“PROMISED to fight to the last ball. Tomorrow is a new day, a new struggle,” tweeted Dr Arslan Khalid, recently ousted prime minister Imran Khan’s focal person on digital media, on April 9 with the hashtag ‘Imported Hukoomat Namanzur’.

It took only a couple of hours for the struggle to begin. “Hours after the regime change, my house was raided and ransacked by 15 personnel in eight vehicles just before the Sehr time,” Dr Khalid said in a statement on Wednesday, days after remaining “in hiding” according to PTI sources.

Since last week, with the curtain falling on Mr Imran Khan’s tenure, the tabdeeli warriors of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) are doing what they do best; they have taken over social media. Rallying for independence from US interference, the PTI’s official account-led ‘imported hukumat’ hashtag has been trending on the national and global trends panel for days, with an unprecedented volume of 17 million tweets, including retweets. While Khan’s supporters dominated the trends panel, anti-establishment trends also benefited from the high traffic on the platform.

Dr Khalid, who was reportedly accused of running the smear campaign, in his statement pointed to a “certain lobby” for the raid at his home. “This tragedy happened because for the past few years I was wrongly framed by the then opposition and a certain lobby for running malicious social media campaigns against political opponents, women journalists, and everything under the sun,” he said.

While he did not directly address the smear trends on Twitter in his statement, he urged the “PTI family” to protest the “draconian imported set-up” through peaceful means. “This includes using logic, data, and evidence in a respectful way to counter the government abuse of power and propaganda,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, the Federal Investigation Agency’s (FIA) counter-terrorism wing has launched a crackdown on social media activists that it believes have been involved in a smear campaign against institutions, especially the army. The FIA earlier told Dawn that the vilification campaign against the institutions had been launched in an “organised manner” by social media activists operating from within and outside the country. It has not named any party for leading the campaigns.

Who is responsible for the trends?

There are 3.4 million accounts running on Twitter from Pakistan. The ‘Imported Hukoomat Namanzur’ hashtag in Urdu alone generated a volume of 17 million tweets, while one anti-army hashtag generated over 69,000 tweets and a similar one over 410,000 tweets.

According to Asad Baig of Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD), it would be incorrect to blame the PTI for leading all such campaigns. However, he told Dawn, the top contributors populating the anti-army trends had a clear history of posting in support of the PTI and participating in their trends.

“For example, 30pc Twitter accounts contributing to [an anti-army hashtag] are also contributing to ‘Imported Hakoomat Namanzur’; 45pc accounts from [another anti-army trend] are also contributing to ‘Imported Hakoomat Namanzur’,” he said, based on his findings from MMfD’s Trends Monitor, an assessment framework to monitor and identify inauthentic traffic in political hashtags. For instance, one such account sent over a 1,000 tweets to the ‘imported’ hashtag, and hundreds to the anti-army trends.

Refuting the possibility of foreign propaganda, Baig shared that 72pc of the volume (410,000) under the anti-army campaigns was generated in Pakistan, followed by 5pc in the UK and 4pc in the UAE. A majority of the tweets under these trends were sent from Lahore, he shared.

While the majority of the accounts participating in the campaigns use PTI branding, such as the party flag, Imran Khan’s picture, or “PTI family” in their bio, the party’s social media team claims no responsibility for smear campaigns run by activists. The PTI official Twitter account, however, is documenting instances of threats and “political victimisation” on the platform and providing legal support to its supporters. A petition challenging the harassment of PTI social media activists has also been filed by the party leadership.

According to Azhar Mashwani, the former focal person on digital media to the Punjab chief minister, the FIA has arrested and raided at least four PTI social media activists, who are not part of the official team.

One such activist, who has allegedly been arrested according to PTI sources, trended campaigns such as #ExecuteTraitor and #LosersCantBeDefenders. His account has now been temporarily restricted by Twitter for violation of platform rules and the user has also deleted a few tweets criticising the army.

“They are accusing us of leading the smear campaigns, but none of the PTI workers are behind the trends. These raids and arrests are illegal. They have revoked the Peca ordinance and even under Section 20 of Peca they should first send a notice and investigate before taking action,” Mashwani told Dawn.

When asked who is responsible for the activity of the volunteer network, PTI’s Twitter lead Jibran Ilyas said just because an account has a PTI display or logo does not mean it belongs to the party. Ilyas said he had already urged members against targeting state institutions, especially the army.

“When favourable hashtags trend, political parties claim popularity. Boast about their power. But distance themselves from accounts defaming individuals in the same hashtags,” remarked Baig.

He suggested that either political parties monitor and publicly distance themselves from accounts involved in defamation or claim responsibility if they want to use the same networks to boost traffic for PTI trends.

Published in Dawn, April 14th, 2022

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