Pakistan’s war on social media
Decades of political engineering and embedding military men on powerful government posts have helped the Army to flourish a hybrid and stronger regime in Pakistan. Analysts think the civilian government is just a cover-up for the military and it has terribly failed to protect critical voices. After curbing the political space for progressive and ethno-nationalistic politics on the ground, the guns have now turned on the only space remaining where the regime is facing opposition—The social media.
In past, the bloggers and micro-bloggers on social media who were critics of the Pakistan army were silenced through the tried and tested methods i.e enforced disappearance. In 2017, four renowned bloggers and critics of the army Salman Haider, Waqas Goraya, Aasim Saeed, and Ahmad Raza Naseer were abducted. All the bloggers were later released due to pressure caused by countrywide protests but the bloggers could not stay longer in this country. Waqas Goraya after returning to the Netherlands publicly claimed it was Pakistani secret agency ‘ISI’ who abducted them.
Considering the international shame brought to Pakistani agencies for the abduction of bloggers, more subtle ways were adopted to silence remaining critics. In April 2019, Facebook removed accounts linked to Pakistani military employees. According to the Facebook statement, they removed 103 pages, Groups, and accounts for engaging in ‘coordinated inauthentic behavior’ on Facebook and Instagram as part of a network that originated in Pakistan.
The coordinate inauthentic behavior is actually what former DG ISPR Major General Ghafoor called as fifth-generation warfare against the enemies (critics) on social media. The war on social media was to silence the dissenting voices as well as redirecting public narrative by either mass reporting the accounts and taking them off the internet or generating a counter-narrative through pro-military and pro-government hashtag trends on Twitter.
In the quest of propagating state narrative, the news websites which were reporting independently without succumbing to military pressure were all banned inside Pakistan with the help of Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA). The English and Urdu services’ websites of The Balochistan Post Media Group remain blocked in Pakistan, as well as the Urdu service for Voice of America.
PTA has come under criticism for working as a tool for the Pakistani military instead of a regularity authority. PTA has been asking Youtube to open a regional office in Pakistan or the website can get banned in Pakistan. The international community has condemned the Pakistani government for banning live-streaming apps such as Bigo as well as five dating apps including tinder in Pakistan. ISPs (Independent Service Providers) claimed that the PTA wants to regulate political voices in the garb of containing indecent content.
Interestingly, the more active army of organized trolls and bots are getting on the social media platform, the easier their activities are being detected. On August 31, 2020, Facebook suspended another 103 Pages, 78 Groups, 453 Facebook accounts, and 107 Instagram accounts for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior. According to Facebook, these pages were involved in mass reporting accounts that were critical of the Pakistan army. It further said that these pages were also found praising ISI and PTI government.