NEW DELHI: They are ‘Iron Brothers’, but it is on twitter that the Pakistan-China bond appears strongest. Using fake Chinese names and pictures, an army of Pakistani troll warriors have unleashed a massive disinformation campaign against India post-Galwan. The idea is two-fold – to make Indian twitterati and India think China is attacking them, and to spread anti-India propaganda through the world, especially the Muslim world. So far as tech experts have turned up an estimated 500 accounts run or sponsored by the ISI.
This isn’t the first time that Pakistani groups have resorted to twitter to attack India. On April 23, twitter user @SayyidaMona showcased a picture of Omani Princess Sayyida Mona bint Fahad with her name and her tweet went viral: “Oman stands with its Muslim brothers and sisters in India. If the Indian govt doesn’t stop persecution of Muslims then one million workers living in Oman may be expelled. I will take up this issue with the Sultan of Oman.” @narendramodi The princess later clarified that the account was not hers but a parody account. By then however the hackers had achieved their objective.
So who are these hackers? Are they part of the ISI? Some are but here’s the odd thing, Pakistan is a strange country when it comes to social media. According to Digital 2020 – Global Digital Overview report, Pakistan has 33 million users on Facebook and just 1.83 million on Twitter. But it is Twitter that dominates discourse.
Hate speech is at an all time high on the medium and the overwhelmingly male users – 77 percent of those using twitter in Pakistan are men – a figure much higher than other social media mediums. The medium is ripe for abuse and misuse thanks to ‘hashtag merchants’. According to a media report on the Twitter scenario in the country, ‘”Almost 95 per cent of the trending political campaigns in Pakistan are boosted artificially by these hashtag merchants to mislead the public, giving a false impression that there is genuine grass-roots support or opposition for a particular group or narrative.”
Come to India though and the Pakistani ‘Twitter Army’ get more serious. Emboldened with big names such as ‘IKWarriors’ and ‘TeamPakZindabad’ hashtag merchants rig Twitter through another medium WhatsApp to trend hashtags such as #ModiStopProvoking or #IndianMediaIsStupid. One of the biggest names here is Farhan Virk. A qualified doctor, Virk – who is not ashamed to be labelled as a troll – frequently trends anti-India topics.
The modus operandi is simple. Doctored images and fake news are made ready by his ‘TeamImranKhan’ made up of an estimated 1,000 volunteers. These volunteers work within WhatsApp group where other key influencers operate who retweet when Virk tweets. Due to the nature of the medium – Twitter looks at spirals which means how many times the topic has been tweeted, retweeted and reposted in a short space of time – the item can then become a trending topic. What is worrisome though is that Indian media and Indian twitterati can unwittingly contribute to the surges in popularity by quoting or attacking these tweets. This leads to a spat which is just what these ‘Twitter Armies’ want as it keeps the issue alive.
Twitter’s crackdown has ensured that ‘hashtag merchants’ like Virk have lost their ids. But the lack of checks and balances in the medium ensures that he and others like him can create another one. Come August 5, and one can expect that Virk and others will be churning out anti-India propaganda from fake Chinese and Arab handles. The social media driven disinformation war has just begun.