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As Russia launched its attack on Ukraine, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin justified the invasion using the baseless claim of undertaking a “denazification” campaign. In the months since, the war has brought a renewed focus to the role of disinformation in times of crisis and in building narratives to sustain momentum or as a raison d’etre. While disinformation is not a novel concept—it has long been a tactic for political and social influence as part of propaganda—the digital revolution and a growing population of internet users has made publics increasingly vulnerable to “manipulation by information.”  

In Pakistan, deepening domestic polarization and a history of mistrust of its neighboring adversary each provide ample space for manipulating information, which may worsen Pakistan’s internal and external vulnerabilities. Meanwhile, laws enacted to supposedly counter disinformation and “fake news” have ultimately stifled freedom of expression and paradoxically may lead Pakistan to being more vulnerable by limiting the space for debate and increasing polarization domestically. The need of the hour is to seek and maintain a balance between counter-disinformation laws and the basic human rights of freedom of expression. In the absence of a balanced approach, disinformation is likely to continue to rise and may be counter-productive for burgeoning reconciliation efforts at the domestic level or improving relations with India.

The Rise of Disinformation

According to the United Nations disinformation involves “false information that is created and spread, deliberately or otherwise, to harm people, institutions and interests.” While disinformation overlaps misinformation—which covers unintentional errors—disinformation is notably meant to “intentionally deceive.” Disinformation could incite violence, escalate interstate crises, distort and manipulate electoral processes, or encourage conspiracy theories. 

In Pakistan, deepening domestic polarization and a history of mistrust of its neighboring adversary each provide ample space for manipulating information, which may worsen Pakistan’s internal and external vulnerabilities.

Disinformation and the use of social media can also support the rhethorical tools of the modern populist—including emotional appeals and fake news. Populist leaders from around the world such as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Narendra Modi, and Donald Trump have garnered large followings on social media. In Pakistan, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) party has and is still extensively using social media to achieve its desired political objectives. The current exercise of narrative building on social media and political rallies/jalsas around U.S. interference and conspiracy against Khan’s government to mask his government’s performance over the past three-and-a-half years is a striking example of a populist leader using all three communication techniques to mobilize mass support in his favor.

Digital media and disinformation has also been used as an “incisive instrument of state policy.” The Kremlin, for example, has strategically used disinformation to target Russian society to mobilize mass support and to create confusion in societies abroad during 2014 Crimean annexation. Likewise, China, Iran and Venezuela have also used different disinformation strategies and tactics to promote authoritarian interests globally.  

Pakistan’s Internal and External Vulnerabilities

Disinformation poses a vulnerability for Pakistan in both internal and external crises. The state’s role in disinformation or misinformation is not a new phenomenon in Pakistan. On December 16, 1971, Radio Pakistan broadcasted that: “after an agreement between local commanders, ceasefire was declared in East Pakistan.” Meanwhile, the BBC was simultaneously reporting that the Pakistan Army had surrendered to Indian troops. Neither is Pakistan’s vulnerability to foreign disinformation efforts new. During the Afghan war of the 1980s, the former Soviet Union took several measures amounting to disinformation designed to the disturb the Pakistan-US alliance—challenging the credibility of Pakistan in the region and aiming to incite domestic unrest within country. This included, for example, distributing leaflets denouncing Pakistani government policies allegedly written by a rogue group within the Pakistan army, and planting stories in the local press stating that Pakistan army was using the conflict to build more influence in Afghanistan’s politics.   

In the age of social media, Pakistan experienced episodes of state-initiated disinformation campaigns at the domestic level. In 2018, then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was criticized and discredited for his stance on “keeping your house in order” and calling for measures that Pakistan eventually had to take under the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) guidelines. This disinformation exercise against Sharif backfired and was part of what led to Pakistan being placed on the FATF grey list. In 2019, Twitter and Facebook shut down thousands of accounts claimed to be run by Pakistan military’s PR wing including handles meant to target adversaries across the border and others maliciously campaigning against political opposition and dissenting citizens.

Beyond the domestic vulnerability to state-generated disinformation, Pakistan has also been the target of disinformation campaigns. A notable example was the disclosure of DisInfo Lab’s report that unveiled a 15-year disinformation network by India designed to lobby around international and civil society against Pakistan. In another instance, an analysis of Twitter trends during Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan’s protest in April 2021 revealed that approximately 61 percent of the total hashtags “#CivilWarinPak” and the like originated from India with several Indian-based Twitter fake accounts producing a total of 84,000 tweets, retweets and replies using the hashtag. Seven of the top ten cities where the hashtag was trending were in India. Beyond public perceptions this also has implications for state crisis behavior, in the 2019 Pulwama-Balakot crisis several “doctored and mislabeled” pictures and videos went viral that “fueled calls for military retaliation” against Pakistan. The extensive following and use of social media by modern populist leaders compounds the risk of using social networks to build nationalist support and shape public calls for escalation. Notwithstanding intrinsic link between populism and social media, the role of disinformation during India-Pakistan crisis is of vital importance as the charged nature of the relationship makes it highly susceptible to manipulated information.

The vulnerability of the Pakistani people to state- and foreign-induced disinformation is deepening with the exponential increase of Internet and social media usage in Pakistan—and more broadly across South Asia. According to one estimate, internet penetration reached 49.8 percent in Pakistan and 53.9 percent in India (as of January 2022 in Pakistan and December 2021 in India). As of January 2022, Facebook penetration reached is 23.9 percent in Pakistan and 34.9 percent in India. Among social media, the percentage usage of Facebook is highest (65.85 percent), according to March 2022 data, followed by Twitter (20.56 percent) and YouTube (9.71 percent). The increased use of social media in Pakistan accompanied with low level of media literacy and dearth of fact-checking training and practice to counter disinformation is a high risk in itself.

Countering Disinformation and Threats to Freedom of Expression

To address threats and insecurities emanating from manipulation of information, it is the states’ responsibility to secure freedom of speech while countering disinformation. It is this area of responsibility where Pakistan has struggled. To effectively fulfill this responsibility, the European Convention on Human Rights ensued three central conditions for countering disinformation measures: 1) the restrictions on speech should be clearly and specifically prescribed in the law, 2) those measures should aim at protection of fundamental values, and 3) those measures should be “necessary in a democratic society” and proportional to the threat posed by disinformation at a specific time and context. Notwithstanding some promises to address the flaws in current legislation related to press freedom and information, measures from previous governments in Pakistan have failed to meet these criteria. 

The legislative measures in Pakistan have fallen short both in ensuring freedom of expression and in countering disinformation. Article 19 of Pakistan’s Constitution guarantees every citizen’s “right to freedom of speech and expression” along with freedom of press. However, these guarantees are “subject to any reasonable restrictions” that do not meet the criteria of permissible limitations on the right to freedom of expression set out in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which Pakistan is a party. The 2010 addition of amendment 19A on the right to information has not been fully implemented across the country.

In context of online freedom of expression, the Pakistan Telecommunications Act (1996) has been instrumental in censoring and blocking information in line with national security concerns. For example, in its submission to the Supreme Court of 2016, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) admitted blocking of thousands of websites carrying salacious content and being involved in abuse of social media. Moreover, suspension of internet and mobile services during political unrest and religious commemorations is a common practice due to security concerns. In 2016, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) expanded the PTA’s powers to block access to information, and the act has been criticized as an attack on political opposition and an attempt to restrict debate on issues of public interest including national security. The government launched a media campaign in 2017 to apprise public to exercise self-restraint while using internet and social media and caution them of the penalties under law. Notably, a number of journalists and dissenting voices had been targeted under PECA.

Furthering constraining freedom of expression in the name of countering disinformation and fake news, Imran Khan’s government amended PECA and declared acts of spreading fake news or defaming an individual or state institution online a non-bailable offense—increasing imprisonment up to five years for those found guilty. In February 2022, a presidential ordinance allowed anyone to file a complaint against so-called fake news posted on Twitter and Facebook. Political opponents and civil society alike have criticized PECA as an attempt to stifle freedom of speech. Additionally, the secret initiative of Khan’s government to institute a Pakistan Media Development Authority (PMDA) aimed to bring television, film, radio, and digital media under one regulator and the provide unchecked powers to the government-controlled Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA). Considered by many to be draconian measures, PECA and the PMDA have been choking any effort to create a balance between curbing disinformation and promoting freedom of expression.

In 2018, PERMA issued notices to seventeen TV channels for airing fake news. Recently, one of the biggest news channels, Ary News, received a show-cause notice from PEMRA for airing “fake/unverified news” about the Imran Khan’s claims of a cable showing a conspiracy to overthrow his government. The previous PTI government also launched an official Twitter account (@FakeNews_Buster) to target fake news and misinformation, however, it was criticized by media practitioners for its potential misuse against political opponents and dissidents. While Pakistan has indicated efforts to curb disinformation and fake news, the centralized control of PEMRA over all media platforms and distrust about government’s counter-disinformation measures negate many of these efforts. As a result of these measures, Pakistan’s ranking in Press Freedom Index 2022 dropped to 157 from 145 in 2021 and scored 25 (not free) on Freedom on the Net Index 2021.

While Pakistan has indicated efforts to curb disinformation and fake news, the centralized control of PEMRA over all media platforms and distrust about government’s counter-disinformation measures negate many of these efforts.

One of the key objectives behind new government’s review of existing laws is to control the adverse impact of fake news on national cohesion unity—one of the pillars of Pakistan’s National Security Policy 2022-26. As some scholars have noted however, “national cohesion” or “national unity” involves building state nationalism, which can be detrimental to human rights including freedom of speech. Efforts to strengthen state security often collide with other human rights protections.

Pathways for Countering Disinformation

States and organizations, especially the European Union, have implemented legislative measures to counter information-related content intended to cause harm. Besides legislation, several practical responses and techniques are available to reduce the effect of disinformation through fact-checking and robust and media literacy programs. These techniques will help increasing societal resilience that can identify and address disinformation problems without infringing fundamental human rights as well as freedom of speech.

Given the increasing social media penetration rate in Pakistan—which widens the scope for misinformation and disinformation—the priority is to bring legislative reforms along with implementing practical techniques. For instance, there is an urgent need to implement the amended Article 19 of Pakistan’s constitution uniformly across the country so it is in line with Article 19 of the ICCPR and clearly defines the scope of “reasonable restrictions.” Any restrictions under PECA should also be evaluated according to the principles of proportionality and necessity. This will bring counter-disinformation measures in line with the three conditions of European Convention on Human Rights. The key here is to establish a balance between freedom of speech/access to information and counter-disinformation.

Among practical measures, it is important to generate extensive provision of media literacy including fact-checking and identification of fake news. This can be done at two levels: one, games can be developed to be included into computer science curriculum in educational institutions to support media literacy among young students, and two, journalists must be provided fact-checking training either directly by state or their employers. Roughly 35 percent of Pakistan’s population is under 15 and 64 percent under 30—meaning that efforts to support media literacy has vast potential to make a difference in the long-term.

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Click here to read this article in Urdu.

Image 1:  Asim Hafeez/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Image 2: RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP via Getty Images

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