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Social Media Promote Tribalism in Pakistan

Social media newsfeeds are driven by users' profiles to reinforce their preferences and prejudices.  Newsfeeds are customized for each user. Any posts that don't fit these profiles don't get displayed. The result is increasing tribalism in the world. American and British intelligence agencies claim that Russian intelligence has used social media to promote divisions and manipulate public opinion in the West.  Like the US and the UK, Pakistan also has ethnic, sectarian and regional fault-lines that make it vulnerable to similar social media manipulation.  It is very likely that intelligence agencies of countries hostile to Pakistan are exploiting these divisions for their own ends. Various pronouncements by India's current and former intelligence and security officials reinforce this suspicion.

Tribalism:

All human are born with tribal instincts. People embrace group identities based on birthplace, language, region, sect, religion, nation, school, sports team, etc to define themselves.

Such group affiliations can give people a sense of belonging but they are sometimes also used to exclude others with the purpose of promoting hostility and violence. Social media platforms are being used both ways: To unite and to divide people.

Powerful new media such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and WhatsApp lend themselves for use as extensions of covert warfares carried out by intelligence agencies against nations they see as hostile.

Social Media Platforms:

Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are powerful magnets for marketers,  extremist groups and intelligence agencies. They spend a lot of time and money on such platforms to reach and manipulate their targets.

Trolls and bots proliferate and societies become more deeply divided along political, ethnic, racial, religious, ideological and regional lines.  It is a problem that all nations in the world have to respond to.

Developed nations in Europe and North America with stronger institutions are generally more capable of dealing with the consequences of such divisions.  But the increasing social media penetration in less capable developing nations with weak institutions cause them to sometimes descend into violent riots. In a recent piece titled "Where Countries Are Tinderboxes and Facebook is a Match",  the New York Times has mentioned recent examples of riots and lynchings caused by social media posts in India, Indonesia, Mexico, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

Brexit and Trump:

The unexpected result of Brexit, the British vote to leave the European Union, shocked many in the UK and Europe. It was soon followed by an even bigger shock with the unexpected election of Donald J. Trump as the President of the United States. Western intelligence agencies have now concluded that Russian intelligence agency sponsored trolls played a major role in manipulating the public opinion in the United Kingdom and the United States.

In February 2018, the US justice department indicted 13 Russians and three Russian entities in an alleged conspiracy to defraud the United States, including by tampering in the 2016 presidential election on behalf of Donald Trump and against Hillary Clinton, according to media reports.

The US DOJ indictment identified the Internet Research Agency, a St Petersburg-based group to which millions of impostor social media accounts have been traced, as a primary offender. The indictment also charged Russian individuals who funded the alleged election tampering conspiracy or who otherwise participated in it.

Some of the Russian social media posts were used to organize protests and counter protests in the United States on issues relating to race and religion.

US Senator Richard Burr confirmed that two groups converged outside the Islamic Da’wah Center of Houston in 2016, the Texas Tribune reported. One had gathered at the behest of the “Heart of Texas” Facebook group for a “Stop Islamification of Texas” rally, while the other, spurred on by the “United Muslims of America” Facebook page, had organized a counter-protest to “Save Islamic Knowledge.”

A Russian-sponsored Facebook ad appeared in late 2015 or early 2016, sources told CNN, and though it was meant to appear supportive of Black Lives Matter movement, it may also have conveyed the group as threatening to some white residents of those cities.

Indian Trolls:

It can be safely assumed that Russians are not alone in using social media against nations they see as hostile to them. It is also a safe bet that Indian intelligence agencies are most likely deploying their troll farms and bots to divide Pakistanis.

India's ruling BJP party has extensively used social media apps to spread rumors, innuendo,  fake news, outright lies and various forms of disinformation against anyone seen to be even mildly critical of their leader Narendra Modi. Their harshest abuse has been targeted at the Opposition Congress party leaders, various liberal individuals and groups, Muslims and Pakistanis.

Swati Chaturvedi, author of I Am a Troll, has cited many instances of hateful tweets from Modi-loving Hindu trolls, including Singer Abhijeet's lies to generate hatred against Muslims and Pakistan and BJP MP Hukum Singh's false claim of "Hindu exodus" from Kairana in western Uttar Pradesh blaming it on Muslims.

Vikram Sood, a former top spy in India, has elaborated on India's covert warfare options to target Pakistan in the following words: "The media is a favorite instrument, provided it is not left to the bureaucrats because then we will end up with some clumsy and implausible propaganda effort. More than the electronic and print media, it is now the internet and YouTube that can be the next-generation weapons of psychological war. Terrorists use these liberally and so should those required to counter terrorism."

In a 2013 speech at Sastra University, Indian Prime Minister Modi's National Security Advisor Ajit Doval revealed his covert war strategy against Pakistan as follows:  "How do you tackle Pakistan?.....We start working on Pakistan's vulnerabilities-- economic, internal security, political, isolating them internationally, it can be anything..... it can be defeating Pakistan's policies in Afghanistan...... You stop the terrorists by denying them weapons, funds and manpower. Deny them funds by countering with one-and-a-half times more funding. If they have 1200 crores give them 1800 crores and they are on our side...who are the Taliban fighting for? It's because they haven't got jobs or someone has misled them. The Taliban are mercenaries. So go for more of the covert thing (against Pakistan)..."

Summary: 

Social media newsfeeds are driven by users' profiles to reinforce their preferences and prejudices.  Newsfeeds are customized for each user. Any posts that don't fit these profiles don't get displayed. The result is increasing tribalism in the world. American and British intelligence agencies claim that Russian intelligence has used social media to manipulate public opinion in the West.  Like the US and the UK, Pakistan also has ethnic, sectarian and regional fault-lines that make it vulnerable to similar social media manipulation.  It is very likely that intelligence agencies of countries hostile to Pakistan are exploiting these divisions for their own ends. Various pronouncements by India's current and former intelligence and security officials reinforce this suspicion.

Here's a discussion on the subject in Urdu:

https://youtu.be/zuPMy65O6-s

Related Links:

Haq's Musings

South Asia Investor Review

Social Media: Blessing or Curse For Pakistan?

Planted Stories in Media

Indian BJP Troll Farm

Kulbhushan Jadhav Caught in Balochistan

The Story of Pakistan's M8 Motorway

Pakistan-China-Russia vs India-Japan-US

Riaz Haq's Youtube Channel

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Comment by Riaz Haq on May 1, 2018 at 10:28am

Could Facebook Data Leaks Impact Pakistan’s Elections?
In Pakistan the spread of misinformation is a much graver problem than the impact it might have on polling.

https://thediplomat.com/2018/05/could-facebook-data-leaks-impact-pa...

While testifying before a joint hearing of the U.S. Senate’s Commerce and Judiciary committees, Zuckerberg said his company was introducing the latest new artificial intelligence tools to target fake accounts.

However, digital analysts and rights activists warn that while these actions would help protect data henceforth, Facebook can’t do much to undo the damage that might’ve already been done owing to the data leaks from the past.

“There is no way of undoing a particular case of data theft. Short of deleting or destroying the database, no other action would be useful, and it’s nearly impossible since as they say ‘the data has left the building’,” says Asad Baig, the founder and executive director of Media Matters for Democracy, while speaking with The Diplomat.

“The fact of the matter is, [Cambridge Analytica] has Facebook user data, including the users from Pakistan and if someone wants to exploit it for profiling, and use it for political gains to fine-tune their messages for a local public nothing much can be done about it, and the parties who exploit this data will have an undue advantage in their political campaigns.”

CEO and founder of Digital Rights Foundation, Nighat Dad, agrees that previous damage can’t be undone, but adds that Facebook needs to completely rethink its model to serve users.

“What Facebook can certainly do is to ensure that it takes strict measures to protect the data of its users in the future. This can only be done by strong privacy policies and their implementation that serve the users instead of the corporation itself,” she told The Diplomat.

While fake news has impacted voting patterns the world over, it has become especially problematic in Pakistan with all leading political parties asking their social media teams to create fake profiles as part of their social media strategy.

Talking to The Diplomat off the record, social media managers from the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), and the two main opposition parties Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), confirmed that creation of fake Facebook and Twitter accounts to propagate their narratives was the official policy of each party.

“Everyone’s running fake Facebook accounts and Twitter bots, so we’re just keeping pace with what others are doing,” a social media executive of the PML-N who requested anonymity told The Diplomat. “It was the PTI that started this trend. So we’re just countering propaganda with propaganda,” they added, citing the fact that one of the rumours that the PML-N social media team has had to counter in recent weeks was the false report that the party has hired Cambridge Analytica’s services for the upcoming elections.

Kaleem Hafeez, a member of the PTI social media team, told The Diplomat that his party isn’t ruling out the possibility of the PML-N purchasing data to manipulate elections, considering the party’s control over the IT ministry.

“Our data analysts are monitoring what other parties are doing, and the undemocratic tools and methods being used to rig elections digitally,” Hafeez said. “Considering that the PML-N was involved in heavy on-field rigging in the 2013 balloting, it won’t be a surprise if they do the same digitally as well.”

Digital analysts are also critical of what they dub the IT ministry’s failure to protect users’ data in Pakistan.

“The IT ministry should have… as promised, enacted the data protection law alongside the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act in 2016. A law which was much more predatory in nature [PECA] was given priority whereas a law that stands to provide protection to citizens’ data was delayed,” says Asad Baig.

“Now it’s too late. Only in the next term can we see something happening about. Meanwhile, if someone for instance now, chooses to exploit local data sources, they can do so with impunity.”

Critics say the greatest failure of the IT ministry is that there is no data protection law in Pakistan.

“The first and foremost thing that the ministry of IT [should] be doing at the moment is to introduce the data protection legislation that has been long overdue,” says Nighat Dad. “If the said law turned out to be a good one, it will ensure that people’s data is not being misused on or by the social media platforms.”

However, Ali Warsi, associate digital editor at the Daily Times, believes that the sheer volume of fake accounts being run from the country makes it impossible for anyone to control the spread of fake news.

“How exactly would [Mark Zuckerberg] track the fake accounts? This is too difficult to actually implement,” he said while talking to The Diplomat.

“What I have observed interacting with [social media executives] over the years is that [the parties] are good at making fake accounts. But that’s all they can do actually as far as the skill set is concerned. Disciplined use of data is something far beyond their capacity,” Warsi adds.

Even so, Warsi doesn’t believe any online data theft would have a huge impact on the Pakistani elections.

“[Pakistan has just] 17 percent internet penetration. The political parties wouldn’t really invest in online ads or Google adwords, and that too with such precision that they’d use Cambridge Analytica’s data,” he maintains.

Meanwhile, activists underscore that in Pakistan the spread of fake news and misinformation is a much graver problem than the impact it might have on polling.

“Seen in Pakistan’s context and the pretext of false blasphemy accusations, fake profiles are a huge concern. Anyone, for instance, can copy your display picture, create a fake account and starts spreading blasphemous content under your name,” says Asad Baig.

“The investigative agencies might get to the bottom of it, but by that time it’s perhaps a little too late. See Mashal Khan’s case for instance.”

Mashal Khan was a journalism student at Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan, Pakistan, who was lynched in April 2017 by a mob that suspected he had uploaded blasphemous content to Facebook.

Comment by Riaz Haq on May 3, 2018 at 10:48am

Russian news may be biased – but so is much western media
Piers Robinson
Manipulation of the news for propaganda purposes is not the prerogative of the west’s enemies. It’s vital to look at all media, including the UK’s, with a critical eye

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/aug/02/russian-propa...

Whatever the accuracy, or lack thereof, of RT and whatever its actual impact on western audiences, one of the problems with these kinds of arguments is that they fall straight into the trap of presenting media that are aligned with official adversaries as inherently propagandistic and deceitful, while the output of “our” media is presumed to be objective and truthful. Moreover, the impression given is that our governments engage in truthful “public relations”, “strategic communication” and “public diplomacy” while the Russians lie through “propaganda”.

Neither of these claims has significant academic support. A substantial body of research conducted over many decades highlights the proximity between western news media and their respective governments, especially in the realm of foreign affairs. For reasons that include overreliance on government officials as news sources, economic constraints, the imperatives of big business and good old-fashioned patriotism, mainstream western media frequently fail to meet democratic expectations regarding independence. In our own study of UK media coverage of the 2003 Iraq invasion, Manchester University found that most UK mainstream media performed to reinforce official views rather than to challenge them.

As for the supposedly benign communication activities of our own governments – again, there are ample grounds to challenge the understanding that the “strategic communication” activities of our governments can be understood as free from the kind of manipulative “propaganda” of which the Russian government is accused. Indeed western governments frequently engage in strategies of manipulation through deception involving exaggeration, omission and misdirection. This was recently observed quite clearly during the run-up to the Iraq war when intelligence was manipulated in order to mobilise public support for the Iraq invasion.

Moreover, the recent Chilcot report describes how, in the early days after 9/11 “regime-change hawks” in Washington argued that “a coalition put together for one purpose (against international terrorism) could be used to clear up other problems in the region”. Tony Blair had discussed how phases 1 and 2 of the “war on terror” would require a “dedicated tightly knit propaganda unit”.

One might reasonably conclude from all this evidence that the western public fell foul of a major deceptive propaganda campaign which involved exploiting terrorism threats in order to “clear up other problems” and which was instigated by our own governments and communicated through “our” media. Propaganda and deception is not, it would appear, the sole preserve of non-western states; it is alive and well in western democracies.

These are confusing times for consumers of the news, and the issue of which media outlets should be trusted is as demanding and critical as ever. Given the level of conflict and potential conflict in the world today, plus pressing global issues regarding environmental crisis, poverty and resources, it is essential that people learn to navigate the media and defend themselves against manipulation. The first step towards becoming more informed is to avoid seeing our governments and media as free from manipulation while demonising “foreign” governments and media as full of propagandistic lies.

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