In Pakistan, the mainstream leading political parties vies that no one can steer the country’s economy better than them. The electoral win of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in 2018 was based on its commitment to promote the socio-economic development and to combat the rampant corruption and cronyism in the country’s political and institutional settings. Then ruling government of PTI claimed to inherit considerable debts and shrinking foreign reserves from its predecessors and held them responsible for the country’s economic downfall. The government believed that recovering the looted money will ease the economic burden but its anti-corruption drive did not prove to be effective as it did not pay heed to other corrupt practices in system. During the past few years of politics of Pakistan, it has been a common practice of the ruling party to hide its own inefficiencies and targeting the previous governments for their allegedly massive and unchecked corruption. The socio-political fabric of Pakistan remained vulnerable to propaganda and disinformation campaigns. In this view, the ruling government, in the efface of Transparency International report (2019), failed to prove its commitment to eliminate corruption. It tried to conceal its own inefficiency to curtail the corruption by distorting facts and placing the baggage of poor economy and increased corruption on the shoulders of previous government.
- WHAT HAPPENED
Based on the manifesto of inclusive economic growth, revolutionize social services, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) leader Imran Khan took the charge of Prime Minister in August 2018. Despite his commitment to eradicate poverty and promote socio-economic development, doubt surrounded his anti-corruption drive as Pakistan faced a severe macroeconomic crisis in 2019. Some media reports underlined that the bleak economy was inherited from poorly regulated financial system of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government. However, Khan’s government refused to take the responsibility of economic woes and said the situation is caused by poorly governed financial system of the previous government of PML-N. It further held its predecessors responsible for the country’s downgraded score in the Transparency International’s (TI) annual Corruption Perception Index (CPI) report of 2019 where Pakistan fell one point below in comparison to 2018 score of 33 and slipped in the world ranking from the previous 117th to the 120th among 180 countries.
Former Special Assistant to the Prime Minister for Information and Broadcasting Firdous Ashiq Awan rejected the report accusing it “biased” and “unfair”. She framed her claims to mislead the nation and further added that the report was being managed by the “kings of corruption sitting abroad”. She was pointing fingers at the former Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif. Meanwhile, then the opposition parties termed the TI report a “charge-sheet” against the Khan’s government.
In this backdrop, Khan’s government launched a disinformation campaign to defend its commitment to accountability and anti-corruption narrative.
- DELIBERATE DISINFORMATION
In the view of Transparency International’s CPI 2019 report featuring Pakistan’s downgrade score and poor ranking among 180 countries, the then state ministers rejected TI’s report based on false accusations. Former Special Assistant to the Prime Minister (SAPM) Dr. Shahbaz Gil claimed that TI report has used old data from previous years i.e. 2017, 2018 and 2019. A private TV channel ARY Digital endorsed this claim.
Similarly, Chairman Transparency International Pakistan Advocate Sohail Muzzafar claimed that data from previous years (2015, 2016, 2017) was used in TI report 2019 for reporting on Rule of Law indicator only. He further added that ‘lowering of Pakistan score by one point does not reflect any increase or decrease in Corruption as it is within the standard margin of error which is 2.46%. Hence, a big confusion was created on social media about TI report asserting it has used old data of some agencies/survey sources for its CPI 2019 report. But ‘The News’ conducted a thorough research and claimed that agencies involved in assessment of Pakistan CPI had used updated data and no agency had used 2015 and 2016 datasets for to serve the purpose.
Advisor to PM Imran Khan on Interior and Accountability Shahzad Akbar rather compared Pakistan downgraded position with Canada, Britain, and the US and hailed government’s efforts to curtail the menace of corruption.
The then state officials tried to hide government’s incapability to curb corruption by accusing previous government. While commenting on TI report, Former Special Assistant to the Prime Minister for Information and Broadcasting Firdous Ashiq Awan accused corrupt mafia for spreading rumors against them. Former SPAM Dr. Shahbaz also accused TI for granting favor to PML-N government and maintaining the CPI graph to a certain level during PML-N tenure.
Nonetheless, Pakistan’s economy, as per TI reports, continued to deteriorate in the following years. In 2019, Pakistan slipped in scores and went up in ranking. Its score slipped from 33 in 2018 to 32 in 2019 whereas its ranking escalated from 117 out of 180 countries in 2018 to 120 out of 180 countries in 2019.Furthermore, TI lowered Pakistan’s overall score from 31 in 2020 to 28 in 2021 and downgraded its ranking from 124/180 in 2020 to 140/180 in 2021. After TI issued its recent report, the PTI government faced a wild criticism and backlash from the opposition party members on social media.
While commenting in recent TI report (2021), former PM Imran Khan said that government had taken steps against corruption. He further lamented that “those who committed corruption are sitting abroad instead of facing cases in their own country.”
- ABCDE FRAMEWORK
|Primary actors: State ministers||Transparency: the primary actors involved in this campaign did not hide their identity||Harm: the content of campaign was not harmful or endangering human life||Audience: the content’s targeted audience was the ordinary citizens||Human rights: content has not threatened physical well being or safety of individuals but created political polarization and misperception.|
|Intent: the content and thebehavior of the primary actors reflected a clear intent to vilify opposition and TI||Languages: the language used by the main actors was accusatory and manipulative||The Targeted: the content was tailored to target the opposition party|
|Authenticity: Primary actors used false accusation and manipulated the information i.e., unlawful techniques of communication||Expression: the content consisted of wrong information and baseless allegation, hence could not be protected under freedom of expressions and information||Platform: Twitter and TV channel (ARY digital) were the platforms used to distribute the misleading content|
|Dependency: the primary actors did not perform on behalf of any other party||Truthfulness: the content was fallacious and consisted of untrue claims which could not be verified after issuance of a detailed research report by media||Virility: The virility of content did not suggest an inauthentic boost to online engagement|
|Infrastructure: Backend communicationwas evident from the coordinated actions of primary actors who aimed at vilification of same target||Synthetic: The content was deceitful and accusatory||Scale: The scale of campaign suggested it is an ongoing campaign|
|Narratives: The content was aligned with campaign’s narrative of false accusations|
- ABCDE FRAMEWORK BASED ANALYSIS
The primary actors in this case were the government’s ministers, including Dr. Firdous Ashiq Awan, Dr. Shahbaz Gill and Shahzad Akbar. They were not affiliated to any private, nongovernmental organization or proxy of a foreign government. The main platform actors used for the dissemination of disinformation was Twitter whereas the TV channel that took lead in this regard was ARY.
Through this case study, it was noted that accusation and distortion of facts were the basis of the entire campaign. The primary actors involved did not disguise their identity. They deliberately and knowingly disseminated false information, which were later proven wrong after investigation conducted by a media outlet i.e. The News. Any back-end coordination was evident from the state ministers coordinated Tweets endorsing and defending their party agenda. The behavior and activities of the primary actors showed clear intent of accusation and damaging opposition’s image.
The content/information, in this case, was shared without any evidence. And by the time, the investigations proved the information wrong. The content was verifiably untrue and was clearly aligned with the known disinformation narrative i.e., accusing opposition and manipulation of the facts shared by IT. The content in this case has been disseminated in English and Urdu in accusatory tone. The content was based on falsification of facts and libel, so it cannot be protected under fundamental freedoms of expression and of information.
In this case, the campaign targeted the reported international civil society organization and opposition parties, particularly PML-N. By disseminating accusatory and false information, an environment was created against opposition party members to fool the ordinary citizen about their own performance in the development of the country. The content was distributed through social media i.e. Twitter and news channels e.g. ARY TV that is rumored to be pro PTI media outlet. The scale of the campaign involved multiple actors and platforms, thus specified it was a single ongoing operation.
The content disseminated as part of this campaign had a serious impact on the climate of debate in overall society as it created political polarization by propagating false and accusatory information. Though the content did not threaten individuals’ health, physical wellbeing, or medical safety, it sought to undermine opposition party’s image.
The campaign was analyzed under all elements of the ABCDE framework, i.e., actor, behavior, content, degree, and effect. The primary actors originated a deliberate campaign and falsified information was amplified on social media. The actors’ messages on social media were in line with falsified and manipulative narrative. The precision with which this coordinated campaign was conducted points to the inauthentic behavior and back-end coordination. The primary actors involved used deceptive statements, propagated false narratives and fabricated facts to tarnish the image of opposition party.
Based on the aforementioned facts and analysis, this campaign has been identified as ‘Disinformation/Propaganda’.
The campaign, by promoting fabricated news, had direct impact on the image of opposition party. It has also questioned the authenticity of Transparency International by alleging the external influence in the TI report on Pakistan. This campaign, an ongoing operation that has endorsed the same false narrative regarding TI reports issued in years ahead, would have snowball effect on the political polarization in the country.