This is a story to assert how the issues of disinformation, subversive tactics to sway public opinion, and social media platform manipulation are not exclusive to advance economies and Western countries. It is very much an international phenomenon with far-reaching consequences not just in the Global North but equally if not more in the countries of the Global South. Recently in Pakistan, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), an extremist religious political party, has been one such group that used social media to amplify their hateful messages unabatedly which led to violent offline protests.
This unchecked barrage of online misinformation and expression of hate restricted millions of people’s movement, disrupted trading activities, and instilled uncertainty. My problem with such groups, no matter where they operate, is not to curb their right to freedom of expression or protest but with the use of the ungoverned platforms for spreading misinformation. Therefore, I question if such companies should operate solely under the ambit of self-governance, which gives them unprecedented powers such as de-platforming anyone, including the sitting president of the United States, or selectively banning users who raise their voices against the Indian atrocities in Kashmir.
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How social media is being manipulated?
Earlier in October this year, two important social media platforms, i.e., Facebook and Twitter, remain in the limelight regarding their usage as a tool for political polarization, disinformation, and artificial amplification of certain content. Twitter, for example, on 21st October, publicly shared the findings of their own study according to which the platform’s algorithms amplify tweets from right-wing politicians and content from right-leaning news outlets 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 is poor, small and non-western countries in order to prioritize addressing abuses that attract media attention or affect the US and other wealthy countries.
Pakistan, which is the fifth most populous country in the world with a median age of 23 years and an increasing number of social media users, faces similar challenges of not just being the subject of vile disinformation campaigns through unabated platform manipulation but also the disregard of its local governance structure from social media companies. To corroborate this argument, I conducted research to examine the manipulative usage of Twitter by TLP, a right-wing religious party, in 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, that was run by the party in conjunction with their offline protests. I, then, analyzed a total of 322,999 tweets/retweets across three hashtags. Below the figure illustrates that each hashtag followed a similar pattern where we see a surge at the early phase and as the day progresses it dies down. The similarity in pattern reveals a concerted and coordinated effort to push certain narratives posting 400 tweets in each minute which equals approximately 7 tweets a second.
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The analysis further indicates that at any given time, only 10 to 14 thousand people were involved in posting 322,999 tweets which on average represents 12% unique users, with 90% of their content being retweets. This kind of behavior can be termed artificial amplification that according to Twitter, is platform manipulation because it “aims to drive traffic or attention from a conversation.”
Digging in the matter deeper
According to Twitter’s own policies any “coordinated activity, that attempts to artificially influence conversations through the use of multiple accounts, fake accounts, automation and/or scripting” is a violation of their platform. However, this remains an unchecked tenet of their policies when it comes to Pakistan. To understand the coordination of TLP accounts, I used Hoaxy, a tool created by Indiana University that uses machine learning to classify if an account associated with a hashtag is human or bot-like. The result indicates the prevalence and inter-linkage of accounts that are classified as bots by Hoaxy.
Here, it is pertinent to ask why there was so much coordination, what kind of narrative was being peddled by a right-wing religious party. The answers to such questions become evident when we look at the content posted by users across three hashtags. One of the hashtags (#کل_تک_معاہدہ_پوراکرو) was demanding the government of Pakistan to expel the French ambassador within a day because of the blasphemous comments earlier made by the French president.
The tweets were laden with false and fabricated information in the form of images and videos to incite people to take part in violent protests in which at least seven policemen have died. In another hashtag (#لبیک_ناموس_رسالت_مارچ), TLP was prompting people to join their march towards the capital in the bid to disrupt the government and expel the ambassador, both of which as per Twitter corresponds to “harmful activity that promotes behavior” of offline violence and therefore is deemed prohibited on their platform.
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Hence, the results allow me to infer how Twitter neglects to curb hate speech emanating from countries in the global south. Extremist groups, irrespective to their origin, have developed techniques of “attention hacking” to increase the visibility of their ideas through the strategic use of social media, memes, and bots to help spread content. The far-right exploits young men’s rebellion and prompts them to adopt violent measures and social media platforms play right in the hands of such exploiters.
Also, it is impossible for platforms to monitor every bit of information that goes on their platform, thus, there is a need for them to adopt a governance structure that is indigenous and collaborative with local administrative bodies to ensure their platforms are not manipulated in spreading hate, violence, and polarization. A good way to start this would be to open local offices in every country or region and develop a better understanding of local issues and cultural sensitivities.
The author is an Assistant Professor of Communication at NUST and specializes in computational social science and digital data analytics. He can be reached at Waqas.email@example.com. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.