Leading up to the general elections in 2018, the then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif was targeted by organised disinformation campaigns on social media platforms and mainstream media. A host of fake news was promoted to prove him being soft on India. One of these was about his alleged multi-million dollars’ worth of business interest in India. His stance for peace with India was propagated as his ambition to accumulate wealth through business in India, which was refuted many times by his party and family. In a related campaign, it was claimed that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had clandestinely held a private business meeting with an Indian industrialist. The government refuted a news item, which was later reported to have been correct, but the meeting was part of backdoor diplomacy between the two countries. While the truth about any such meeting remains under the shrouds of mystery, a targeted campaign was successfully run to influence people’s opinion. Another campaign relied on the fake news that he would send Kalbhushan Jadhav, the Indian intelligence official arrested in Pakistan who confessed in custody to having planned various terrorist attacks in Pakistan, back to India.
In 2013, Mian Nawaz Sharif (MNS) was elected as the country’s Prime Minister amidst massive allegations of election fraud when his party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN), won the majority seats of the National Assembly as well as the Provincial Assembly of Punjab. Imran Khan, then an opposition leader, launched a protest sit-in against the newly elected government, demanding a resignation, judicial investigation of the election rigging followed by a reversal of the recent electoral outcome, i.e., the ouster of the Nawaz government.
From that point till the next general elections in July 2018, Khan’s party, allegedly supported by the military establishment, was actively engaged in propaganda, fake news, and disinformation campaigns against the two bigger political parties, especially the then-PM Nawaz Sharif. These campaigns aimed to discredit MNS and his party and destroy his public image for his vote bank to deteriorate and weaken to the extent that the election results could be swayed against him.
One of the most potent disinformation campaigns was started at the midpoint of his tenure as the PM, which entailed painting him as working against the interests of Pakistan because of his short-term and selfish corporate interest. It started in December 2015 when Indian media broke the news of a secret meeting between the Pakistani and Indian PMs – Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi – at Kathmandu on the sidelines of the SAARC Summit the previous year. A few days later, PM Modi paid a surprise visit to the private residence of PM Sharif in Lahore. At both, the reported events, Pakistan’s military command was conspicuously absent, which gave way to civil-military tensions in Pakistan due to a long-standing trust deficit between the military and civilian sides.
In the above backdrop, while there existed an air of strong suspicion between the PM and the country’s powerful military establishment, several disinformation campaigns were launched targeting the former, alleging him of being more favourable to India than his own country. In 2016, then opposition leader Imran Khan asked PM Sharif via a tweet to disclose his business interests in India.
Screenshot of a tweet made in 2016 by Imran Khan, then opposition leader, participating in the disinformation campaign.
By May 2017, former PM Khan was demanding to make a high-powered Joint Investigation Team (JIT) comprising key intelligence and law enforcement agencies to inquire into PM Sharif’s alleged business interests in India. From that point onwards, the official accounts on different social media platforms kept repeating these allegations through their posts, ReTweets, etc. It went on till the general elections in 2018, despite the Sharif family’s repeated denials of any business interests in India￼.
A screenshot of Imran Khan’s Facebook post in 2016
In 2016, the disinformation campaign was spiced up by Tahir-ul-Qadiri, head of a religious, political party Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT), who had jointly staged the protest sit-in with Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) earlier in 2014. Qadri issued a statement in September 2016 accusing the Sharif family of hosting over 300 Indian citizens illegally in their sugar factory.
These allegations were repeated endlessly in TV programs and columns in newspapers and websites. ٖ Following are a few examples of how this disinformation was spread beyond anyone’s control:
Opposition politicians (mainly from PTI)
The tweets, posts, and media statements were initiated by known personalities;
taken forward by various accounts including unknown people and anonymous accounts.
The same content was posted over and over again, by several accounts.
The content (shared mostly through Tweets, videos, columns, Facebook posts, articles, etc.) was damaging to the reputation of the targets and framed them as traitors to their own country. It carries a potential for vigilante violence and distortions in the vote bank.
The targeted audience was the electorate, ordinary citizens, and voters of the disinformation target(s) parties.
Public safety, fundamental freedoms
Peace with India
Journalists, social media influencers, analysts
The content shows intent for libel, defamation, calumniate, without any regard to fact-checking or factual information.
The content was both in English and Urdu. Although, the audio-visual content was overwhelmingly in Urdu, alongside most of the written material (in newspapers and on social media both).
People having right-wing, anti-India, hyper-nationalistic, and anti-democratic tendencies were specifically targeted.
False information, trolling, polarisation
Individual, non-state, media, political
Much of the content was based on hearsay and did not offer any evidence. It continued to be posted and reposted despite denials and contradictions issued by the target(s) of the disinformation. This makes it unlikely that factually incorrect information could be protected under freedoms of expression & information. Laws against libel could be invoked by the target(s) or applied by the government/judiciary, but neither of the parties showed much interest in that.
Social media platforms, national and regional TV channels, Blogs, and newspapers
Videos, pictures, and statements were posted on social media platforms (mostly Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter). The content was then repeated in TV shows and Op-Eds (mostly Urdu language papers). Sometimes it was vice versa; content originated on TV/newspapers but propagated through social media. Both the mediums were interdependently used.
The content shared was deceptive. The false claims made through such content could have been verifiable through RTI mechanisms or fact-checking journalism.
Twitter trends through troll farms and bots were used to boost the impression of vast distribution. Whatsapp messaging and Youtube/TicToc videos were used for massive re-distribution at regular intervals for the longevity of the campaign.
The content was manipulated to prove the target was working against the interests of Pakistan for their own business interest.
From the pattern of content sharing, it is evident that it was part of an organised and coordinated campaign that kept emerging from time to time from 2016 to the general elections in 2018, and even afterwards.
The content was aligned with disinformation narrative.
ABCD Framework Analysis
In a press conference, Imran Khan, then an opposition leader, accused Nawaz Sharif, the sitting Prime Minister, of owning businesses in India and had earned $60 million through those. His party (Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf – PTI) had been levelling these allegations since 2014. Dr Shirin Mazari, PTI’s Secretary of Information had told in a presser earlier in 2014 that an amount of $3.3 million was transferred to Nawaz Sharif from India. No evidence was shared with the media though. The later statements by Imran Khan and his party leaders kept increasing the amount that allegedly came to Nawaz Sharif from India. By 2015, this amount was increased to $60 million.
News item from Duniya, an Urdua language daily newspaper, covering the presser by Dr. Sirin Mazari.
Headlined as: Nawaz Sharif’s business in India: PTI has uncovered facts – Hussain Nawaz bought an induction furnace worth $3.3 million, the news item repeated the allegations that were initiated through pressers and subsequent news coverage. They were then spread through social media and by way of messaging Apps like Whatsapp.
Screenshot of the tweet from PTI’s official twitter account
By the onset of general elections in 2018, the campaign evolved into the allegation of massive money laundering by Nawaz Sharif to India, to the tune of $4.9 billion. On May 8, 2018, Ausaf, an Urdu-language newspaper with limited circulation, published a report levelling this allegation against former PM Sharif. The same day, National Accountability Bureau (NAB), the country’s anti-graft institution, issued a statement announcing a money-laundering probe against Sharif. The next day, Asad Umar, PTI’s leader explained on the floor of the House in the National Assembly that the news item was based on a World Bank report that carries the information that India got $4.9 billion worth of remittances from Pakistan. After criticism for basing the probe on a flimsy media report, and the World Bank’s denial of carrying any information regarding money laundering in the said report, NAB had to issue a clarification of why it had taken notice of a media report.
Although Nawaz Sharif served a Rs 1 billion legal notice later that month to the NAB chief for wrongly accusing him of money laundering, the disinformation campaign continued in full swing. Aided by like-minded media houses in the mainstream media, Imran Khan’s PTI used this misinformation in an organised and coordinated way to craft the narrative against Nawaz Sharif and his party, ahead of the general elections.
The disinformation campaign was used by the opposition parties (mainly PTI) to create a hostile electoral environment against Nawaz Sharif’s party, frame it as a party diametrically opposed to the interests of Pakistan, a party much more aligned with Indian interests, and trigger judicial activism against some politicians (mainly PMLN and PPP). For this purpose, they appealed to people’s nationalistic sentiments and focused the campaign on social media (YouTube, Twitter) which is a major source of information for a large majority of lower/middle urban classes. This chunk of the population makes up a major portion of the electorate and is important for swaying electoral opinion.
The campaign not only built a narrative of ‘traitor Nawaz Sharif’ based on concocted reports and fake news. It impacted the election results as well as the overall credibility of Sharif and his party. It violated the fundamental right of due process and fair trial by running a media trial based on falsehood and highly partisan information circulated maliciously.
This case has been diagnosed as disinformation through organised and coordinated campaigning.
The campaign had direct ramifications on the electoral process and subsequently, election results. A powerful narrative was constructed creating an image of Nawaz Sharif as someone against the interests of Pakistan, a thoroughly corrupt politician, with an elite privilege of impunity.