Trends against institutions see ‘organic decline’ as Imran softens tone



LAHORE: The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA)’s action against those involved in a vilification campaign against institutions, especially the army, on social networking sites seems to have slowed down following a decline in the “organised drive” in this respect. However, the agency claims it does not have the capacity to analyse the complete data related to such campaigns online.

On Friday, with three anti-army hashtags along with #ImportedHakoomatNamanzoor (imported government unacceptable) were among the top trends on Twitter in Pakistan. In such trends, the army and judiciary were targeted, but not explicitly in the days following the ouster of Imran Khan from the office of prime minister.

As anti-army trends had a few thousand tweets, the #GhaltiSudharoElectionKarwao trend reached 140,000 tweets while the #ImportedHakoomatNamanzoor shot up to 300,000 tweets. During the last seven days, 591,000 tweets have been made under this hashtag, according to a PTI social media wing official who is monitoring such data. However, a strong trend was witnessed on Twitter against the army and judiciary, with over 20,000 tweets in the days following Mr Khan’s ouster on April 10.

“The FIA’s otherwise quick action against the social media activists believed to be supporters of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) has slowed down following the downturn in the malicious campaign against the army and judiciary,” an official source told Dawn on Friday.

Officials claim crackdown on those trending anti-army material also slowing down

“The anti-army and judiciary hashtags on Twitter and other online sites have seen a downward trend for two major reasons; the PTI leadership’s intervention and law enforcement agencies’ action,” he said, adding the raid on the houses of Imran Khan’s focal person on digital media, Dr Arsalan Khalid, and some other PTI social media activists, had helped in containing this campaign.

The smear campaign against the institutions was launched in an “organised manner” by social media activists operating from within and outside the country on April 10. Most of the social media activists associated with the PTI have reportedly gone underground to evade the FIA action, thus indirectly stopping them from indulging in illegal activity.

A PTI insider told Dawn that as the campaign against the institutions was making top trends on the social media, some senior party leaders had requested Mr Khan to give a ‘clear message’ to the party supporters not to target the army and judiciary as this would not augur well for its interests in the future.

“Apparently following the advice, Imran Khan, while interacting with nearly half a million users from around the world via Spaces (a live audio feature on Twitter) a couple of days ago, asked his supporters categorically not to speak against the army, and this somehow had a positive impact on them as pro-army comments were also witnessed on the social media platforms the following day,” he said.

In a week-long action, the FIA rounded up some 17 suspects in Punjab for their alleged involvement in the smear campaign against the institutions that had kicked off after former prime minister was ousted through a no-confidence motion.

Some of them were released after a ‘brief interrogation’ while others were not produced before a court of law. The FIA’s counter terrorism and cybercrime wings, which launched the operation in collaboration with an intelligence agency, kept “complete secrecy” over the matter.

Sources said the FIA was unsuccessful in arresting over 30 suspects identified by the intelligence agency who were involved in the campaign, which was run in an organised manner. The FIA was provided with a list of 50 such activists by intelligence agencies to lay hands on.

“The FIA does not have the capacity to analyse the complete data related to such smear campaigns online.” The FIA usually goes after those who are running such anti-institution campaigns (on social media), but it lacks both technology and human resources to analyse millions of such social media posts for a concrete action and future strategy,” the source said. The FIA usually asked the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to remove such defamatory posts and wrote to Twitter and Facebook to close such accounts, the source added.

Both FIA’s counter terrorism wing head, Humanyun Sandhu, and cybercrime director, Humanyun Bashir, refused to respond to Dawn’s queries in this regard.

The founder of Digital Rights Foundation, Nighat Dad, told Dawn that the supporters of any party would take forward the narratives of their leadership on social media.

She said the action against some social media activists had certainly helped contain the anti-army and anti-judiciary campaigns online, but the major impact came when the party leadership conveyed a message of restraint to its supporters. “We have noticed that Imran Khan asked his supporters not to target the army and have subsequently seen its impact on social media,” Ms Dad said.

She said the PTI government had brought a controversial Peca Ordinance to primarily curb the free speech of its opponents and media people. “But PTI social media activists and supporters are lucky that the court has struck down this controversial ordinance giving them a chance to vent their feelings otherwise they might have been booked under this law,” she said.

Ms Dad further said the FIA should not take action against those for “offensive speech” but against those who endanger someone’s life.

Asad Baig of Media Matters for Democracy told Dawn when there were favourable hashtag trends, the political parties took it as their popularity and boasted about their power but quickly distanced themselves from accounts defaming individuals in the same hashtags.

Whether the political hashtags running was organic or manipulated, Mr Baig said: “It’s always a grey picture, never in black and white, a mixture of organic, opportunistic, promotional, resistive, and inauthentic traffic. But very easy to monitor.”

Published in Dawn, April 23rd, 2022



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