Trend of over 99,000 tweets appears to have been manufactured by TLP
#WeStandWith_MuftiMuneeb: An organic Twitter hashtag or a creation of coordinated TLP support? We analysed twitter data to find out.
On 14 April, after weeks of tension between the government and the ulema over whether mosques should be shut down during the coronavirus-induced lockdown, the Chairperson of the Ruet-e-Hilal Committee, Mufti Muneeb ur Rahman, broke decisively from the government stance. The provincial governments had previously issued notifications that had, in effect, banned congregational prayers; and despite the unease amongst religious clerics, and defiance by some, most notably Maulana Abdul Aziz of Lal Masjid, the measures had largely been followed. But with the month of Ramazan just days away, the stakes for the ulema were much higher. Hours after the Federal Government announced relaxations in the lockdown for some industries, flanked by other religio-political leaders, Mufti Muneeb held a press conference at the Karachi Press Club declaring that mosques would no longer comply with government restrictions, and demanding the lifting of the ban on congregational prayers, Itikhaf, and Tarawih. Almost immediately thereafter, the hashtag #WeStandWith_MuftiMuneeb started trending on Pakistani Twitter, garnering at least 99,000 tweets and retweets within 48 hours. Seemingly wary of taking on the ulema assembled against them, and perhaps perceiving the Twitter trend as a spontaneous outpouring of support for Mufti Muneeb and his agenda, the government organised an online meeting with the ulema shortly thereafter where a twenty point guideline was established for mosques to reopen, the only Muslim-majority country to do so.
Top Twitter trends in Pakistan on 14 April 2020:
According to closer analysis, however, what initially appeared to be an organic trend was, at least partly, boosted by a coordinated media campaign run by supporters of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). The account handles make their affinity for the TLP quite evident, and with accounts such as these tweeting out the hashtag on an average of once every thirty seconds, the cumulative effect of their activity was to make #WeStandWith_MuftiMuneeb the most trending topic of the day on Pakistani Twitter.
Interestingly, just as the hashtag appeared out of nowhere on 14 April, by 16 April the hashtag was nowhere to be found, a hint perhaps that after giving the appearance of a popular grassroots-led sentiment, the coordinated campaign to boost the hashtag was over. It had proved its point, with the government succumbing to the pressure of reopening mosques shortly afterwards. In that time, nearly 14,000 tweets containing the hashtag were sent out which were collectively retweeted at least 99,000 times.
Accounts that tweeted most frequently using #WeStandWith_MuftiMuneeb:
1) 124 tweets
2) 96 tweets
3) 91 tweets
4) 91 tweets
5) 89 tweets
Accounts using #WeStandWith_MuftiMuneeb that were retweeted most frequently:
1) 8062 retweets
2) 4231 retweets
3) 3105 retweets
4) 2881 retweets
5) 2395 retweets
Another indication of the trend’s manufactured nature was the 77 accounts set up between 14-16 April that tweeted out the hashtag soon after, 14 of which tweeted nothing else in that time period.
14 of the 77 accounts set up between 14-16 April that only tweeted using #WeStandWith_MuftiMuneeb:
It is notable that TLP’s promotion of this trend went far beyond simply supporting the mufti’s stance on the single issue of congregational prayers. In fact, Muneeb ur Rahman was referred to as Mufti-e-Azam in more than 500 of the tweets in the hashtag; an honorific title indicating both learning and leadership. The heightened level of reverence for the Mufti Muneeb amongst TLP followers suggests some kind of strategic alignment, ideological affinity, or deeper connection unknown to the public.
However, manufacturing a twitter trend such as #WeStandWith_MuftiMuneeb is not just an end in itself. It is also a useful tool to artificially boost other aspects of one’s agenda. Case in point, the hashtag #گستاخ_رسول_وصحابہ_کولٹکاؤ (Hang those who blaspheme against the Prophet and his Companions); TLP supporters, who were some of the most frequent propagators of this hashtag, paired it with the original Mufti Muneeb hashtag in tweets so that their new, more controversial hashtag could ride the coattails of the already top trending hashtag of the day. More than a third of all tweets using #گستاخ_رسول_وصحابہ_کولٹکاؤ were also paired with #WeStandWith_MuftiMuneeb, while vice versa more than a tenth of the tweets with #WeStandWith_MuftiMuneeb also had #گستاخ_رسول_وصحابہ_کولٹکاؤ. Together, the hashtags served to equate those supporting a ban on congregational prayers with familiar foes such as blasphemers, “Qadiyanis”, and liberals.
The trajectory of #گستاخ_رسول_وصحابہ_کولٹکاؤ was remarkably similar to #WeStandWith_MuftiMuneeb, with both peaking on 14 April:
Tweets using #گستاخ_رسول_وصحابہ_کولٹکاؤ targeted blasphemers, “Qadiyanis” and liberals:
TLP supporters were also some of the most frequent propagators of another hashtag targeting federal ministers Fawad Chaudhry and Fayyaz Chohan (#ڈبواورفیاض_چوہی_کولگام_دو). Starting on 15 April, the hashtag rode the popularity of the Mufti Muneeb hashtag. One-third of the 2,000 tweets that used #ڈبواورفیاض_چوہی_کولگام_دو also had #WeStandWith_MuftiMuneeb, allowing #ڈبواورفیاض_چوہی_کولگام_دو to become one of the more popular Twitter trends on 15 and 16 April.
Coordinated hashtag trends are not a new phenomenon on Twitter. Despite being technically illegal, their presence on Twitter, specifically Pakistani Twitter, is ubiquitous and has been covered extensively in the past. With Twitter’s policing of its platform unlikely to improve any time in the near future, it is probably best to look at its trending hashtags with a hint of skepticism. And when governments look to Twitter as indicators of public sentiment, they should at least be aware that they are far more likely to have been manufactured in a coordinating WhatsApp group than a reflection of popular demands.
Soch approached a Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan spokesperson for a statement, but did not receive a response till the time of publication.
Asad Khan and Sarosh Hasan, Analysts at Social Pie (Private) Limited (socialpie.io), assisted with the analysis for this article.