THEME: Human Rights
Since 2017, women’s rights activists and feminists have celebrated International Women’s Day on March 8 with massive rallies in major urban centres. The Women’s Day rally per se is nothing new, as it has been organised since the 1980s in Pakistan, but its mass appeal and the resonance of its message among the middle and lower classes made this new awakening hard to ignore. Women started calling it Aurat March and ensured the inclusion of a wide range of groups and communities. On top of it, they used slogans and placards targeting patriarchy, religious exploitation, misogynist cultural order and many other associated taboo topics. This triggered a violent and vitriolic reaction from society due to organised disinformation campaigns about the organisers and participants of the Aurat March. They were portrayed as promiscuous women, anti-family, anti-religion, anti-morality, and wanted all Pakistani women to rebel against morality and religion. By 2020, these campaigns became so targeted and vicious that some of the young women in the organising committee had to go hiding because they were accused of blaspheming against the Prophet. The pretext was a banner used in the March that highlighted child abuse at the hand of the clergy but was deliberately misconstrued as a taunt at the Prophet’s marriage to an underage girl. The banner read: “I was nine years; he was 40 years old. I was coerced to remain silent; his voice still echoes in the mosque.”
Since 2017, Pakistan’s new feminist movement has experienced a spectacular rise. On the eve of International Women’s Day, young feminists rally in multiple city centres across the country, under the banner of Aurat March. Every March 8 since 2017, women from various social and economic backgrounds walk out of their homes to join these public demonstrations.
Exposing deep-seated tensions and prejudices in a fractured patriarchal society, Aurat March triggers a furious reaction and aggressive criticism, especially by an ever-increasing flock of malign opportunists exploiting these pre-existing biases to amplify their bigotry. Responding to Aurat March’s bold and witty slogans raised and written on placards challenging gender stereotypes, the bigoted right-wing majority targeted the participants of the March with the harshest possible criticism every year.
Aurat March in Islamabad on March 8, 2021
Two placards at AM 2021
A clever placard says: we will avenge mother, grandmother, all of them. Speaking out against misogyny by using a famous line byNawazuddin Siddiqui from the Bollywood movie “Gangs of Wasseypur”.
But the incandescent rage against Marchers escalated to a fever pitch in 2020 when a libellous and defamatory disinformation campaign was launched. By 2021, this campaign took a dangerous turn with blasphemy allegations against the organisers and participants of the March. This led to the incitement to violence against these women inadvertently by some and deliberately by most through a relentless loop of incendiary statements and social media posts.
In March 2019, Aamir Liaquat (late), a sitting Member of the National Assembly (MNA) from the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) accused Aurat March (AM) of painting a ‘negative image’ of Pakistan and Islam.
Screenshot of the tweet by Amir Liaquat Hussain
He further called for AM’s source of funding to be investigated, insinuating that AM might be working at the behest of foreign powers in lieu of huge funding. Since its inception, different chapters of Aurat March have maintained that they accept no funds from any international or local institutions.
The video statement of Amir Liaquat, calls for an investigation into AM’s sources of funding and accuses it of working against Pakistan and Islam. The video was accessed on July 5, 2022, at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o7Cz8E3wnAU
As a result of the disinformation targeted toward the activists – which includes manipulated videos, images, and posters – the lives of several women were put at risk. Participants, organisers, and supporters of AM were subjected to a strong backlash, social media abuse and online mobs, accusations of foreign funding, and security threats. The hate speech was intensified by disinformation, which was spread largely through social media, YouTube channels, and electronic media, resulting in threats and blasphemy charges from several prominent journalists and political workers. The anti-march hate campaigns became so alarming that many activists, organizers, and participants had to make multiple statements to counteract this misinformation online.
Statement by feminist journalists
A couple of days after the AM in 2021, various Facebook and Twitter accounts in Pakistan started sharing videos with claims that women in those videos were chanting blasphemous slogans during the women’s day march that year. The claim, however, was false. The misleading video clip was inaccurately subtitled, distorting the original footage published by the event’s official organisers.
The post has been removed; the above image was accessed on July 5, 2022 at a permalink here: https://perma.cc/JS6B-5ZLF?type=image
The footage shows dozens of women chanting during the Aurat March in Karachi. The clip includes superimposed Urdu subtitles that translate as:
“Even your father will give freedom.”
“Imran should also listen, freedom.”
“Iqbal should also listen, freedom.”
“Allah should also listen, freedom.”
“These all should listen too, freedom.”
“The Prophet should also listen, freedom.”
“Saints should also listen, freedom.”
The Facebook post’s Urdu-language caption shared above translates as: “Insult of Allah and Prophet (Mohammad) in the name of women’s march. Just check the slogans. Where is the state and law? Is this allowed openly on roads? Even non-Muslims do not blaspheme so much.”
A screenshot of the seemingly first Facebook post
The same video with identical subtitles was also published on other Facebook pages. Three of these pages are:
Islaami Dawah Markaz Urdu: https://perma.cc/7S5T-J8L4?type=image
His & Her Diary: https://perma.cc/6U4F-L4CR
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Updates: https://perma.cc/NT8Q-SPFL
On Twitter, the first few posts were from:
Mir Mohammad Alikhan @MirMAKOfficial: https://archive.ph/LL2wk
Asim Khan @Asimk: https://archive.ph/vhQmJ
Fatima @KanFatima: https://archive.ph/3zbVZ
Tweet by a user named Asim Khan. The account does not exist now.
Tweet by the user handle @Kan__Fatima. The tweet does not exist anymore
A review of the footage shows that the subtitles added to the doctored version of the video are an inaccurate translation of the chants. For example, one of the alleged chants — “Iqbal should also listen, freedom” — is a reference to Muhamad Iqbal, a poet, philosopher and major Pakistani independence figure.
In reality, the women were chanting “Ismail should also listen, freedom” — a reference to Imran Ismail, the leader of the ruling Tehreek-e-Insaf party and the governor of the Sindh province.
The alleged chants “Allah should also listen, freedom” and “Auliya’s (saints) should also listen, freedom” are also inaccurate. The women were in fact chanting “Mullah should also listen, freedom” and “Orya should also listen, freedom”. Orya Maqbool Jan is a Pakistani columnist and a former civil servant who is known for his opposition to the Aurat March.
Finally, the chant “Rasool (Prophet) should also listen, freedom” is incorrect too. The women were actually chanting “Ansar should also listen, freedom” — a reference to Ansar Abbasi, a journalist and vocal critic of the women’s march. At no point are any chants invoking Allah or the Prophet Mohammad heard during the original footage.
Comparison of the original video with accurate subtitles (L) and the misleading video with inaccurate subtitles (R)
Organisers, participants, and supporters of Aurat March received death threats after this smear campaign that circulated doctored images of the event.
A comparison of the doctored photo in the misleading Facebook posts at left (saying ‘being naked is not being shameless’) and the original photo posted by Mansoor Ali Khan, the journalist in photo with his wife and son (at the Right)
A picture of someone holding a flag for a local feminist group Women’s Development Forum (WDF), was shared with false information that it was a French flag, further “proof” that the feminist movement was foreign-funded.
The statement by WDF clarifying the French flag controversy
In Lahore during the March, a woman’s poster accusing a member of the clergy of sexually assaulting her was labelled as blasphemous. The blasphemy allegations prompted the police to register complaints against the women under blasphemy laws, the offence punishable by death. The law, however, doesn’t come as swiftly in handy as the vigilante violence and public lynchings. This put the lives of women in grave danger and some of them had to go into hiding.
In a horrifying development on March 13, 2021, the banned terrorist outfit Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) issued threats to the Aurat March organisers accusing them of vulgarity and obscenity.
Screenshot of the report about TTP threat
There were scores of hundreds of such posts and campaigns targeting Aurat March organisers and prominent feminists putting them in danger of physical harm, subjecting them to death threats, and forcing them to go in hiding temporarily.
Religious extremist outfits
The tweets, posts, and videos by religious groups;
forwarded by anonymous accounts, influencers, as well as some popular journalists.
The content carried unambiguous threats to vigilante violence, bodily harm, destruction of reputation, character assassination and misrepresentation.
The targeted audience was the ordinary citizens, especially those having religious fundamentalist leanings and a propensity to commit religious violence.
Public safety, fundamental freedoms
Journalists, social media influencers, analysts, government functionaries
The content shows intent for defamation, and vilification, often distorting facts and falsifying content.
Bilingual, but mostly in Urdu
People with conservative social leaning, and people having anti-blasphemy vigilantism as an integral part of their belief system, especially the Barelvi sect.
Individual, non-state, media, political
Means of communication were mostly unlawful (hate speech and falsification of facts)
Much of the content was hate speech, fake news, deliberate character assassination, and threats to bodily harm. Thus could not be protected under freedoms of expression & information.
Social media platforms (Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, blogs)
Videos, pictures, and statements were posted on social media platforms (mostly Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter).
The content was deceptive with false and malicious claims.
Troll farms and bots were used to boost the distribution.
No evidence of backend communication could be accessed; however, the identical posts from various actors show a strong possibility of backend coordination.
The content was manipulated and forged
The content shows it was an organised campaign that was repeated every year around International Women’s Day (2018-2022).
The content was aligned with the disinformation narrative.
The spread of the doctored video of AM with false claims of blasphemy was started with a post from a member of the local clergy, but forwarded by various anonymous accounts as well as known people from media and influencers. In the first few hours, the doctored video was posted by accounts belonging to members and supporters of the ruling party PTI (see Section I for screenshots and detailed description of the content) and even the functionaries working with the government.
Mir Mohammad Alikhan’s Tweet. Now deleted.
The defamatory posts became viral in a matter of a few hours targeting the organisers of the AM and accusing them of blasphemy, vulgarity, obscenity, promiscuity, and immorality. A vast majority of posts, especially the videos and memes were in Urdu and in incendiary language to provoke a violent reaction from religious people. Despite repeated clarifications, given by the official accounts of AM and clear denials of blasphemy accusations, the accusatory posts kept circulating, amplified by right-wing, religiously inclined politicians, journalists and influencers.
The content of the disinformation campaign consisted of doctored videos and photoshopped pictures of the participants of AM. Although a section of the mainstream media (newspapers and TV channels) reported the falsehood of the content that targeted AM, a larger section of these newspapers (Urdu language newspapers mostly) and smaller TV networks remained adamant to unfairly criticise AM and giving imbalanced space to its critics.
The content was created targeting religious fundamentalists and socially conservative people as an audience providing their aggressive and violent reaction against AM organisers and participants. Youtube and Facebook were used as the initial sources of the dis-informative content.
The content was targeted against the women who organised and participated in the AM. Specifically, the women whose faces appeared in the video that was claimed to be blasphemous. The blasphemy allegations and accusations of being promiscuous, vulgar, and immoral threatened the physical well-being of Aurat Marchers. The content denied AM members their fundamental freedoms like that of association, expression, and choice.
The actors involved were individuals, religious groups, as well as members of larger extremist outfits. The content showed a clear and deliberate effort to falsify the information and distort the facts for an organised distribution targeting a specific audience. The content included deceptive elements and clear evidence of false information. The videos and pictures that were doctored and photoshopped kept circulating despite the original visuals published by the organisers of AM. Although no evidence of coordination was available, the distribution of identical content from a wide range of social media accounts indicates some degree of back-end coordination. The immediate effect of the campaign was a tainted image of AM participants, and attacks against the organisers who had to go into hiding or be inactive temporarily as a result.
Based on the above factors, this case has been diagnosed as disinformation through organised and coordinated campaigning.