Crackdown on social media a self-defeating strategy

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.

Who should be lecturing who on strategies to de-radicalise youth?

This week an invitation was delivered to Vice Chancellors of every University in Pakistan summoning them to Army Auditorium, GHQ for a seminar on ‘Role of Youth in Rejecting Extremism’ organised by ISPR.

Email to University Vice Chancellors from GHQ

The timing of the announcement was unfortunate because it was delivered the same day that a major newspaper published a blank space in the place where there was supposed to be a piece on the threat of extremism by Mohammad Hanif, once again showing that when it comes to discussing the problem of extremism, certain quarters have their limits.

blank page newspaper

It is commendable that Army leadership recognises the important role of young people in ridding the society of the curse of extremism. However, if the military wants to demonstrate its ‘unprecedented support to Education’, the obvious answer is not to invite Vice Chancellors to be addressed by the Hon’ble Chief of Army Staff, but to invite the Hon’ble Chief of Army Staff to be addressed by actual educators who have developed an expertise on education and extremism. People like Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, who has been lecturing on roots of extremism and strategies for de-radicalising youth for years.

If Army is serious about eliminating extremism and the role of youth in rejecting extremism, GHQ should be inviting Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, Dr Salman Haider and other educators and experts to educate ISPR on what is needed. Then, maybe ISPR will arrange for Dr Hoodbhoy to give a special interview on TV, and not the spokesman for TTP.

Dawn Hackers: Lynch Mob or Contract Hit Job?

Hackers target DawnYou have surely by now seen the alert. Dawn media group has been under attack by hackers since the last three months. All web sites are at risk from hackers who want to display some messages as pranks or spam, but this appears to be a more serious type of operation.

“for the past three months and a number of attempts have been made to hack and hijack its official social media accounts and the accounts of its staff”

So these hackers are not just trying to deface Dawn’s website, they are also targeting the individuals who work for Dawn. What are they looking for? For some clue, we might look at the time line of the attacks.

Dawn first reported that they were being targeted by hackers in January, but the media group’s troubles started a few months earlier when they published a controversial report about a meeting between PM Nawaz Sharif and DG ISI Gen Rizwan Akhtar in which Pakistan’s growing international isolation and willingness to take on all militant groups was allegedly discussed.

The report caused a panic in Rawalpindi and Islamabad. A Corps Commanders meeting was called and ISPR termed it ‘a breach of national security‘. PM House also released a strongly worded statement saying that publishing the report ‘had risked the vital state interests‘, and the reporter Cyril Almeida’s name was temporarily placed on ECL as if he were a wanted criminal.

From unofficial quarters, the response was even more extreme. Social media has been flooded with hashtag campaigns including:

#DawnIsATraitor

#DawnIndianPawn

#ArmyActForDawn

As usual, even media talking heads are smelling blood and promoting the narrative that Dawn is in league with India.


Is it any surprise that some hackers have put Dawn and even its staff in their sights? The question is whether this attack on Dawn is an informal response of an angry group intent on punishing Dawn without any trial – in other words a lynch mob? It is difficult to pinpoint the source of social media trends which occur both intentionally or unintentionally. However, the extent of the hacking operations targeting Dawn mean this could be something else: A contract hit job funded by those with the means and motivation to silence a media group that they believe has breached national security.

It is well known that the latest front in modern defence is cyber warfare and the battle for control of narratives and information. Cyber warriors operate like spies, lurking in the shadows of the internet and protecting their anonymity as a cloak to hide their goals and their methods. This gives state agencies who sponsor them cover of ‘plausible deniability’. Also like spies, many of cyber warfare operations are carried out by contractors, not uniformed soldiers, making it even harder to trace.

But there are still clues that raise questions. Who can support a three months long hacking operation? And if it was only some hypernationalist vigilantes looking to bring down the Dawn website, why are they targeting reporters social media accounts? Could they be trying to search through DMs for any incriminating evidence? Could such an operation be carried out by one or two hackers, or is it a team that is working? And if this is the case, who has trained and organised this team of cyber warriors?

There is another question, too. Most every other country treats hacking of media as an attack on national security. However in this case, there has been no response by security agencies, and no investigation has been demanded or announced. If it was believed that a cyber attack on a national media group was coming from Indian or other hostile agencies, surely there would be an appropriate response. In this case, though, the attack is met with silence. Is that silence a sign of approval?

Prime Minister’s Special Assistant on Foreign Affairs Tariq Fatemi is expected to resign over allegations of his involvement in leaking the information contained in the controversial Dawn report by the special committee set up to investigate the leaks. If he is found to have leaked sensitive or secret information, it is appropriate for him to resign or be sacked to stop future leaks.

Problem of leaking is only one part of the problem, though. There is also the issue of a massive hacking operation targeting national media. Unfortunately, till date there has been no sign of any interest in investigating or acting against those responsible. Actually, it is quite the opposite. Without an official investigation and report, this will leave the answers about who is behind it to your own imagination.

State’s Role In Vigilante Killing

Another video has leaked showing armed police including ATS standing guard as vigilantes search cars for the body of murdered student Mashal Khan.

Sadly, this is not a surprise. Even after police cleared the victim from any allegations, still there are countless who support his killers including many officers from law enforcement agencies. This is not an accusation, it is a fact stated by police themselves.

We are all familiar with reports that University administrators pressurized students to accuse Mashal. And we have seen the report of PTI councillor Arif Mardan warning students not to name the killers. We know the dramatic statements of PM Nawaz Sharif and IHC Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui against blasphemy. All of these add up to state’s role in whipping up the religious sentiments and making a very dangerous environment. However there is another way that the state is responsible for these lynch mobs.

Whole society may be sensitive to blasphemy issue, but this is not enough to explain vigilantism and lynch mobs. If students and administrators truly believed that someone has committed blasphemy, why won’t they report to authorities? Why won’t we accept the legal process to determine guilt and innocence? I believe the reason is that we have not actual legal system in this country, and I will now provide evidence.

When Rangers pick up people and torture them to death, when state agencies kidnap bloggers, when supporters of killers openly defy government orders with no consequences, when militant leaders declare that they are unmoved by government bans, when Army denies foreigners consular access before sentencing them to death in secret trials, when hardened terrorists are killed in ‘police encounters‘ and even those who are captured are tried and convicted in secret military courts, the message is given very clearly that there is no actual law and order but only the law of the jungle. If even our own law enforcement agencies act as vigilantes, how can we expect anyone else to act differently?

Parliamentarians condemn lynching and declare that law of the jungle cannot prevail, but they are empty words for show only. Which lawmaker will reign in out of control agencies? Which lawmaker will change laws that affect religious sensitivities?

Speaking about why police did not stop the mob that killed Mashal Khan, a police officer said “There are hundreds of sympathisers in my force and if I take too much interest in the case I might be killed too.”

Police know that the reality is that the law of the state is the law of the jungle.

And privately, in our own hearts, we know it too.

Gen (r) Janjua’s advise for Afghanistan is good advise for Pakistan also

Gen (r) Naseer Khan JanjuaNational Security Advisor Lt Gen (r) Naseer Khan Janjua has found himself widely ridiculed on social media after claiming that US is only a superpower due to Pakistan. However, there are other claims made by the retired officer that are much less amusing. Actually, they should be taken very seriously if we are to ever find a way out of the cycle of madness that we seem to be stuck in.

Gen Janjua also asked at the same gathering, “It is said Pakistan is supporting Taliban. If that is true then why are Pakistani Taliban fighting a war against us?” Is the NSA not aware of the difference between Afghan Taliban and TTP? Is he not aware of the state’s different policies towards these two groups, seeing one as a legitimate political force and the other as an illegitimate anti-state terrorist group?

This brings up another curious point made in an exclusive interview the NSA gave to Geo where he blamed Afghanistan and un-named ‘hostile intelligence agencies’ for hosting anti-Pakistan militants like TTP. Here is what he said:

As a result of the successful conduct of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the terrorists ran for their lives and crossed over to into Afghanistan, where they were hosted by the Hostile Intelligence Agencies (HIAs). After absorbing the initial set back, these terrorists relocated and re-established themselves.

Over time, they have reorganised, regrouped, and recuperated. The recent series of attacks show that they are now well-established and have adequate support of Hostile Intelligence Agencies to restart their heinous activities.

I am not making any disagreement with the NSA’s statement, but there is an important point missing which is that what he is describing is exactly what Pakistan is doing also.

Last year, Sartaj Aziz admitted what was already obvious which is that Pakistan has been hosting Taliban leaders and providing safe haven where they were able to reorganise, regroup, and recuperate. Former COAS Gen Musharraf also admitted that ISI cultivated Taliban to counter any Indian influence in Kabul. In other words, everything we have blamed Afghanistan for doing that has fueled this terrible war, we have admitted doing also!

NSA Lt Gen Janjua said that “continuous way of war, and the intent to gain a position of strength, has made the war perpetual in Afghanistan.” If this is something he truly believes and is not just reciting sweet talking points, the obvious result is for our own state agencies to end our obsession with the way of war and intent to gain a position of strength in Afghanistan. If we are sincere in wanting to see peace in Afghanistan and at home, we need to take our own advise and stop our ‘good Taliban’ ‘bad Taliban’ policies.