[Dawn 27 April, 2019]

KARACHI: Twitter users on Friday raised serious concerns over the increasing weaponisation of social media and online smear campaigns against several Pakistani journalists. The first series of the malicious hashtag campaigns emerged as the top three Twitter trends in Pakistan on Wednesday. The trends accompanied by scurrilous trolling, misinformation and doctored images targeted Marvi Sirmed, Mubashir Zaidi and Umar Cheema.

According to social network analysis of the trends, the campaign against Marvi Sirmed generated the most tweets (over 11,000) within a span of two hours. On Friday, seven other journalists were subjected to abuse and defamatory content. They included Saleem Safi, Arshad Waheed Chaudhry and Fakhar Durrani, who were accused of being ‘paid’ or supported by opposition parties.

According to Saeed Rizwan, a social researcher, users populated the hashtags using a structured network. Sharing multiple graphics showing how the network had trended the hashtags, Mr Rizwan spotlighted four major Twitter accounts coordinating with a group of seemingly suspicious accounts.

According to Twitter, the platform prohibits behaviour that encourages others to harass or target specific individuals or groups with abusive behaviour. “This includes, but is not limited to, calls to target people with abuse or harassment online and behavior that urges offline action such as physical harassment.”

When asked what the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government was doing to ensure journalist safety online, Prime Minister’s Focal Person on Digital Media Dr Arslan Khalid said such campaigns depicted failure of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and the interior ministry. “We strongly condemn the campaigns. Abusive and defamatory behaviour is punishable under the cybercrime law and this should be investigated,” he said while speaking to Dawn.