October Issue 2015
Free No More
In Pakistan, as in many other countries, social media has gained growing influence over the years. Its power can be gauged by those cases when it first took up a cause and the mainstream media followed up. For example, a few years ago, the #JusticeForShahzeb hashtag took Pakistan by storm after the murder of young Shahzeb Gilani by the son of a feudal in Karachi. Subsequently, mainstream media began to air the story, giving it prominent coverage.
Content which does not make it into mainstream media is usually released via social media. The media-gate episode was another instance when reports of journalists taking bribes from a property tycoon jolted the Pakistani media. Whether these reports were authentic or not is still open to question. Recently, we saw the #NoFeeTillLowFee trend on Twitter, which prompted the federal and provincial governments to take measures against school fee hikes.
Free media is powerful, without a doubt. But is it as free as it used to be? Gone are the days when public opinion voiced through free media used to trigger revolutions and flood Tahrir Square.Now, engineered trends and paid trolls rule the web. Instead of the voicing of genuine opinion on social media, there are bullying voices that seek to silence sane debate. And this situation does not prevail in Pakistan’s social media sphere alone. The world over, a debate over trolling and engineered trends has begun.
Twitter’s former Chief Executive Dick Castolo said in February, “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years. It’s no secret and the rest of the world talks about it every day. We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day.”
Twitter’s inability to control abuse was one of the main reasons behind Castolo’s stepping down from the lofty perch of Twitter CEO.
The Arab Spring and the role of free media in it led us to believe that the medium could unshackle us. However, corporate media houses with vested interests can skew the power of free media. You are still free to say whatever you want, under the terms and conditions laid down by Twitter and respective countries. The biggest strength of social media, its freedom, has started to dwindle.
Corporate media, politicians, state institutions, businessmen and celebrities all have social media teams who handle their twitter accounts and operate hundreds of fake accounts.
Research carried out by Newsline reveals that anyone with a mobile and a Gmail account can create countless number of Twitter accounts. Trollers across the world make full use of workarounds in Twitter’s sign-up process. Applications like TweetDeck and TweetCaster come handy in operating multiple accounts simultaneously. Using these methods, this writer was able to create 10 fake accounts with fake bios and photos within half an hour.
Farhan Khan Virk (@FarhanKVirk) is a notorious Twitter personality, known for introducing new trends and hashtags on social media. He was once caught operating multiple accounts, but had no qualms in owning up to it. To a query, he tweeted: “It’s my choice if I run a million accounts. Why are you crying?”
You simply cannot ignore Farhan Virk when you are talking about trolling and fake accounts in Pakistan. To many, Virk is a social media tycoon. He is an ardent supporter of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) but PTI has never officially owned him. Newsline got in touch with Umar Murtaza, head of PTI’s Social Media Team to ask if Virk was a member of the team. He replied that PTI has listed the accounts of the social media team on its website and this list does not include Virk. He refused to comment further when pressed.
Umar Murtaza confirmed the phenomenon of tailored trends. He said, “Some of the trends on social media are obviously engineered.” He also confirmed that there are political parties involved in running fake social media accounts but categorically denied that PTI subscribed to this practice. He said that PTI’s social media team has around 200 members scattered all over the world.
Assorted politicians within a political party have their own teams, who malign their colleagues and even their families at times. Trollers and paid fake accounts across Twitter have taken over the free media. Political parties and even state institutions have started using Twitter to further their agenda or launch covert campaigns against each other.
The ability of social media to influence public opinion is now exploited methodically. Even Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the propaganda arm of Pakistan’s armed forces, employs a massive social media team that monitors and works on social media to create a favorable image of the Pakistan Army. ISPR head, Lt. Gen. Asim Bajwa, is a heavy tweeter himself. His tweets during the dharna days are all public.
On the other hand, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) has its own social media propaganda arm, headed by none other than Maryam Nawaz Sharif.
While nobody owns up to using abusive and trolling accounts, it is an open secret that certain users who belong to defined interest groups are involved in such activities. They troll journalists who write against their party, the general public who disagree with their policies, rival politicians and even celebrities.
The free media has no breathing space left. You are always on a tight leash. Your every word is monitored. Twitter-Tarzans are battle ready, with keyboards and smart phones in their hands.
Freedom of speech is something we all pay lip service to, but very few are prepared to stand up for it. The recently introduced Cyber Crime bill may well prove to be the final nail in its coffin.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s October 2015 issue.
The author is an Islamabad-based journalist and has been associated with various media houses, including Geo, Sach TV, AbbTakk News and Capital TV.