Pasar al contenido principal

Pakistan held its general elections on 8 February 2024 across the country, which, in addition to being marred by various forms of violations of fundamental rights of its citizens, are a reminder of the persistent authoritarianism and formulated controls deployed by governments for generations to come. We now have news of a new eight-party coalition government finally being formed, several weeks after no single party won a majority vote.

The country’s political history is replete with examples of dictatorial interference with the public mandate. This is exactly what happened in the lead-up to the February 8 polls. Witnessing one popular leader, Imran Khan – former prime minister and founder of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) – being jailed, and allowing another, Nawaz Sharif – the thrice-ousted premier and chief of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) – on bail to fully participate in their electoral campaigns gave many of us a profound sense of déjà vu. It was 2018 all over again.

What makes the recent elections of 2024 unique is the use of technology as well as the denial of its access in the lead-up to polling day. The last democratically elected prime minister Imran Khan’s party, PTI, has a history of using social media to be noticed in the public domain and garner young people’s support over the past two decades. It inspired other mainstream political parties to make online platforms an active part of their outreach strategies. Unfortunately, Pakistan is one of the many countries consistently being accorded bold headlines in major publications and dismal ranking by rights watchdogs around the world for its repeated attempts to control the rights of its citizens on the internet, which mirror the similar level of physical control the state has historically exercised through the decades.

Continuing the trend of legal actions against journalists and even content creators for merely doing their job, a month before the elections the country’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), which has been challenged in court time and again for misusing its powers, reportedly sent 65 notices to journalists, YouTubers and media persons, accusing them of spreading disinformation against the judiciary; 47 of these notices were issued to journalists alone. Such tactics of intimidation and harassment transpire into stifling of rights to freedom of speech and press freedom during critical events, like the recent elections in the country.

According to Sadaf Khan, digital rights expert and consortium manager of the Safety for Voices initiative at APC, various governments in Pakistan have used legal instruments – such as the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) and Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 (commonly known as PECA) — to initiate internet showdowns and platform takedowns, usually during high political activity, demonstrations, and, of course, elections. “However, what’s really unprecedented this time is that there is no transparency around internet shutdowns from the government,” said Khan, who also co-founded the nonprofit, Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD). Referring to the intermittent blocking of X in Pakistan, Khan said, “It’s creating a lot more uncertainty in an environment where misinformation and disinformation are already rife. In a situation where the election results are being contested by a lot of voters… creating hurdles in the flow of information just adds to more confusion.” Khan added that such shutdowns also reduce people’s access to the “information that they need to make valid political decisions”.

Unexplained internet disruptions and formulated controls

As PTI’s Imran Khan remained incarcerated throughout the election period, his party kicked off its campaign with a “virtual rally” on 17 December  2023. It featured an AI-generated audio speech by the leader based on the notes he sent to party members through his lawyers. Shortly after the event went live, reports of internet disruptions emerged from different parts of the country, outages that were later confirmed by NetBlocks, which monitors internet disruptions around the world.

Similarly, on 7 January 2024, PTI’s fundraising telethon for the elections was disrupted by a connectivity blockade again. The government responded to criticism with a surreptitiously vague response, saying such internet disruptions could continue for the next “two to three months”, citing the “upgradation” of a “system”. Just weeks before the election, the PTI’s official websites were blocked, and an imposter website with a misleading candidates list surfaced. However, PTI– already adept at digital media – came up with alternatives, including a messaging bot that provided information to its supporters about the party’s candidates and their electoral symbols.     

The general elections of 2024 were as much a digital war amongst political parties as they were a war for votes. Where one party was strategically denied from effectively executing its electoral campaign, other parties favoured by the military at the moment were trying everything to ensure they remain favoured.

Just three days before the election, Gohar Ejaz, the then-caretaker interior minister, hinted at the possibility of suspending internet services on polling day, citing “security threats”. The announcement opened the floodgates to responses laden with protest on social media as well as concerns that the statement itself hinted at potential electoral meddling. On polling day, Pakistanis woke up to the suspension of mobile internet services despite the Sindh High Court (SHC)’s orders to the country’s telecom regulator, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), to ensure uninterrupted internet access till elections, and PTA assuring citizens that internet services would remain accessible throughout polling day. The sudden and stealthy blocking of mobile internet only served to expose the government’s repeated and insincere assurances of holding “free and fair elections”.

The unannounced connectivity outage not only hindered citizens’ ability to access important polling information (such as details about their polling stations that the election commission shared through SMS service), it also disconnected them from essential daily services, including healthcare, communication and mobility. Moreover, the suspension of mobile internet heavily impacted the electoral coverage, primarily from journalists and reporters on the field, which resulted in delayed delivery of information to newsrooms regarding crucial developments at polling stations and preliminary voting outcomes. Citizens were stripped of their right to express their opinion on social media on a day the future of their nation was being decided, and were left in a state of uncertainty as to what the internet suspension on such an important day would precipitate in the electoral sphere eventually.

Fighting electoral disinformation: 2018 vs 2024

In Pakistan, a country already lagging behind in the tech race and critically struggling with a lack of basic digital literacy, the need for resources to counter disinformation and other kinds of information disorder is undeniable, especially for newsrooms. During the 2024 general elections, we registered a mixed response from media professionals and journalists about the extent to which disinformation was deployed by political parties to propagate their agendas. Some viral misleading items included digitally altered videos of several PTI candidates announcing their boycott of the elections and, ironically, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA)’s claim there was no internet shutdown in the country.

Ayesha Khalid, a former journalist now co-leading a digital investigation initiative called Facter along with me at MMfD, said, “Although all political parties resorted to coordinated disinformation campaigns in these elections, the ones targeted most are obviously the independent candidates backed by the PTI.” Facter, which was launched a week before the polls took place, has been designed exclusively for Pakistani newsrooms to assist them in verifying news. Khalid said, “Working round the clock, our monitoring team at MMfD gathered a bulk of electoral disinformation, which ranged from edited images to misleading videos, many of which required rounds of reviews and verification.”

Abdul Moiz Malik, a sub-editor at the Dawn newspaper, said, “The only addition was AI-generated images and content. Otherwise, there was the usual [scale of] misinformation spread by political parties and their supporters.” Muzhira Amin, a senior journalist in the digital wing of Dawn, shared a similar opinion, remarking, “Compared to the last election, there was less disinformation this time. While there were several viral misleading news items, they were usually fact-checked on social media by users, which, I think, made our work a lot easier in dealing with a certain piece of information under question.”

Speaking from my own experience at Facter, a number of misleading posts that emerged during polls were actively debunked by regular social media users, many of whom appeared to have developed basic digital investigation skills to counter misinformation online.

TikTok’s influence and counter-efforts to contain misinformation

Asad Baig, a technology and media sustainability expert and director at MMfD, believes there has been a “massive” difference between the elections held in 2018 and 2024 in how misinformation was deployed.

“Firstly, political parties started investing heavily in social media platforms, and the culture of ‘trolls farms’ and ‘social media teams’ has become quite prevalent,” Baig said. “Secondly, TikTok has brought a number of new users online and they now have a platform to express themselves. The flow of information or disinformation on TikTok is both abundant and very fast, due to which it has become a very political platform. Besides, misinformation in the 2018 elections was not weaponised in the way we witnessed [later].”

Baig’s remarks echo the findings published in a 2022 report by the advocacy group Integrity Institute. The report highlights how TikTok and Twitter (now X) are more likely to spread misinformation through their easy content-sharing features. However, Baig adds that during the recent elections, he witnessed various “counter efforts” to prevent the spread of disinformation. “Disinformation has increased, but, at the same time, the efforts to counter it have also scaled up. For example, leading news organisations, including Geo News, SAMAA TV and other outlets such as Soch Fact Check and MMfD’s Facter, have established fact-checking initiatives.”

Diminishing hope?

The events leading to the February 8 polls appear to have had a radical impact on voters regarding what they think of elections in a “democracy”. Citing a survey by the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN), which claims that 48% of voters cast their ballots in the February 8 polls, Taha Kehar, a Pakistan-based author and commentator, expressed concern over people’s perception that voting does not make a difference. He said, “The growing disillusionment is an outcome of decades of dynastic politics, intense political engineering by the establishment, and a lack of belief in democracy as a viable means of safeguarding the will of the people.” Kehar added, “The suspension of mobile networks and internet connectivity on polling day as well as delays and confusion surrounding results are an ever-present sign of democratic backsliding.”

After the elections, the citizens of Pakistan did not know who had formed the government in the country for several weeks, when finally the two parties, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which did not win majority votes, formed an alliance, and consequently the government. But my question is: if the people voted in defiance against the establishment’s strategic targeting of a certain political party – which did indeed yield unexpectedly impressive results – then what do we, as a collective force of resistance against anti-democratic agents, have in store for us?

Image: CM Shehbaz with Pak Army by Shehbaz Sharif via Flickr (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

Usman Shahid is a Pakistan-based journalist working as project coordinator for the Digital Rights & Internet Governance (DRIG) programme at Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD). He is managing MMfD’s digital rights website, Digital Rights Monitor (DRM), and co-leading Facter, a digital investigation initiative facilitating newsrooms in countering mis/disinformation. Tweets @usman_shahd