criticise the government,” says Ilyas. “We expose them so that the public can decide for themselves.”
In what is certainly a well-defined and coordinated campaign, personal details of journalists have been made public, the statement added. “To discredit, frighten and intimidate reporters, we are referred to as peddlers of “fake news”, “enemy of the people” and accused of taking bribes (often termed as “paid” journalists or lifafas).
They enjoy their leader’s full support. Earlier this year in March, the prime minister held a private meeting with his social media wing. The government has not ‘officially’ disclosed who was invited to the meeting.
According to Kamran, during the meeting, the PM emphasised the growing need to counter fake news and disinformation.
“The prime minister wants his team to counter fake news with facts. He said the SMT [social media team] has the government’s support and access to first hand data. We will fight with logic, not abuse,” the social media head says.
The goal is also to introduce an alternate rhetoric in the face of criticism.
“We need an alternative to counter propaganda and undue criticism by the mainstream media,” says Kamran. “The SMT’s primary role now is to defend the prime minister, promote his vision and share authentic data and government updates.”
For Khan’s government, the approach it seems is to rely on volunteers to build their narrative at no cost.
“We are coming up with creative ways to promote the positive image of Pakistan and highlight positive achievements of the government,” Ilyas tells Eos. “The idea is to make information consumable…free of cost.”
For a free gig, producing campaigns for the PTI requires availability 24/7 and creative labour. According to the party’s website, insaf.pk, the goal of the social media team is to “viral” the PTI message “every day.”
As per a ‘PTI Twitter performance report’ (shared with Eos), for 17 days of July, the social media team ran 15 hashtag campaigns, with 13 hashtags trending (including #PMIKFloorsOpposition and #PMIKTrueAmbassadorofPakistan) on the top panel.
Regardless of the criticism faced by the PTI government, supporters of Khan believe he is the only hope for Pakistan. Any criticism of Khan is met with the same responses of him being honest, clean and sacrificing (it doesn’t hurt that he is handsome and won us the World Cup).
“Imran Khan is not corrupt. They (media and opposition) criticise IK’s government because they cannot find anything against him,” says Ilyas.
For Ilyas and his team, Imran’s vision is all that matters.
“There is a guy on Twitter who barely sleeps and I don’t think he has taken a day off for last several years in an effort to make sure PTI is defended well. He is the first one to wish people on their big days and defends PM IK like a rock,” Ilyas once tweeted.
These narrative builders comprise v-loggers, influencers, graphic designers, cyber security experts, PhD holders, marketing and development professionals. From the original five, the network of official SMT members has now swelled to almost 500 ‘volunteers’ — many of whom are based outside Pakistan.
“It takes 12-16 hours to plan a hashtag,” says Ilyas, who is a cybersecurity expert based in the US.
PTI, being the pioneer of digital politics, also introduced coordinated trends. A coordinated influence campaign is artificially amplified, wherein users give the false impression that there is genuine grassroots support or opposition for a particular group or narrative.
Today, hundreds of accounts operate under the PTI brand. Dozens of teams within teams coordinate over WhatsApp and on other social media platforms to run campaigns.
“Wow, by merely sharing our name & reasons to support PM Khan, #PTIfamily becomes a trending topic. Goes out [sic] to show we PTI supporters STILL rule the social media in terms of numbers that translated to electoral victory in 2018 too,” posted a volunteer, @AamnaFasihi.
The PTI’s primacy on social media also has implications on the mainstream media, which has resorted to often desperate cost-cutting measures amid an unprecedented financial crunch and lack of advertising.
“If this were the Sharifs or the Zardaris, they would place expensive ads for millions of rupees in the newspapers to broadcast their achievements,” Ilyas remarks.
“Social media is extremely important for us because it gives us direct access to the public. This is why the government does not need to spend on expensive ads,” he says.
But social media trends fail to get people talking on days when ground realities hit hard. Sometimes disappointed within, the social media teams do what they do the best: deflect.
On the day when two special assistants of the prime minister (SAPMs) — Dr Zafar Mirza and Tania Aidrus — resigned from their posts as turf wars between the elected and non-elected members of the federal cabinet intensified, PTI’s official account was tweeting #OppositionBlackmail4NRO.
Browsing through headlines detailing all the trouble the country is facing, one’s eye catches a news report saying that the PTI government in Punjab has formed teams at district and tehsil levels “for image building of the government over its achievements and promotion of party policies on social media.”
On Twitter #PMIK_RayOfHope is trending with over 64,000 tweets.
If Twitter trends are to be believed, #PakistanIsMovingForward. But on the ground, trying times for the country are far from over.
The writer is a journalist who covers technology and human rights. She tweets @ramshajahangir
Published in Dawn, EOS, August 16th, 2020