Cyber force & social media campaigns threat to public debate

When the former government of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf faced criticism concerning Tosha Khana and corruption cases, social media was awash with memes and hashtags touting the economic benefits policies and handling of Covid-19.

And, earlier when the party lost its government in the federal capital democratically via a vote of no confidence, a surge in the political campaigns on social media was seen. These are examples of strategic, orchestrated campaigns employed by political and economic elites with the purpose of swaying public opinion in their favour.

A narrative was built that the government was toppled out of foreign conspiracy. With the passage of time, other elements were added to the narrative to keep the motive alive and public interest intact.

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As soon as PTI realized the potential of social media as a tool for propaganda, a new group of ‘cyber force’ emerged. A cyber force is a network of online warriors who derive a livelihood from engaging in extemporary online campaigns in support of political causes. They do so in a highly coordinated and strategic fashion, tactically posting selected posts and hashtags in a pre-planned and partly automated manner, in order to create ‘trending topics’ on social media and maximize public attention.

The cyber force consists not only of anonymous ‘buzzers’ – i.e., fake account operators, bots– and their coordinators but also of well-known influencers, all of whom get paid in exchange for promoting particular political views.

Recently, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provincial government has allocated an amount of around one billion rupees (Rs736 million) for the social media participatory platform project from its total budget of 1.33 trillion rupees.

Given the long-term challenge of militancy the province has been facing for decades, it should rather have focused on reforming the management of its finances and governance. It has to improve its public service delivery with limited resources but the KPK government preferred spending this huge amount on social media propaganda.

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KPK government being politically ambitious has recruited around 1,360 social media influencers (SMIs). Each SMI will be paid a 25,000 rupee monthly salary. All influencers have been recruited as interns for one year which is extendable depending upon the performance factor.

The recruitment process was not arbitrary. Those invited to this propaganda work were already accustomed to propaganda generation on social media. In fact, some were previously part of the social media campaign teams, too.

It was wise of the opposition parties to raise their voices and they termed the recruitment of social media influencers an attempt to spread chaos in politics. They alleged that the PTI government would train these social media activists to work for its publicity in the province and country. Not only this but these cyber troops will target the opposition parties, state institutions, and heads through social media.

PTI leadership which was making all-out efforts to change public opinion in its favour is now taking all possible measures to restore public confidence by controlling the opinions of people via social media.

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Awami National Party’s provincial spokesperson Samar Haroon Bilour in a statement earlier said “The KPK government is unable to dodge the people through false social media propaganda tools because the voters are well aware of the incompetence of the rulers. PTI candidates will face historical defeat in the next elections.”

This propaganda strategy has also been manifested in the government’s push to win public support in upcoming elections. In this case, it is established that these cyber force campaigns have moved beyond mere information dissemination and are being used as negative propaganda while meddling in the internal affairs of the opposition and state institutions.

Certainly, social media propaganda poses a considerable and growing threat to public debate and democracy since these influencers and activists do not shy away from spreading misinformation and fake news. By flooding social media with so much misinformation, disinformation, and fake news, cyber forces are drowning out reasoned debate. They further do so by engaging in sustained attacks on critical voices, who can be subjected to harsh and relentless trolling. Such online attacks are discouraging people from voicing their opinion, thereby also compromising the diversity and quality of public debate.

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This Opinion has been contributed anonymously.

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