Media platforms

How extremist groups manipulate social media platforms in Pakistan?


It’s a story to assert that issues of disinformation, subversive tactics to influence public opinion, and manipulation of social media platforms are not exclusive to advanced economies and Western countries. It is indeed an international phenomenon with far-reaching consequences not only in the global North but also, if not more so, in the countries of the global South. Recently in Pakistan, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), an extremist religious political party, was one of those groups that used social media to amplify their hate messages relentlessly, leading to violent offline events.

This uncontrolled barrage of online disinformation and hate speech has restricted the movement of millions of people, disrupted business activities and created uncertainty. My problem with such groups, no matter where they operate, is not with restricting their right to free speech or protest, but with using ungoverned platforms to spread disinformation. Therefore, I wonder if these companies should operate only under self-government, which gives them unprecedented powers, such as removing any platform, including the incumbent President of the United States, or the selective ban of users who speak out against the Indian atrocities in Kashmir.

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How are social networks manipulated?

Earlier in October this year, two major social media platforms, namely Facebook and Twitter, remained in the limelight for their use as a tool for political polarization, disinformation and the artificial amplification of certain content. . Twitter, for example, the 21st October, publicly shared the results of their own study that the platform’s algorithms amplify tweets from right-wing politicians and right-wing media content more than people and content from the political left. Whereas an investigation by The Guardian found that Facebook has allowed major abuses of its platform in poor, small and non-Western countries in order to prioritize tackling abuses that attract media attention or affect the United States and other rich countries.

Pakistan, which is the fifth most populous country in the world with a median age of 23 and a growing number of social media users, faces similar challenges: not only being the subject of vile disinformation campaigns by through incessant manipulation of platforms, but also contempt for sound local governance structure from social media companies. To corroborate this argument, I conducted research to examine the manipulative use of Twitter by the TLP, a right-wing religious party, during their recent violent protests.

I collected the data through Twitter’s API for three hashtags, # لبیک_ناموس_رسالت_مارچ #, جنگوں_والےنبی_کی_آمد and # کل_تک_معاہدہ_پوراکرو, which were run by the party in conjunction with their offline protests. I then analyzed a total of 322,999 tweets / retweets across three hashtags. The figure below shows that each hashtag followed a similar pattern where we see an increase at the start of the phase and as the day progresses it tapers off. The similarity in patterns reveals a concerted and coordinated effort to get some stories to post 400 tweets per minute, which equates to around 7 tweets per second.

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The analysis further indicates that at any one time only 10-14,000 people were involved in the posting of 322,999 tweets, representing an average of 12% of unique users, with 90% of their content being retweets. . This type of behavior can be characterized as artificial amplification which, according to Twitter, is platform manipulation because it “aims to generate traffic or the attention of a conversation”.

Further reading

According to Twitter’s own policies, any “coordinated activity, which attempts to artificially influence conversations through the use of multiple accounts, fake accounts, automation and / or scripts” is a violation of their platform. However, this remains an uncontrolled principle of their policies with regard to Pakistan. To understand TLP account coordination, I used Hoaxy, a tool created by Indiana University that uses machine learning to classify whether an account associated with a hashtag is human or bot-like. The result indicates the prevalence and interconnection of accounts classified as bots by Hoaxy.

Here it is relevant to ask why there was so much coordination, what kind of narrative was being peddled by a right-wing religious party. The answers to these questions become evident when we examine the content posted by users through three hashtags. One of the hashtags (# کل_تک_معاہدہ_پوراکرو) called on the Pakistani government to expel the French ambassador during the day because of blasphemous comments made earlier by the French president.

The tweets were loaded with false information and fabricated in the form of images and videos to trick people into participating in violent protests in which at least seven police officers died. In another hashtag (# لبیک_ناموس_رسالت_مارچ), TLP urged people to join their march to the capital with the aim of disrupting the government and expelling the ambassador, which according to Twitter amounts to “harmful activity that promotes behavior ”of violence offline and is therefore deemed prohibited on their platform.

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Therefore, the results allow me to infer how Twitter neglects to curb hate speech emanating from countries in the South. Extremist groups, regardless of their background, have developed “attention hacking” techniques to increase the visibility of their ideas through the strategic use of social media, memes, and bots to distribute content. The far right exploits the rebellion of young men and incites them to adopt violent measures and social media platforms play directly in the hands of these exploiters.

In addition, it is impossible for platforms to monitor every bit of information that passes on their platform, so there is a need for them to adopt an indigenous and collaborative governance structure with local administrative bodies to ensure that their platforms are not manipulated during the broadcast. hatred, violence and polarization. A good way to start would be to open local offices in each country or region and develop a better understanding of local issues and cultural sensitivities.

The author is Assistant Professor of Communication at NUST and specializes in computational social sciences and digital data analysis. He can be contacted at [email protected] The opinions expressed in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.

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