Until a few months ago, then Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ‘digital warriors’ were at the forefront of propagating Pakistan’s state narrative on national security and foreign policy.
Digital strategy became a “regular feature” on the agenda of national security meetings. “To fight the disinformation war against Pakistan, there was strong coordination through the Stratcom [strategic communications] committee, convened under the former National Security Division [NSD], where the ISPR [Inter-Services Public Relations], Foreign Office and the DMW [digital media wing] worked together to decide on a narrative,” former focal person to the prime minister on digital media, Dr Arslan Khalid, tells Eos.
Established in August 2020, the digital media wing of the information ministry was tasked with enhancing the presence of the government’s digital assets and also promoting the government’s messaging on digital media.
Even the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s (PTI) critics cannot deny its formidable command of content engineering. From documentaries, to explainers and partnerships with security think tanks, a range of content displayed how well they could utilise digital media.
While in office, Imran Khan’s tech-savvy PTI dominated social media, promoting its messaging and the state’s narrative. After Khan’s ouster, however, the state is finding it difficult to control the same strategies employed against it. But the larger question remains: does online presence translate to real support?
There were campaigns around key foreign policy and national security events. There was a hashtag for the US withdrawal from Afghanistan (#AbsolutelyNot). There was another one for India’s false flag operation (#SurpriseDay — a hashtag that would be repurposed in April 2022, when Khan would try to hold on to office with a ‘surprise’ announcement for the opposition).
While the PTI’s opponents were still warming up to Twitter trends, the party’s digital media wing team, comprising content creators and marketing professionals, was already leaving a lasting impression, even on those pulling the strings.
“We turned into a lethal machine,” says Altaf Khan, who led the wing’s communications. “The NSD and MOFA [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] would provide the narrative and we would build a campaign around it after getting input from all participants.”
The narrative would be closely controlled by this ‘lethal machine’. Under Khan’s captaincy, the country also divided further into echo chambers (online and offline), with no-holds-barred vilification becoming the norm and the discourse being reduced to ‘us’ vs ‘them’. Any critical discourse was portrayed as an ‘outside’ attack, intended to alter the perspectives of Pakistani citizens.
Yet, today, the same online platforms, that the PTI so aggressively tried to control, are now becoming spaces where they rally for their right to criticise state institutions.
As the PTI stands on the other end of power, the digital media wing has been replaced by another department. But clipping the PTI’s social media ‘warriors’ wings has been a challenge for the powers that be. They took flight years ago and claimed Twitter and other online platforms as their domain. Letting go of this domain is another thing that is #namanzoor (unacceptable) to the party. The looming question, however, is will its digital strength translate into numbers on ground…
ON THE SAME PAGE
In the beginning, the digital warriors were at the forefront of fighting ‘disinformation’ against Pakistan. From the ‘IK warriors’ to ‘Team Pak Zindabad,’ the machinery’s goal was to collectively set the record straight on and weed out and counter campaigns deemed ‘anti-state’, run by ‘traitors’ who dared to dissent from the official narrative.
The ‘same-page’ networks, branded under the Pakistani flag and Khan’s popularity, together populated trends in favour of Kashmir and against India, but also those in favour of Khan. Coordinated groups not only amplified trends but also mass-reported accounts of journalists and activists they deemed ‘unpatriotic’.
While the PTI lawmakers proposed legislation banning criticism of armed forces, the digital arm pushed the ‘traitor’ discourse forward.
Everyone hopped on to the disinformation bandwagon.
Since Khan’s ouster through a no-confidence vote in the National Assembly, several anti-army trends have hit the trends panel across social media platforms.
Days before Pakistan celebrated its 75th year of independence last year, the digital media wing released a 135-report analysing “anti-state trends” that it said were run by India and Afghanistan to discredit the PTI government, especially Pakistan Army. The report, intended to provide “data-driven” evidence of disinformation efforts against Pakistan, stirred up widespread criticism within political circles and journalists for misleading people into believing they were involved and were “anti-state”.
The pushback, from the journalists and individuals who were targeted, was fast and loud. The internet does not forgive even those who amass in numbers.
Expectedly, the DMW did not retract the report. It did, however, tweet a clarification: “If an account is listed in a report, it doesn’t always imply that the content of the tweet is anti-state. Some accounts have engaged/replied with an anti-state hashtag to rebut. But since they used the hashtag their accounts got listed in the report.”
For those mentioned, it wasn’t enough. “I have always raised my voice against any propaganda against our state but, the way the report was compiled, it made me look as one of the culprits and suddenly social media was rife with messages calling me anti-state,” journalist Fereeha Idrees told a digital news outlet.
Less than a year later, the very individuals who were part of creating this culture find themselves on the wrong side of the arbitrary ‘anti-state’ line.
Today, the tsunami has changed direction.
“Hours after the regime change, my house was raided and ransacked by 15 personnel in eight vehicles just before the sehr time,” Khalid said in a statement released on social media on April 13. “Recently, my WhatsApp account was also hacked,” continued Khalid, who was apparently accused of running campaigns against state institutions.
Since Khan’s ouster through a no-confidence vote in the National Assembly, several anti-army trends have hit the trends panel across social media platforms. While the establishment has reiterated its ‘neutral’ stance on the ongoing political crisis, many disgruntled PTI supporters believe that the ostensibly ‘neutrals’ enabled Khan’s removal behind the scenes.
Sure-footed social media strategies propagated the PTI’s messaging while they were in power. And they have continued to do the same since Khan’s ouster.
“Social media has helped Khan create a rally-around-the-flag effect and offset the baggage of incumbency and his poor governance,” Asfandyar Mir, a senior analyst at the United States Institute for Peace, tells Eos in an email interview. The term “rally ’round the flag effect”, first coined by political scientist John Mueller, suggests that, in times of international crises, the popularity of leaders increases.
“The fact that Khan has been able to poach supporters and influencers from the military’s online ecosystem, and get parts of it to align with his coalition, is one of the big achievements of his digital politics,” observes Mir.
After the vote of no-confidence, PTI leaders and supporters have been louder and more vocal online. The PTI’s collective disappointment and frustration translated into a record-breaking trend on Twitter. The #ImportedHukoomatNaManzoor [‘Imported Government Unacceptable’] trend generated an unprecedented volume of over 106 million tweets by the end of April.
While the PTI leadership proudly claims credit for the popular hashtag, it has not accepted responsibility for those propagating anti-military content. Yet, many of the accounts using the hashtag and tweeting at the DG ISPR and Chief of Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa are familiar accounts of PTI supporters.
The frustration towards the army has translated into Twitter trends. One trend calling for Gen Bajwa to step down as army chief amassed millions of tweets and trended for a week. Another trend calling Gen Bajwa a “traitor” also received almost a million tweets.
Among those arrested over running smear campaigns against the army was one PTI activist who trended campaigns such as #ExecuteTraitor and #LosersCantBeDefenders. His Twitter account has been suspended, following his arrest.
The outrage is not limited to Twitter trends. PTI workers and activists have also been aggressively tagging the DG ISPR’s Twitter account, questioning the crackdown on PTI workers during the recent Azadi March.
In a confessional video circulated on media, a social media activist, Sadaqat Hussain, alleged that he had been running fake Twitter accounts impersonating army officers to “create division and differences among the officers of the Pakistan Army.” Hussain, who said he was selected by the PTI team in Tehsil Shahpur, was part of multiple WhatsApp groups managed by the official social media team.
The PTI’s leadership, however, has apparently lost track of how many supporters have helped run its top trends over the past years.
“We had added hundreds of supporters in groups and used to share data with them related to achievements and new initiatives. We are not responsible for the fake accounts or content they post,” says Azhar Mashwani, former focal person to the Punjab Chief Minister.
As the PTI stands on the other end of power, the digital media wing has been replaced by another department. But clipping the PTI’s social media ‘warriors’ wings has been a challenge for the powers that be. They took flight years ago and claimed Twitter and other online platforms as their domain.
The PTI leadership may distance itself but the anti-state label spares no one. The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) has been raiding the homes of PTI’s social media activists for their involvement in a vilification campaign against institutions, especially the army.
Doing what they do the best, PTI workers are swamping digital spaces with videos and pictures showing policemen raiding their homes and harassing their family members. A tweet documenting “PML-N’s fascism” has generated over 7,400 retweets and over 20,000 likes. The party is also organising a social media summit.
What was once created to be a success story in narrative ops, has now spiralled out of control.
Despite the crackdown, Khan’s tech-savvy Insafians are not bowing down. Instead, they are innovating and expanding their audience. “What stands out is that since Khan’s ouster, the scale of the PTI’s digital influence has become even bigger,” says Asfandyar Mir.
“The PTI can blend high levels of organic online support and coordinated activity to amplify the narratives of its online coalition across platforms, which is both remarkable and — given the divisive content — pernicious,” he adds.
“Until the falling out between Khan and Bajwa, PTI member and supporter accounts on social media would regularly tap into nationalist and populist sentiment by posting content praising the military,” says Michael Kugelman, the deputy director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center.
According to Kugelman, however, the party wants to be re-elected and PTI accounts would be careful not to take more broad anti-military positions on social media. “I certainly don’t expect Insafians to remove those ‘I love Pak Army’ statements off their Twitter bios anytime soon, if at all,” he says.
Khan, who used to be mockingly referred to as ‘Facebook Khan’, has continued to leverage social media. Today he is one of the global leaders with the most Twitter followers.
“I want to thank all our social media warriors who have valiantly taken our fight against US regime change conspiracy forward on all social media platforms,” Khan tweeted to his 16.8m followers on Twitter. “Continue carrying on our movement for [Pakistan’s] sovereignty [and] democracy. You are our frontline warriors. #MarchAgainstImportedGovt,” he continued.
In a recent press conference, when asked what message did Khan have for supporters sharing anti-army content in every nook and corner of the country, the PTI chairman said no one could control social media. “Social media has democratised Pakistan. It has given people a voice. Anyone with a phone has a voice now. We are not sowing divisions,” he said.
Ironically, experts note otherwise and credit Khan for furthering polarisation. “PTI’s popularity has only encouraged division, a trend of online abuse and at times fake news,” Ihsan Yilmaz, a research professor at the Deakin University in Australia.
Comparing Khan’s populist politics to India’s Narendra Modi’s, Yilmaz notes that the “otherisation” of critics of the PTI and those who do not identify with Khan’s narrative leaves little room for pluralism. In India, people were fed the diet of hate against Muslims, in Pakistan it is against democracy.
Under PTI, anyone critical of the party’s leader was a supporter of the corrupt elite — or, worse, an unpatriotic citizen who did not want to make Pakistan a better place.
While social media is a powerful tool in the hands of populists, its use for polarisation and emotional mobilisation can be “quite damaging” for society, Yilmaz warns.
On the flipside, Khan has continued to use social media to establish that he is ‘accessible’ to the average citizen, as opposed to the ‘elite’ leaders who are currently in office. He and his team are at the forefront of finding alternative ways to reach their supporters and propagate their message.
In January 2020, Khan held a meeting with leading YouTubers when he was the prime minister. Continuing the tradition, on the third day of this past Eid, a team of young content creators was invited to Khan’s Bani Gala residence to interview the former prime minister. “It happened overnight,” says Syed Muzamil Hasan Zaidi, host of the podcast series ‘Thought Behind Things’. “My aim was to establish podcasts as a serious medium in Pakistan…and Khan Sahib’s clout helps drive the point home.”
Zaidi, and content creators Junaid Akram and Talha Asad, hosted a podcast with Imran Khan as a guest. Produced and released within 12 hours, the podcast garnered over 3 million full-length views and 10 million short clip views across social media platforms.
“There was no script,” says Zaidi. “Podcasts are not interviews, the style of conversation is organic. The imagery is more human and it connects with people,” he adds.
“People have lost trust in conventional media’s imagery. Alternate media resonates more with young audiences,” he says.
While alternate media certainly resonates more with the youth, this is likely not the only consideration behind choosing to use these platforms. Interviews with journalists may bring forth questions and talking points Khan does not want to engage with. Candid conversations, be they with online content creators or with choice individuals, such as film star Shaan, are also certainly part of a strategy. And if we have seen one thing over the years, it is that the PTI knows how to put together an effective communication strategy.
Khan and his team have continued to find ways to talk directly to the people. Earlier in April, nearly half a million users from around the world interacted with him via Spaces, an audio live feature on Twitter. Khan’s record-breaking Twitter rally was also livestreamed on other platforms with thousands watching on Facebook and Instagram.
Pakistan is going through a youth bulge, where its young population is one of the highest in South Asia. A growing number of educated youth have access to affordable internet. “The PTI has skilfully appealed to this segment by using social media,” says Yilmaz. “Its messaging makes use of a variety of emotions that are effective in attracting young people.”
Yilmaz, who has done extensive research on Khan’s populist politics, notes that Khan’s strategy is of particular appeal to the youth as he directly speaks to his young supporter base, who want to hear from him. Much of Khan’s political rhetoric is also personality-driven and his personal experiences and life hacks are central to his messaging.
“The PTI capitalised on the opportunity and worked with young people in a coherent way which gave them a significant edge,” says Sameen Mohsin, a lecturer in international development at the University of Birmingham. “It has led to this perception that the party is more representative of a larger proportion of the public.”
CIRCUMVENTING NEWS MEDIA
In the intense build up to the PTI’s “historic” Azadi March, PTI’s social media mastery, from branding to organising Twitter Spaces was top notch. In a surprise turn of events, however, while Khan had repeatedly urged his supporters to reach D-Chowk in Islamabad in order to push the government towards new elections, predicting a turnover of 2-3 million, estimates pointed to a turnover close to 20,000. Khan also sprang a surprise by retreating and calling off the march. Khan’s decision left almost everyone perplexed, including his Insafians.
The latest showing has led many to ask the same question: the PTI may be ahead of the curve in manoeuvring these shifting sands, but will online advantage translate into real victories?
In two surveys on the uptake of social media in Pakistan, Asfandyar Mir of USIP and political scientist Dr Niloufer Siddiqui found that roughly 45 to 50 percent people in a nationally representative sample reported getting most of their news through television and traditional media. However, they found that the internet in general and social media were catching up, becoming go-to sources of news for around 20 percent and 10 percent of those surveyed, respectively.
In an effort to translate its digital strength into electoral power, the PTI is already leading online voter education campaigns (#Register2vote), urging people to ensure that they are registered to vote.
“Khan and PTI’s digital media strategy may shift more people towards social media while deepening distrust of news from mainstream media sources,” Mir says.
“The new government can’t hold a candle to what the PTI can do on social media,” says Kugelman.
Experts say that, because of the PTI’s attacks on journalists and media outlets, people’s faith in the media has been shaken. The party normalised labelling journalists as ‘sell-outs’ and ‘traitors’, and presented social media — where there are few editorial mechanisms — as a platform for ‘authentic’ news.
“This lack of trust is infectious and spreading to state institutions [including] the election commission, the judiciary, etc,” says Yilmaz. “The contract between the state and citizens is shattering and demigods are swaying societies with their ‘truth.’”
“This is also because people know which TV channel belongs to which side, so now people just watch a channel that promotes what they believe in, thickening the walls between different segments of society and imprisoning them to their own bubbles and echo chambers,” he adds.
These trends can be observed around the world.
Rasmus Kleis Nielson, director of the Reuters Institute of Journalism, points out that whatever they may say about how they feel about social media, many politicians across the world are actively trying to use it to circumvent news media and reach citizens online without having to deal with editorial gatekeepers.
He suggests that politicians should not be the only ones thinking about how to capture the attention of algorithms.
“As more and more people use social media, and more and more politicians try to reach people via these social media [platforms], it becomes more and more important for news media to be [really] clear about what makes their journalistic output different from what people can find online, or hear directly from politicians themselves,” he tells Eos in an email interview.
“That puts a clear premium on independent, original reporting, which has a better chance of standing out from the constant churn of news, based on recycling material from press releases, self-interested anonymous sources and coverage of staged media events,” he adds.
The new coalition government decided to close down the PTI’s digital media wing and established a cyber wing in the information ministry. The cyber wing is set to circulate the government’s achievements and publicise its direction plans on social media platforms.
According to a reliable source privy to the matter, the cyber wing is outsourcing work to digital agencies. Screenshots shared with Eos show that the digital agencies have been tasked with creating a media plan and content for the government’s campaigns, including #PakistanSpeed and other political campaigns.
Of course, they are also tasked with countering ‘propaganda’. Multiple agencies confirmed to Eos that they were working with the information ministry on digital advertising, denying however that they were involved in running political campaigns. The cyber wing was not available to comment on the matter, despite repeated requests from this reporter.
Unlike his predecessor, the focal person to Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on digital media, Abubaker Umer, apparently wants to bring the conversation back to the role of mainstream media. “Social media is an attention economy,” he tells Eos. “Anyone can become a ‘journalist’ and make millions on YouTube but the content is fake.”
Umer, citing research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the London School of Economics (LSE), believes the solution lies with mainstream media. “Unlike social media influencers and teams, media has an editorial policy, a code of conduct. Trump’s team introduced the culture of fake news, and the media started fact-checking his speeches live. The media must unite and delegitimise false narratives,” he suggests.
Umer seems unaffected by the PTI’s social media strength and evolving strategy. For the focal person, MOFA is effective in state building and the ministry of information is “utilising the machinery well.”
“The new government can’t hold a candle to what the PTI can do on social media,” says Kugelman of the new government’s capability. “Certainly the PDM [Pakistan Democratic Movement] coalition has its leaders with large accounts and its many social media influencers. But the PTI has the advantage in organisation and numbers, not to mention the troll armies that aim to control the narrative so aggressively.
“Another disadvantage for the current government is that it’s so focused on political survival and a short mandate that it likely won’t have the capacity to craft a new and effective social media strategy,” he adds.
Muzamil Hasan, who has also hosted podcasts with Miftah Ismail of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Hafeez Naeem of the Jamaat-i-Islami, thinks parties, including the PTI need to be more open and receptive to expanding their audiences. “If the PTI reached out first, don’t curse them, learn from them. The top tiers are usually very dismissive of digital media. This won’t work in their favour anymore,” he says. “The PTI, too, should engage with more alternate voices.”
According to Mir, however, it is a question of trade-offs.
“Khan has empowered and elevated those parts of his party who are better at digital media. That appears to hurt his electoral machine, but it is a trade-off he appears willing to make,” he says.
“Other parties can only claim more digital politics space if their leaders begin to value digital politics, centre themselves in online messaging. Some do, like Maryam Nawaz, but it is a more marginal effort compared to PTI,” he notes. “Leaders of other parties also need to spend time understanding digital politics to compete with Khan. But I suspect that they won’t in the near-future, as they still don’t see a clear payoff for their electoral outcomes,” he predicts.
Whether social media presence will translate directly into votes remains to be seen. But, at this stage, the importance of a loud social media presence in narrative building is well established. The PTI understands this. And will continue to be a force online, whether their leader is in office or not.
The writer is a journalist who covers technology and human rights. She tweets @ramshajahangir
Published in Dawn, EOS, June 5th, 2022