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How political parties manipulate cyberspace for electioneering

Updated Jul 24, 2018 12:43pm
Ilustrations by Rahada Tajwer
Ilustrations by Rahada Tajwer

"I’m only assisting [Nawaz Sharif] at the moment. No intentions of getting into electoral or practical politics. Am not the kind,” is how Maryam Nawaz responded to a tweet sent out on January 8, 2012, only a few days after she had joined Twitter.

Not long after, “assisting” her father changed into a more prominent and public role for her. In a major indicator of her progress, over 93,000 people were following her on Twitter in the run-up to the 2013 general election as a primary source of information related to Nawaz Sharif and his party the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN). This number also suggests that she was using social media in a way her party had never done before.

Maryam Nawaz’s political journey offers many instances where she has used social media as the main tool to showcase PMLN’s politics. In one early instance on May 22, 2013 – shortly after the party had won the general election – she extended an olive branch via Twitter to her father’s main rival, Imran Khan, who had suffered a spinal injury after an accidental fall from a stage during an election rally. “Wishing Imran Khan sb a speedy and complete recovery. Our good wishes and prayers. Looking forward to working together for our Pakistan!”

The message was retweeted 278 times, a number fairly higher than what her previous tweets could achieve. It also resulted in a sudden spike in her Twitter followers.

Maryam Nawaz has developed a huge online footprint since then — with 4.73 million followers on Twitter as of June 20, 2018. According to a member of her social media team, she receives more than 5,000 Twitter mentions a day.

Maryam Nawaz’s Twitter trajectory suggests she is aiming to build an online image of Nawaz Sharif and PMLN in a way that keeps people interested, and, with hope, also invested in the two. This is evident from the fact that she often retweets posts from prominent media personalities that seem to validate PMLN’s political stance. Similarly, she follows over 6,000 people who are either Nawaz Sharif’s supporters or citizens and commentators whose views coincide and overlap with those of his party. She also frequently shares media surveys that show Nawaz Sharif’s popularity and that of his slogan of “give respect to the vote”.

In doing so, she has built and strengthened her own profile as well. Her frequent engagement with her Twitter followers, as well as with those she follows, allows her to appear more accessible than any other politician, giving her the image of a ‘people’s person’, as one of her social media associates says.

The former first daughter seems to understand well that online image building requires a large workforce. Unsurprisingly, she runs one of the largest political social media cells in Pakistan, one that she has developed and groomed in the last few years. The PML(N) Lions account, as the social media cell is called, has 110,000 followers on Twitter.

Maryam Nawaz also knows how to wage ‘hashtag’ wars — that is, creating and promoting ‘trends’ on Twitter that propagate views and opinions. Some important trends started by her social media network – such as #TauheenEAwamNaManzoor and #HaqKiAwazRokLo – reiterate PMLN’s stance on the judiciary and the party’s attempts to steer political discourse in a certain direction.

And she has not shied away from using tactics that are not always transparent. For instance, she has often retweeted hashtags created and shared by the Twitter account @anaulhaq. This Twitter handle translates to ‘I am the truth’ and is reminiscent of Mansur al-Hallaj, a ninth century Persian mystic who was hanged for publicly and persistently proclaiming ana ul haq — I am the truth.

The account was made in February 2013, with a profile picture showing a mystic. It has participated in major trending hashtags pertaining to PMLN, including #YouCanNeverMinusNawazSharif and #SelectiveJusticeRejected — both targeted at the judiciary after Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification as prime minister and later as the chief of his party in the latter half of 2017.

One of the hashtags tweeted by @anaulhaq was #RespectDRSaeed. It was created on June 12, 2018, after the hearing of a case by the Supreme Court on alleged irregularities worth 20 billion rupees at Lahore’s Pakistan Kidney and Liver Transplant Institute. The institute, recently set up by Maryam’s uncle and then chief minister of Punjab Shehbaz Sharif, is reportedly paying an extremely large salary to its president Dr Saeed Akhtar and some other staff members. PMLN supporters started the hashtag to support Akhtar as a uniquely competent doctor who deserved all the money being paid to him, indicating how the party saw the case as yet another example of selective justice.

The account, though, is handled in a rather curious manner. The person running the account often changes its name and repeatedly deletes its tweets.

For instance, on July 9, the account, then run under the guise of @anaulhaq, changed its name to @guftam, another mystical reference, this time to Amir Khusrau’s famous verse ‘guftam ki roshan az qamar’, indicating that it was being operated by one person.

The link to the account shows that all its past tweets have been deleted. An assessment of Maryam’s deleted tweets (in this case, retweets) also confirms that all the content created by @anaulhaq and then promoted by Maryam has been removed, possibly to devoid her feed of any endorsement of fake news and opinions that could later be used against her for political means.

Within a minute into the phone call, Rizwan – who is based in Karachi and wants to be mentioned only by his first name – agrees to share a database comprising over a million phone numbers from across Pakistan. “I can easily provide you with five million numbers from Karachi, 3.5 million from Lahore and two million from Rawalpindi,” he says confidently.

The software that provides access to these phone numbers and divides them into various categories – based on city, district, gender and phone network – is priced at only 500 rupees. Rizwan and his associates give the buyer a training manual that includes guidelines on how to use it for sending messages in bulk.

Rizwan claims the demand for the software has increased manifold during the election season. “Just a few days ago, someone associated with PTI [Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf] came to me to purchase it,” he says.

The wide availability of the Internet has made such phone databases useful for WhatsApp messaging in bulk as well. “WhatsApp packages are more expensive [than SMS packages], starting from 100 rupees per 60 messages, but they are still in demand,” says Mohsin Anwar, who provides WhatsApp marketing services from his base in Lahore. This is because sending bulk messages through WhatsApp “is easier and chances of people reading those messages are far greater than they are for an SMS”.

The Internet has also made it possible to access and utilise what is otherwise regarded as confidential personal information, such as data on voting history and party affiliation. Khurram Gulistan and Khurram Kalimi, two application (or app) developers based in Karachi, have launched an election management system called Socol that allows election candidates to track voters by their Computerised National Identity Card (CNIC), residential block code, address, family tree and voting history, among other things. Socol also helps candidates to know if people in their constituencies have voted in the past and whether they are committed to a party or a candidate. The app, according to Khurram Kalimi, offers information on “who needs to be reached out to for canvassing”.

He and his co-worker claim the personal data their app provides access to is not obtained from the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra), which is not authorised by law to share it with private businesses. Instead, they say, the users provide these details themselves when they register for the app Socol’s elaborate registration portal.Indeed, it asks users to enter a lot of information such as their phone number, location, constituency numbers and party preferences to sign up.

Khurram Kalimi says they are planning to link the users’ social media accounts to the app as well, making it easier for candidates to view who their voters are. “The app also gives the candidates the option to run an SMS campaign, allowing them to send out bulk texts to both voters and [campaign] workers,” he says.

The use of similar political apps is quite in vogue. Azad Ali Tabassum, a Punjab Assembly candidate in Faisalabad, and Jahangir Khanzada, former Punjab sports minister running for election in Attock district, have their own apps available on the Android Play Store.

“You can connect with Jahangir Khanzada directly and view his published content, view events he is going to near you. You can also create complaints regarding his constituency and get updates regarding that directly from the candidate himself,” reads the introduction to the ex-minister’s app. By the end of June 2018, it already had 100 downloads.

Some political parties have also developed their own apps. The Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), for instance, has an app that is linked to the party’s official social media feeds and offers details about events its leadership is organising. It has been downloaded more than 1,000 times. The most experienced party to use social and digital media in politics, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), is running two major apps. One of them allows direct interaction between a group of voters, selected daily, with Imran khan, and the other helps voters locate their candidates, constituencies and polling statistics.

The newly set-up Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan offers multiple apps on Play Store. These are used for live broadcasts of speeches by the party’s chief Khadim Hussain Rizvi.

The custom-built apps are just an advanced form of communication between politicians and their constituents. The use of social media for political campaigning is, indeed, as old as social media itself. Location access on Facebook that suggests people and events “nearby” has always been there for a politician to reach out to his existing and prospective supporters in a specific area. “Facebook also gives you the “people you may know” suggestions based on your activity and interaction online. This is an important tool that comes in handy when making [and spreading] sponsored political posts,” points out Baqir, a pseudonym for a young man who works as an independent social media service provider in Karachi.

In Pakistan, online campaigning was first introduced during the 2013 election. Statistics suggest that Internet penetration has more than tripled since then. This increase means more people can be accessed through online electioneering for the upcoming polls than was possible in the past.

Back in 2013, there were 30 million Internet users in Pakistan. Only 2.5 million of them were using Twitter (as per estimates by We Are Social, a global agency that publishes worldwide digital reports every year). In 2018, there are 55 million 3G/4G phone subscribers (who can access the Internet on their smart phones) and 58 million broadband Internet users in the country, according to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority. The number of social media accounts has also crossed 44 million.

Going by these figures, it looks highly likely that a majority of the 46 million voters aged between 18 and 35 have social media accounts. Political parties seem to know this and are investing time and money in using social media to reach out to these voters. Official social media teams for PTI and PMLN have as many as 1,000 members each, according to representatives of the two parties.

These parties are aggressively training their members and volunteers in social media electioneering. Starting in March this year, they have conducted many training events. PMLN has organised over 12 social media conventions across Punjab (including in Lahore and Faisalabad). Each of these conventions attracted at least 10,000 young people, says Atif Rauf who works with the party’s social media wing.

Opponents may like to point out that many of these events were actually public meetings — not training workshops. Dr Arsalan Khalid, social media secretary of PTI, claims many of the participants at PMLN’s conventions did not even have Twitter accounts.

His party, on the other hand, organised what he calls a “social media summit”. Its participants were all volunteers, aged between 20 and 35, who were provided training in the use of social media, says Khalid.

Farhan Virk, a Rawalpindi-based social media activist and PTI supporter, contradicts Khalid. He does not believe that his party is handling its social media strategy better than its main rival. The social media wing of PMLN is better structured because its supervision is centralised in the hands of Maryam Nawaz, he says. PTI’s digital team, according to him, is divided in terms of leadership and funding. “That is why PMLN has a bigger supporter base for pushing the party narrative.”

Imran Khan welcomed Farooq Bandial into PTI on May 31, 2018, only to expel him a few hours later, following a strong uproar on social media that highlighted the criminal past of the new entrant into the party. Bandial, who hails from Khushab district in Punjab, was sentenced in 1979 by a military court for committing an armed robbery at the house of film actress Shabnam in Lahore’s Gulberg area.

Hours after these developments, a Twitter account that used Shabnam’s original name caused quite a stir. “I appreciate Imran Khan on expelling Farooq Bandial from his party and very thankful to the people of Pakistan who took stand against rapist. -Jeetay Rahain,” read the tweet posted from the handle @JharnaBasak. It received more than 2,000 retweets within two hours and was also cited in many news reports.

A few days later, the handle for the same account changed from @JharnaBasak to @gulbukheri after journalist Gul Bukhari was abducted for a few hours in Lahore. “I’ve reached home safely, people who picked me up were very gentle and humble. My account @gulbukhari is under investigation. Thank you all for your support,” read a tweet sent out by the handle on June 5, the day she went missing. The tweet received 1,100 likes and 360 retweets even when several people pointed out that the journalist’s last name was incorrectly spelled as ‘bukheri’ in the handle.

The account, which used the two handles to disseminate what essentially is fake information, was created in June 2013 and, as of July 10, has 12,169 followers. Also as of July 10, its creator has deleted all but the fake tweet regarding Gul Bukhari, and the account is now using a new handle, @AliBayPay.

“The timing matters,” says Farhan Virk as he explains how misinformation is disseminated through social media. It is also important “how you play on the credibility” of the person whose name is being used for fake tweets. “It takes just a single account with a major following to retweet [a fake] post at peak time and the message goes viral,” he says.

Virk is known for indulging in political propaganda online and has been accused of running fake accounts named after Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, one of the pioneers of nuclear weapons in Pakistan, and famous Indian actress Rani Mukherjee. At present, he claims, he operates two accounts simultaneously — one with 188,000 followers and the other with 96,000 followers. Both show major involvement in leading hashtags that have trended in support of PTI.

“In 2014, we pushed five trends a day. Times have changed now and making social media strategy has become more challenging,” says Virk, who works with a team of 600 volunteers but has no official affiliation with PTI. The sole purpose of this team, according to him, is to counter online propaganda against PTI. “[Our] content is always agenda-based.”

An informal trend analysis suggests that his party’s digital stance is pro-judiciary and anti-India. Most accounts run by its followers post images in praise of the military and in support of Kashmiris.

Many trends pushed by PTI supporters like Virk also target individuals, with hashtags like #RehamOnPMLNAgenda and #GameOverForNawaz. “Besides party trends, I also raise social and national issues on social media. One such example is the #BoycottGeo campaign I started because [Geo Television’s] propagandist coverage was damaging the national image,” Virk says.

He does not appreciate being called a ‘troll’ – a social media term for those who post inflammatory and derogatory messages online – but he argues that political parties do need trolls who, in his opinion, work better than social media ads to promote political and electoral agendas. “Troll factories are not hired. They are supporter-based,” he says.

One party that seems to have understood all these dynamics of online propaganda quite early in its political journey is the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan. Consider the case below to understand how it operates online:

On May 6, 2018, former federal interior minister Ahsan Iqbal was shot and injured in Punjab’s Narowal district. The news of the attack broke around 6:30 pm. Shortly afterwards, Tariq Mateen, a news anchor at 24 News TV, suggested on Twitter that Iqbal was possibly attacked over the issue of the finality of the prophethood, leading to online speculation that the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan could be responsible for the attack.

The same day, the hashtag #TLPPeacefulOrg made it to the top Twitter trends. Within two hours, it had generated 38,500 tweets. A manual survey of the trend shows that the majority of the accounts using the hashtag were recently made, had zero or low numbers of followers and showed sporadic activity. Most accounts had numbers as their Twitter handles, suggesting that they were, in fact, fake and made en masse. A WhatsApp number was also circulated using the hashtag in order to ensure closer coordination among those pushing it.

With three smartphones, two laptops and a tablet computer spread on a table in front of him, Baqir is deeply engrossed in work in the corner of a busy Internet café. All his gadgets have the Twitter monitoring website, TweetDeck, on display. The website allows the viewing of multiple accounts at the same time. “You can manage 500 different accounts at a time on a single TweetDeck window. I’m currently operating over 1,000 accounts with the help of another friend in Lahore,” says Baqir.

It is 2:45 pm and he is set to start a political trend (which he refuses to reveal) during what is known as social media’s peak hours. “Pakistani political Twitter has two peak times: 2-5 pm and 7-9 pm. “It takes less than 15 minutes for a hashtag to become a top trend with multiple (fake and authentic) accounts pushing it on a routine day,” he says. “But competition is tough during election time.”

Another recently arisen problem is that Twitter has toughened its policies regarding fake accounts and fake posts. It can now detect if activity around a certain hashtag has spiked from a specific area, Baqir says. “That is why we [enlist] support from multiple cities.” He also often seeks support from his friends based in Dubai. “Twitter traffic is generated from abroad because it is an easier route to inflate [a hashtag’s] impact,” he says.

One of the fake accounts Baqir is using to trend a hashtag purports to belong to a woman. “Social media activist. Proud Pakistani. Muslim. #Friends fan,” reads her Twitter bio. Her profile picture shows a photograph taken from the Internet. “Girls from Morocco and Tunisia look very similar to Pakistani girls,” says Baqir, as he explains where to find a suitable image for a fake account. Using a woman’s picture in a hashtag, according to him, also attracts more traffic.

A quick scan of social media accounts following major political leaders in Pakistan shows that a majority of them have been made recently and do not have profile pictures — signs that they could be the handiwork of fake account operators like Baqir. A rough estimate – based on anonymous accounts with little activity – suggests that their number could be around a few million.

Imran Khan, the most popular Twitter user in the country with over 8 million followers, enjoys the largest traffic from ostensibly fake accounts. Over 2.16 million of his followers could have been fake as of May 2018.

Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari has a much lower Twitter following (2.75 million as of July 10) but even his social media feed is not free from the seemingly engineered accounts. An informal audit report of his account shows that over 613,000 of his followers could be fake. Similarly, more than 1.8 million of the accounts that follow Maryam Nawaz appear to be engineered, according to an analysis undertaken over 11 months ago.

Such social media engineering started on Facebook, Baqir explains. A minimum of 10 US dollars paid to Facebook, for instance, gave an account an audience reach of anywhere between 1,100 and 5,600 users; many of those accounts would be operated by automatons, or bots.

On Twitter, these bots were used for bulk, aggressive or very high volume retweeting by political groups to push a hashtag to the top Twitter trends. The market rate for 100 tweets by these bots was around 1,000 rupees in Pakistan.

But their deployment, according to Baqir, has drastically declined over the last couple of years. This could be because political Twitter is maturing in Pakistan. Public participation in political debates has dramatically increased in the wake of the Panama Papers case – at least since early 2017 – reducing the need for bots to generate and promote various hashtags, he says.

People have also become more familiar with how Twitter works. “They are sceptical of accounts with no profile pictures and numerical handles,” Baqir says.

Recent changes in Twitter’s policy have also helped bring down the use of bots. The new Twitter algorithm deployed in March 2018 is more efficient than its earlier version in spotting and stopping social media traffic moving on the shoulders of bots.

A recent addition to political social media is the use of regional languages. Shehbaz Sharif, former Punjab chief minister and PMLN president, recently launched his Twitter accounts in Pashto, Punjabi, Sindhi, Balochi, Brahui, Seraiki and even Arabic. PMLN’s website is also in Urdu, unlike those of the Pakistan Peoples Party and PTI that are still in English.

The use of Urdu is a major reason for high PMLN visibility online, points out Ahsan Saeed, who has worked with Twitter as a moderator for more than five years and is based in Lahore. “There is definitely more [popular] engagement in Urdu [than in English], particularly when it comes to political Twitter,” he says.

This may explain why Imran Khan has also begun tweeting in Urdu of late, as have other leaders and parties.

Twitter accounts and posts in Urdu offer their owners and producers an added advantage. Since their reach is limited to a Pakistani audience, their inflammatory content does not get immediately noticed and reported for blocking or banning. Twitter, in fact, has only recently started monitoring Urdu tweets.

These accounts and posts are thus well-suited to disseminate disinformation and even hate speech. “This is evident by the fact that most [hashtag] trends in Urdu are propaganda-driven as compared to those in English,” agrees Saeed.

In short, the online political climate is full of devious ways to spread misinformation and launch smear campaigns, and yet the Election Commission of Pakistan does not have any mechanism to even monitor it. The commission has issued a comprehensive guideline for mainstream media on the coverage of polls but is completely silent on how it will regulate canvassing on social media.

“There are no plans to monitor social media as there is no provision pertaining to that in the law,” says Nadeem Qasim, spokesperson of the election commission. The only tool it can deploy to block the dissemination of misinformation and propaganda is to enforce its code of conduct that all candidates and parties are bound by law to follow. “If parties violate the election’s code of conduct, [be it] online or on any other forum, action will be taken as per the election laws,” says Qasim.

The 2018 election has witnessed frequent instances of young voters giving electoral candidates a run for their vote. Many videos are making rounds on social media that show constituents publicly grilling election candidates.

This could either be a sign of increased awareness among voters about their own power or it could be evidence that digital and communication technologies have enabled ordinary people to reach a nationwide audience without any mediation and editorial control.

It could be both, says Islamabad-based political analyst Dr Rasul Bakhsh Rais, who has recently written a book on the relationship between ethnicity, religion and politics in Pakistan. He argues that social media has both emboldened and engaged voters, electorally speaking. “This election will be significant in terms of heightened public engagement, involvement and politicking which was not the same before,” he says.

Rais also warns that this may be a mixed blessing. Information overload created by social media, he argues, could be damaging for the electoral discourse. “Digital politics is a race of numbers where the quantity of people sharing the content matters more than the quality of what they are sharing. This is why fake news spreads faster,” he says. “Misinformation is only a message away [on WhatsApp].”

Whether social media is a boon or a bane, almost every political player is trying to harness it. Digital campaigning is especially preferred by those parties and candidates who do not have money, human resources and well-oiled machines to mobilise voters and supporters through posters, streamers, media ads, and large-scale rallies and public meetings. Ammar Rashid, an Awami Workers Party candidate in Islamabad, and Jibran Nasir, a lawyer and human rights activist contesting the polls from Karachi, are aggressively deploying digital and social media tools because they cannot match the physical footprint of their competitors.

Rashid, who actively uses social media for pushing an alternate political discourse, says the Internet has been very helpful for his type of politics. “We managed to get the Supreme Court to stop the eviction of slum dwellers from Islamabad in 2015 through a largely online communication effort. We also managed to win some counsellor seats and several thousand votes in the 2015 local government elections in Islamabad with a communication strategy heavily dependent on social media,” he says.

Rashid, therefore, is willing to bet on social media for his campaign for the upcoming general elections. “This election will be an experiment in how effective our online work can be in generating votes.”

Nasir, on the other hand, is sceptical of the utility of social media’s impact on electoral processes even though, according to the latest data, he has over 146,000 Twitter followers and over 226,000 likes on his official Facebook page. “If my tweet is retweeted by 5,000 users, it does not mean I will get 5,000 votes,” he says.

The other problem with support on social media is that it does not follow constituency boundaries, he says. “A voter in [Karachi’s] Gulshan-e-Iqbal area does not fall in my constituency [mainly in the Defence and Clifton areas] but he could be actively canvassing for me online.”


Ramsha Jahangir is a social scientist and staffer at the daily Dawn.


This article was originally published in the July 2018 issue of the Herald. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.