Deepfakes, real resistance: How PTI’s digital warriors are keeping the party alive

From Imran Khan's AI persona to PTI's tech tactics, the party is proving to the state that blocking or banning political opponents just doesn't work anymore.
Published February 3, 2024

I’ll be voting in Pakistan’s 10th general election scheduled for February 8 with a heavy heart and addled brain. Like most people I’ve recently spoken to, I’m confused about who to vote for and am feeling increasingly ambivalent about the utility of exercising my right to adult franchise. Two previous elections drained me of any enthusiasm for democracy.

In truth, my apathy scares me a bit — like when you realise your browser search history has documented your penchant for one particular category of grown-up audio-visual entertainment that is only accessible through VPN in Pakistan.

Speaking of which, Pakistani election politics seems to have gone the way of such adult entertainment (which I promise none of us watch with Hotspot Shield). This is a good time to recall Ghazi Muhammad Abdullah, who at the unsullied age of 15 years so helpfully compiled a list of 780,000 grown-up websites for the PTA in 2012.

Pakistanis need constant moral protection

GM Abdullah’s crusade set the bar high for the PTA but the telecom watchdog has, to its credit, kept the tradition alive. More recently, it protected us from websites the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) set up to aid voters in the election. This is really just like WhatsApp helping me block an ex. And on the subject of bad romances, this national-level break-up has been particularly long drawn out. At the risk of belabouring a reheated analogy, I’d say Imran Khan was one half of a power couple until he was dumped in 2022.

I was in the newsroom when this break-up was unfolding. Helpful suggestions were received from on high that Imran Khan’s face could not be aired and his speeches could not be broadcast. Arrests, political defections, and even Imran’s own incarceration came in swift succession. Riots on May 9 after his arrest landed some people in military court. The PTI was stripped of its ‘cricket bat’ election symbol (Imran is also famous for playing well). Section 144 was imposed in parts of Pakistan to prevent more than five people getting together in the street. Some PTI candidates were prevented from filing their nomination papers.

For any other party, such a clampdown would have led to certain death. In fact, this very much just happened with another political party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM).

Its leader, Altaf Hussain, has been virtually silenced by the state since 2015 after he made a speech in poor taste that was declared anti-Pakistan. The party’s Pakistan-based political leaders at that ill-fated rally were bundled into police vans only to be released 24 hours later after what we refer to cheekily as a “software update”. A court subsequently ruled that no one could report on Altaf Hussain, broadcast his speeches on television, or print his photograph in the newspapers. His party was shredded into so many factions that no one could keep track of its appendage-laden acronyms (MQM-Pakistan, MQM-Altaf, MQM-P PIB Colony, MQM-P Bahadurabad).

Just to get a rise out of my newsroom’s city desk I’d often announce loudly, dramatically and to no one in particular that I missed Altaf Bhai. The newsiest years of my career in journalism as Karachi’s city pages editor, had unfolded in the shadow of his party’s rule. So shot through with blood was his remote-controlled reign that that the party’s election symbol could have been the body bag.

After a military crackdown in the 1990s, Altaf bhai went to London from whose comfort he conducted rallies in Karachi over the telephone. This was pre-Zoom, so he’d come on the line and his voice would be amplified by loudspeakers in the street packed with phalanxes of party workers. “CAN YOU HEAR ME!” Altaf bhai would screech at tympanic membrane shattering decibels. The crowd would dutifully respond in well-trained unison. “Yeeessss, Bhai, we can hear you!”

Until you could not hear Bhai.

Years later, the MQM’s inability to fight state-induced amortisation is a mystery to me — especially since the party had once survived the kind of urban military operation that qualifies for its own baptism (Operation Blue Fox). I’ve been thinking about its impotence ever since the muzzle has grown tighter on Imran’s party; its social media strategists have been sticking it to the man.

And while I am no supporter, I have been amused by the PTI’s response to suppression. As a journalist, in principle I am on the side of anyone who finds creative ways to subvert censorship. (Once when we were gagged at a TV-linked digital newsroom from covering the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan’s marathon sit-in in Islamabad, I got the idea to just publish road and traffic block updates without mentioning the TLP).

The PTI’s guerrilla tactics

With Imran Khan in jail, the PTI’s media wing used AI to generate a clearly labeled audio clip of him to broadcast at a virtual rally — a first in South Asia. A piece by him was published in The Economist which the party later declared had been written by AI as he is in jail. When the party’s cricket bat symbol was taken away, the PTI launched a website, back-up website and then a version on GitHub with constituency-candidate symbol information.

When those websites were blocked, the team turned to Facebook where a chatbot gives you the symbol of the PTI candidate in your constituency. It launched a volunteer site to harness street power to inform people about election symbols. One supporter created an offline Android app version of the PTI’s official election symbol portal. The PTI planned a live TikTok rally. When the party tried to hold a virtual fundraiser and rally online, spearheaded by party leaders and supporters outside Pakistan, particularly in the US and UK, the internet was throttled. It’s a bit of a nuisance to pick on any one platform, so the whole internet was just kind of turned off. The authorities later said there had been a “technical fault”.

By far, though, my favourite example of circumventing censorship is this one: someone put up an election billboard that doesn’t even have Imran Khan’s face or the party logo — it just has a Quranic verse he would often quote against a green and red background. Genius move, as no one will dare take it down.

There is an old joke from the defunct German Democratic Republic that celebrity philosopher Slavoj Zizek tells. A German worker gets a job in Siberia; aware of how all mail will be read by censors, he tells his friends: “Let’s establish a code — if a letter you will get from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it is true; if it is written in red ink, it is false.” After a month, his friends get the first letter, written in blue ink. “Everything is wonderful here — stores are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, movie theatres show films from the West, there are many beautiful girls ready for an affair — the only thing unavailable is red ink.”

The good old-fashioned way of silencing opponents used to be assassination. Pakistan has witnessed this method frequently used on prime ministers. Imran Khan survived his attempt. And unlike with Altaf Hussain and the MQM, his party is keeping its leader alive, proving that he doesn’t need to be physically present to corral support.

His young voters were, for instance, unfazed by the ersatz nature of his AI-generated voice; for them it is “real”, proving the authenticity of a message is increasingly measured by its ability to connect with and mobilise an audience.

It was this use of technology that made me sit up. Deepfakes and AI-generated content are globally viewed with suspicion for their potential to mislead, but in the PTI’s instance, their use by a mainstream political party to maintain momentum and motivation from behind bars has been an example of successful dissent.

I’m not arguing that the PTI is a paragon of democracy; it is just as guilty of peddling disinformation and its supporters are infamous for online abuse. But in this election run-up, it is proving to the state that blocking or banning political opponents is as useless as trying to clamp down on adult entertainment websites.

Header image created with AI