Social media is coming under intense pressurization. First, government and judiciary began raising alarms over alleged problem of ‘blasphemous content‘ on social media. Now the attention has moved from offending the Almighty to offending the Army. Last weekend, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar declared it unconstitutional to criticise national security matters and related institutions. He has ordered FIA to take action against anyone criticising Army on social media.
However, if Army feels like it is loosing its grip online, it is not leaving it to the civilians to fix the problem. Activities of ISI’s media cell (aka M-Wing) are well known, but there are also ‘unofficial’ groups that are used to both spread messages and remind citizens of their place. In a new piece for Daily Times, Dr Aamir Khan has pointed out the rise of ‘a hidden WhatsApp constituency‘.
No, it is not hyper-paid TV anchors themselves, powerful though they are in shaping public opinion. I refer to some 25 to 30 thousand retired army officers who are daily using social media, especially WhatsApp to forge a formidable group exerting pressure on the highest leadership of our armed forces.
Propaganda rings and pro-Army social media operations are nothing new in Pakistan. For many officers, retirement means a new career in media. ‘Un-official’ new media operations were pioneered by the likes of Gen Hamid Gul and Major Raja Mujtaba, and their legacy is being carried on after them by a new generation.
In the past year, a new ‘private’ venture has launched called CommandEleven.com which is led by Lt Gen (r) Tariq Khan and Col (r) Azam Qadri supported by a cast of ‘analysts’ who came up through the ranks of PKKH and its off-shoots. As usual, this new operation features ‘analysis’ by retired Army officers questioning the patriotism of media and blaming corruption for all the country’s problems (but not all corruption of course).
This new group is also closely watching social media for any criticism of the armed forces. After DG ISPR’s Tweet rejecting PM’s notification on ‘Dawn Leaks’, one of CommandEleven.com’s so-called analysts wrote that ‘domestic and international elements also waged a social media campaign against DG ISPR’, and termed the entire affair as a a ‘classic media influence operation’. The same ‘analyst’ also has written a blog post that tries to paint the conference as ‘mysterious’ and the participants as ‘traitors’ and ‘foreign agents’ in a most typical manner, even though the conference was reported in both international media and Pakistani media and the contents of the conference are actually posted online for anyone to see what was actually said.
The real mystery here is what is the point of these hypernationalist social media operations being run by retired military officers? What used to be the domain of conspiracy-mongers like Zaid Hamid and Ahmed Quraishi is now a crowded room of newly retired Army officers and their young proteges. Is it only a coincidence that this is happening at the same time Interior Minister is threatening action against anyone who critcises Army on social media, or is it an orchestrated part of deep state’s national narrative management?