We analyzed a network of Twitter accounts targeting Pakistan’s Minister of Human Rights.
Twitter accounts run by supporters of political parties play a crucial role in promoting a party’s message in the online sphere. In just the last few days, the top trending hashtags in Pakistan have included #وزیراعظمنوازشریف (#PrimeMinisterNawazSharif) and #imrankhanhumapkaysathhain (#WeAreWithYouImranKhan), which were ostensibly started by supporters of Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) respectively.
But politically-affiliated Twitter accounts are also notorious for another reason — attacking perceived opponents. These attacks can often be of a coordinated nature. Last summer for example, one of the top trending hashtags on Pakistani Twitter was #ArrestAntiPakJournalists. The hashtag, which lasted for multiple days, was used to target journalists critical of the PTI government, so it was unsurprising when a Digital Rights Monitor investigation revealed that an account by the name of @IK_Warriors had started the hashtag, and that PTI-supporting accounts, real and automated, had helped boost it. More recently, our analysis of the trending hashtag #گستاخ_رسول_وصحابہ_کولٹکاؤ (Hang those who blaspheme against the Prophet and his Companions) similarly found it to be the result of coordinated support by followers of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan.
So when #SackShireenMazari started trending on Pakistani Twitter on 28 April with at least 21,000 total tweets, 4000 excluding retweets, one may have thought that it was the work of PTI’s political opponents attempting to target the ruling party’s Minister of Human Rights. But the reality was far stranger.
All of the top ten accounts that tweeted most frequently using the hashtag had otherwise visible signs of loyalty to PTI and the military on their profiles, whether in their account bios, profile pictures, or previous tweets. But while the hashtag may initially appear as spontaneous criticism of the Minister from supporters of her government and the military, upon closer inspection there is another common theme amongst some of the most frequently tweeting accounts.
Three of the top ten accounts had #TeamPakistanZindabad in their Twitter bios. A look through Twitter activity on the day the hashtag started trending also revealed other accounts with similar bios who were some of the earliest to tweet and gain traction using the hashtag, including one by the “Team Head” who explicitly stated “start trending now”.
We reached out to Team Pakistan Zindabad and asked them if they were behind this hashtag. Perhaps unaware of Twitter’s policies on coordinated inauthentic behaviour, or perhaps indifferent, since Twitter has shown scant interest in moderating such trends, they openly admitted to starting the hashtag and getting it trending. Even without their admission however, its inauthentic nature was evident through the number of copy-pasted tweets and the recycling of the same four to five images in tweets using the hashtag.
The key question however still remains – why would self-professed PTI supporters turn on one of their own? Team Pakistan Zindabad claimed that they were not paid to run this campaign and simply ran it because “we as insafians are identifying (sic) incompetence of minister”. While refusing to elaborate further on what specifically they were referring to, a closer look at some of the themes in the tweets gives a clue as to what may be bothering those behind the hashtag.
One of the most frequent complaints against her was about her opposition to the public hanging of rapists. Another was regarding her support for Aurat March, while yet another theme was her “hypocrisy” in not wearing a hijab despite donning one during her official visit to Iran. Some also raised objections with her due to her daughter, Imaan Mazari-Hazir, who is an outspoken progressive on social media. The common theme in all these trends seems to be Mazari’s somewhat progressive ideas on certain issues. Indeed some of the tweets made this link quite explicit by claiming they want both Fawad Chaudhry and Shireen Mazari removed from the federal cabinet for being “liberals”. Perhaps then the trigger for #SackShireenMazari may have been her tweets criticising Maulana Tariq Jamil (on 24 April) and then thanking him for his apology (on 28 April).
This would explain the timing of the hashtag, as #TeamPakistanZindabad seemingly appears to hold a conservative nationalist ideology judging by the hashtags they have promoted in the past. They range from expressions of social conservatism such as #گستاخوں_کوپھانسی_دو (#HangTheBlasphemers), #SayNoToValentinesDay and #HangRapistsPublicly, to pro-military sentiment such as #WelcomeDGISPR, #GoodLuckAsifGhafoor and #ArrestManzoorAllies.
Along with wanting the Minister of Human Rights to care less about human rights, many of the complaints against her were simply old-fashioned sexism. One recurring theme was Mazari’s physical appearance, as female politicians are consistently held to a higher standard in their appearance than male politicians. Others claimed she needed to return home and teach her daughter “tarbiyat” or manners, which is again a reference one is unlikely to ever hear about a male politician.
While the #SackShireenMazari overall failed to gain significant momentum, it nevertheless illustrates the pervasive presence of coordinated inauthentic trends online. And while other investigations have shed some light on the money and organisations behind these strategies, more research and direct action is needed against such groups. But with social media giants such as Twitter either unwilling or unable to crack down, #TeamPakistanZindabad is merely the latest, and definitely not the last, such example.
Asad Khan and Sarosh Hasan, Analysts at Social Pie (Private) Limited (socialpie.io), assisted with the analysis for this article.