Politico-religious hate speech steers social media ahead of polls


–Digital activity of several fronts manipulate narratives by igniting political and religious violence against rivals

–Human-bots are also being used to sexually harass female journalists, study finds

LAHORE: Hate speech and violence have taken over a large part of the online spaces in Pakistan ahead of the elections where human-bots not only amplify political narratives artificially but also incite direct violence against the political rivals.

“These propaganda-driven human-bots often used to push or engineer political campaigns, are deployed to harass, heckle and intimidate political rivals and journalists,” a report on trending hashtags revealed.

Trends Monitor published its first report after monitoring 37 trending hashtags on Twitter in Pakistan from 23rd to 30th June. It was found that a substantially large part of the monitored Twitter activity had bot attributes, meaning that the human-bot accounts had hijacked online spaces.

Terming it an “extremely unfair practice”, the report indicated that such accounts were directly involved in inciting violence against political rivals and journalists.


The monitor found that except for #Election2018, “almost all [hashtags] had high human-bot activity,” thus indicating a high likelihood of potential on-going hashtag engineering and manipulation.

This “could be an extremely dangerous practice especially in charged, extremely polarised political environment,” the study warns.

Media Matters for Democracy Founder Asad Baig termed it “a political cyber-war” where opposing political fronts target each other. “PML-N outlets are attacking Imran Khan… Similarly, accounts tweeting in favour of Imran Khan and PTI are attacking accounts tweeting in favour of PMLN and Maryam Nawaz herself,” he explained.

Moreover, he highlighted that the process involved manipulating narratives by igniting political and religious violence against political rivals.


Despite the gross violation of cyber rights on a regular basis, political parties and their leadership have neither addressed the issue nor taken notice of the misconduct.

The study blames political leadership for their failure to highlight the problem through official, personal and party twitter accounts, citing there is “no other option but to believe that this ‘silence’ was perhaps intentional”.

Although the leaders don’t own their rogue designs, Baig believes, “Inciteful speech is rampant in these exchanges.”

Meanwhile, a Senate body had urged the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) on Friday to deal with cybercrime issues effectively. The Standing Committee on Interior Chairman Rehman Malik advised the PTA to buy the necessary automated equipment to detect derogatory remarks and objectionable material on the social media.


The study also concluded that the hateful and inciteful exchange wasn’t limited to political actors but was also often directed at journalists, especially female journalists.

In most cases, female journalists were subjected to online harassment on sexual themes.

Sadaf Khan, Director of Media Matters for Democracy, said, “The hate speech against women journalists and women politicians is often heavily sexualised. This is perhaps the most disturbing finding.”

She adds that there were cases in which hateful, explicit and inciteful terms were used to target the women working in media “in a very organised manner”.

As part of the objective of their study, she said they were documenting the complaints and reporting the incidents to the law enforcement agencies.

Trends Monitor is a research being undertaken by Media Matters for Democracy to identify and document potential manipulation of political hashtags and conversations on Twitter in Pakistan through human-bots, especially in the wake of the polls.


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