PTI, PML-N Supporters Lock Horns On Twitter As ‘Bot Accounts’ Allegations Surface

April 20, 2022 – The past two weeks in Pakistan have seen an unprecedented level of political activity on social media. Twitter, in particular, has turned into a battleground for the supporters of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) since the removal of PTI Chief Imran Khan as prime minister on April 10, 2022. 

As Shehbaz Sharif from the PML-N was elected the 23rd prime minister of Pakistan, floodgates were opened on Twitter for controversial trends demanding his removal and attacking the Pakistan Army, Supreme Court judges, and the coalition of opposition parties that made Khan the first premier in Pakistan’s history to be removed from Prime Minister’s Office through a no-confidence vote.

A week after Khan’s controversial attempt to ward off the no-confidence motion to protect his government through dissolution of the National Assembly, the opposition eventually pulled it off on Sunday, April 10. A tumultuous Saturday saw parliamentary proceedings being thronged with debates and tirades from PTI leaders – a tactic deployed by the government to delay the vote – and brought about Khan’s collapse as the explosive midnight political drama climaxed in PTI’s worst nightmare. 

While opposition leaders inside the parliament took the opportunity to share their thoughts following Khan’s ouster, a lot was being said and done on social media, especially Twitter, where a large number of supporters had begun to unleash their fury on everyone they believed had contributed to Khan’s failure. The overwhelming support that drifted Khan’s way far outweighed the bulk of criticism that poured onto the platform from people who defended the no-confidence motion. The following week was headlined by several events that saw followers from the PTI and PML-N lock horns with a spate of hashtags serving their purposes.

The latest development to escalate the online clash between the supporters of both parties are the claims made by newly appointed Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb that the PTI has been maligning state institutions through bot or fake accounts on Twitter. Aurangzeb, on Monday, April 18, claimed to have obtained data from Twitter that showed that the PTI initiated the “imported government” campaign through 924 accounts in a single day. Of them, only 177 were managed by humans and 532 were fake accounts.

Her claims have prompted a fresh debate – supplemented with new hashtags such as “Not a BOT”, “jaali trend pakra gaya (fake trend caught)”, and “Hello Bots” – as to whether or not the anti-government hashtags storming Twitter for nearly two weeks now are a true reflection of the public sentiment. The PTI activists have been vigilantly defending the trends (with relevant hashtags running in tens of thousands as of Tuesday, April 19) as “organic” while those belonging to the PML-N have declared them a product of digital exploitation, citing statements from their party leaders. 

Aurangzeb claimed that the hashtag “imported hukumat na manzoor” (imported government unacceptable) had been marked as spam by Twitter, but said that PTI’s social media activists were still circulating the hashtag by making changes to it. On the other hand, in a report recently published by BBC Urdu, Arslan Khalid – Khan’s digital media team lead – rejected Aurangzeb’s claims and accused the government of promoting their own hashtag so that the performance of PTI’s “organic” hashtag could be affected. Aurangzeb is being tagged in a number of tweets by PTI defenders, who are attacking her for “misleading” the public and underestimating what they say is the PTI’s power on social media.

Even after nearly two weeks, standing mighty in Twitter’s trends panel is Khan’s “imported government” narrative, which has produced some of the best performing hashtags in the midst of the entire high-octane political scuffle. In the weeks leading up to and after his removal, the PTI prodigy blamed his downfall on a foreign conspiracy by the United States, bringing up his recent Moscow visit to bolster his arguments. 

His claims were enough to incite PTI followers supporters, many of whom took up arms online against Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan Army, Supreme Court and the opposition parties. On Twitter, the air instantly thickened with conspiracy theories and speculation as to what exactly the US was seeking through the no-confidence vote that most PTI defenders believed it had so discreetly orchestrated. The “imported government” hashtag has since been shared millions of times across the platform, still holding the top spot in the trends panel. 

Posts with misleading claims – such as one declaring Imran Khan the first premier to leave behind $22 billion in the national exchequer – and articles singing praises for him were wrongly attributed to prominent figures, including writer and political commentator Fatima Bhutto. 

“I did not write an article in support of the Prime Minister,” Fatima Bhutto had tweeted in response to the viral article swirling around earlier with her name. “I did not write a Facebook post. Whoever keeps using my name to speak on this issue has an incredible amount of time on their hands and absolutely no idea what I think about the PM, his opponents, politics, etc.”

Fatima Bhutto’s timely clarification might have, to an extent, prevented unwitting and responsible users from circulating the article, but on Facebook it enjoyed plenty of reshares. Later, a similar article surfaced – this time purportedly written by jurist Nasira Javed Iqbal. 

Posts like these accelerated the circulation of hashtags that either supported Khan or rejected the government led by his opponents. Another influential figure at the centre of these controversial trends was COAS Bajwa, who faced incessant abuse and allegations of expediting Khan’s removal from power under what some people claimed was “influence from the US”. Incorporated in the hashtag being thrown around on Twitter against the army chief was the term “traitor”.

Subsequently, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) conducted raids and detained several PTI social media activists from Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, Multan and Faisalabad. A retired army officer, who was found to be resharing “derogatory” content against the army chief, was booked under the Pakistan Penal Code and denied bail. Later, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) directed the FIA not to harass the PTI workers and activists in a petition that challenged the arrests. The current trends, however, show that hashtags targeting COAS Bajwa and the Pakistan Army have faded. 

The same week, PTI and PML-N supporters came to blows on social media once again when protests were organised by PML-N workers outside the residence belonging to the mother of Khan’s former wife Jemima Goldsmith in London, in response to demonstrations held outside former premier Nawaz Sharif’s Avenfield house by PTI workers. These events amplified the already trending hashtags on Twitter, adding a few others to the list. The protests taking place on the streets of London played out as battles between the supporters of PTI and PML-N online. 

Twitter has taken centre stage in the continuing political discourse in Pakistan, given the hashtags that have been shared millions of times in less than two weeks. In addition to being a platform for airing anger, disagreements and expressing solidarity, Twitter is now also a convenient space for supporters of both PTI and PML-N to build and promote their narratives and shape the overall political conversation, albeit involving misinformation and manipulation. 



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Usman Shahid is a Project Coordinator at Media Matters for Democracy. He tweets @UsmanShahid_13

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