Social Media: The latest front of deep state’s national narrative management

social media wars

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?

Kulbhushan Jadhav Sentence: Reading the Analysts

Husain Haqqani has written a ‘must read’ analysis of the Kulbhushan Jadhav affair. As usual, the former Ambassador makes many important observations, particularly about how the ‘military-intelligence combine wants to ensure the primacy of its worldview at least within Pakistan’. This is becoming more and more obvious in the aftermath of GHQ’s announcement of the verdict against Jadhav.

Take note of the following paragraph in Haqqani’s piece:

Pakistani military intelligence maintains a large “M” (media) wing that threatens mainstream journalists, tries to influence reporting on Pakistan by foreign media and ensures that civilian politicians, journalists and intellectuals who question its narrative of a permanently besieged Pakistani state are projected as agents of a Zionist-Hindu cabal. Islamabad was also an early adopter of fake news sites used to promote everything from the country’s capital to building the image of its top army commander.

With that fresh in our minds, now let us consider another analysis of the Jadhav affair. This is from a piece in The Nation by Waqar K Kauravi and Umar Waqar called ‘Kulsbhushan’s Himmelfahrt‘:

The Kulbhushan enterprise was directly responsible for 1345 killings of innocent Pakistanis and injury to 7500, the financial cost to Pakistan has been approximately 3 billion USDs mainly in lost business and bad perception affecting tourism, sports (cricket), exports and imports; indirect cost may not be ever known.

These are oddly specific numbers, aren’t they? Not ‘thousands’, but exactly 1,345. Where did this number come from? The Army conducted Kulbhushan Jadhav’s trial in complete secrecy, so where did these writers get such details? After some research, the only other reporting of this statistic I could find is from an AP story that quotes two anonymous ‘senior security officials’. However, the AP story was published the same day at the story in The Nation. So did Waqar K Kauravi and Umar Waqar get their information from anonymous ‘senior security officials’ also? If so, why didn’t they say so? And who are these officials?

Maybe the answer can be found in the previous writings of these two. Their recent pieces include:

  • A hit piece on an American scholar who is critical of ISI.
  • A hit piece on Husain Haqqani.
  • A piece advising media not to criticise Army and ISI.
  • A piece projecting official narratives of ISI having ‘a global rating of excellence’ and RAW as a threat to ‘Pakistan’s perception management matrix’.
  • A piece celebrating ‘the heroic contest by Pakistani nation and her soldiers against Indian aggression’.

Are these writers the perfect example of ISI’s ‘M-Wing’ that Haqqani discusses in his piece? Now let us return to the mysterious details provided by Waqar K Kauravi and Umar Waqar’s analysis. Such pieces would be completely unnecessary if another of Haqqani’s points was taken to heart by our state institutions:

Mr. Jadhav’s conviction for espionage would have been more convincing if it had resulted from an open trial.

The facts and evidences from the trial are completely unknown. In fact, the entire affair was carried out behind closed doors and it is not even certain that the government was informed until after it was decided. Details are not coming through official channels, but leaked by anonymous security sources and reported by unknown analysts who only write pieces projecting Army narratives. These reports will be emailed and posted and repeated by hypernationalists, but anyone who dares to show any scepticism will be branded as a sell-out or traitor.

Haqqani concludes that ‘spy games can only make it tougher for the two South Asian neighbors to even explore peace, let alone find it’. Maybe it is his mistake that anyone was looking for peace to begin with.

“Standard Operating Procedure: Deny, then deny the denial”

Foreign Office Spokesman Nafees Zakaria

Nawaz Sharif claimed another victory yesterday, as Kuwait has decided to lift six-years old visa ban for Pakistanis after the PM discussed the matter with his counterpart Sheikh Jaber al Mubarak al Hamad al Sabah. However, this victory has been somewhat overshadowed by scandal because by announcing the good news, the government has also exposed itself as making false attacks against those who tell inconvenient truths.

The issue of Kuwait’s visa ban surfaced during debate about American President Donald Trump’s order to ban visas for several Muslim countries known as a ‘Muslim Ban’. During this discussion it was noted by former Ambassador Husain Haqqani that actually Kuwait also had also banned visas for Pakistani citizens since six years ago. Haqqani was immediately attacked by the Foreign Office in an official statement.

Meanwhile, as “fake news” against Pakistan was doing the rounds, the spokesman came down heavily on Pakistan’s former US ambassador Hussain Haqqani who was caught while retweeting five years old news, claiming that Kuwait had put a ban on Pakistani visas.

“It is highly regrettable and deplorable that a person who was honoured to represent Pakistan has been indulging in activities that would hurt Pakistan’s national interests. Unfortunately, he is doing all this at a time when the world is increasingly acknowledging Pakistan’s growing economic potential in the wake of tremendous improvement in the security situation, investor friendly policies and strengthening of democratic institutions”, responded the spokesman.

He added that the more Mr. Haqqani does such malicious and unethical acts, more he exposes his character. “He has not only lost respect among Pakistanis but also among those who attach importance to values”, said the spokesman.

By announcing the reversal of the ban, though, the government has shown that the ‘Fake News’ was coming from none other than spokesman for the Foreign Office Nafees Zakaria!

Haqqani responded to the situation with his famous wit before quickly moving on to more pressing matters:

Whatever one thinks about Husain Haqqani, he has hit the nail on the head this time. “Standard Operating Procedure: Deny, then deny the denial”. We have seen this over and over again, especially with attacks against anyone and everyone who dares to point out inconvenient facts that don’t fit a particular ‘narrative’ of how we wish reality was.

Will the FO apologise for attacking Haqqani’s character when he obviously did nothing but tell the truth? Or was the FO really unaware of Kuwait’s visa ban? If this is the case, then they not only owe Haqqani an apology, but a sincere ‘thank you’ for alerting them to the situation. Either way, the conclusion is clear: Officials need to do more listening, and less attacking, if they want to solve national problems. That is undeniable.

Khaki TV

Gen Musharraf Bol TV Gen Musharraf who had tightened the noose on journalists at one time, is also often credited with granting the media the freedom that allowed it to grow into what we have today. However, like many things in Pakistan, there is more to media ‘freedom’ than first meets the eye. Actually, the claim that Musharraf himself freed the media came from none other than the general himself, and was mocked in the international media at the time. Even Moeed Pirzada once admitted that ‘a carefully-created perception of free media inside Pakistan helped the military dictator to market himself’. Despite being exposed in the international press, the strategy worked better than could ever have been dreamed at home and led to the rise of an entire industry of Army/ISI media proxies. Now it looks like that strategy is coming into its latest phase.

Ever since becoming ‘free’, media has seen the likes of Ahmed Quraishi and Zaid Hamid whose journalistic credentials were less important than their talking points. Mainstream anchors have also raised questions about media independence as certain well known voices are widely considered as Army mouthpieces, and those who dare question or criticise GHQ are silenced with threats or worse. It is a coincidence that in this era of ‘media freedom’, this is the quality of ‘journalism’ we are subjected to?

Waj bro will soon have competition, though, from a new media personality even closer to GHQ: The ex-dictator himself. Gen Musharraf has announced that he is joining none other than Bol TV (yes, the same channel that has long been rumoured to be an ISI front). It is more accurate to say that Gen Musharraf is returning to TV since he has played this role before.

Gen Musharraf PTV coup

At a time when whole world is trying to solve the problem of ‘fake news’, Pakistan media is doubling down on the strategy of ‘a carefully-created perception of free media’ to market the Army to itself. Now they will even be joined by the founder of this strategy himself.

World Is Cracking Down On Fake News: Is Pakistan Media At Serious Risk?

After Donald Trump brought the problem of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ to the attention of the world, internet editors have begun to ask questions about the credibility of so-called ‘news’ sources. The latest sign of a widespread crack down on fake news is the announcement that Wikipedia has banned using UK newspaper Daily Mail as a source, terming it as ‘generally unreliable‘. This is a major development because it is banning of a newspaper that was founded 120 years ago, not some shadowy website that popped up over night.

With wide spread concern about the ill effects of ‘fake news’, banning of Daily Mail  may be just the beginning, and Pakistan media may be at serious risk. Since the past several years, dozens of fake news sites in Pakistan have been exposed. The most famous example was blog Cafe Pyala that shined the light on shadowy propaganda rings that appeared close to the deep state including even a Pakistani fake news source called ‘Daily Mail‘! Then last year an APP report may have  accidentally busted another fake news operation with ties to ISI.

Tight control of Pakistan media by Army is already well reported in international media. In 2015, The Guardian published an expose about Army officials threatening journalists and forcing them to self-censor. How can such media be deemed as reliable if it is well known that it is threatened and coerced by Army? These threats have again come under view after a group of bloggers who dared question Army mysteriously disappeared earlier this year, resulting in new global attention to the dangerous turn of censorship in Pakistan.

However, it’s not just censorship that threatens the credibility of Pakistan media as a whole, it is also the number of obvious deep state puppets who dominate the media. There are the obvious jokers like Ahmed Quraishi and Zaid Hamid, but there are also the more ‘serious’ journalists like Mubashir Lucman, whose fake news cost ARY millions after being judged by an international court, or Moeed Pirzada who is widely seen as close to the establishment.

As the world makes moves to limit the negative influence of fake news, will Pakistani media find itself caught between the rock of international questions and the hard place of establishment operations to keep tight control over national discussions? If UK Daily Mail is termed as ‘generally unreliable’, what can we say about most of Pakistani news? As the world community takes on the problem of fake news, Pakistani media will be facing a lot of difficult choices.