PTI is as famous for its army of social media trolls as it is for its playboy leader. Farhan Virk is virtually synonymous with Twitter bots, and the massive difference of support for the party by online accounts and actual voters has earned the party the moniker ‘Tehreek-e-Internet’. But as much of a nuisance as PTI trolls can be, like other nuisances, we have all adapted and learned to carry on regardless. Now, though, the party that has long been believed to be a baby of the ISI finds itself being nuisanced by no less than the state itself.
PTI leader Fawad Chaudhary has warned that the government is trying to ‘silence’ PTI by raiding their workers offices and arresting members of the PTI social media team. These raids and arrests are condemnable, however, it is not a politically motivated attack to protect the feelings of the Sharifs. What began as a crackdown on alleged online blasphemy against almighty Allah has turned into a crackdown on alleged online blasphemy almighty Army.
Ch Nisar has said that ‘the whole nation is united on national security issues’. It is a laughable claim knowing what we do thanks to Dawn Leaks, but it is also a laughable claim for anyone with internet access. Social media, where anonymity protects the dictator and the dissident alike, is the last place where there is a healthy debate about all manner of national issues including CPEC, extremism, and international relations. If political criticism is permissible, even encouraged, by certain quarters, however there is no room given for criticism of Army and intelligence agencies as has been proven by these latest crackdowns.
If dominating the narrative on social media molded the narrative offline, Imran Khan would have been PM long ago. Army’s reactions on the social media front is a mistake because it shows a weakness in the national security strategy. If agencies arrest, kidnap and torture well meaning critics, it gives an obvious strategy to our real enemies who can create dozens of fake accounts to promote truly anti-Army messages to create confusion and chaos. What will we do then? Will we block all social media? What about blogs? Will we only allow access to approved blogs? What about foreign news websites like New York Times and Guardian that have been accused of promoting anti-Army narratives? What about Pakistani news sites like Dawn and Geo that are also accused? Will we only allow access to Bol and Neo? How long until the internet in Pakistan looks like the internet in North Korea?
The crackdown on dissent on social media is an impossible task. Taken to its logical conclusion, the state’s present strategy means disconnecting completely, which is choosing isolation and only confirming the worst accusations that the powers that be want to disprove. The only way to counter negative propaganda online is to disprove it through positive actions off-line. That means taking the fight to the real national security threat, not critics on social media.