For years, Twitter served as a major cyber arena for ideas, influence, and reach in Pakistan, where the main battles were fought between pro-military users and a host of activists, students, politicians, rights campaigners, and journalists.
But the Pakistani authorities are now approaching Twitter to restore what appears to be a large number of suspended accounts after a major newspaper this week reported on how Twitter is being abused in the country.
“Twitter has recently suspended accounts of [a] number of Twitter users from Pakistan without any warning and on unsubstantiated grounds,” the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), the main telecommunication regulator in the country, tweeted on December 4. “PTA considers action of Twitter admin against set principles of freedom of speech.”
The PTA asked users to report their suspended accounts so that it can raise the issue with Twitter. In the recent past, the PTA has issued takedown requests to numerous websites and social media platforms.
The suspensions apparently peaked after the country’s leading English-language daily, Dawn, reported on the manipulation and abuse of Twitter. In a December 2 expose, it showed that “almost 95% of the trending political campaigns in Pakistan are boosted artificially to mislead the public, giving a false impression that there is genuine grass-roots support or opposition for a particular group or narrative.”
The story showed how “hashtag merchants” or groups of real people with authentic accounts “propose and trend a campaign every day for Twitter users and sub-networks to amplify, rally retweets and celebrate when any of their hashtags makes it to the trending panel.”
Major General Asif Ghafoor, the military spokesman, expressed his displeasure over the suspensions on December 3.
“Pakistani users are facing problems on Twitter. Mostly on expressions in support of Kashmir. Accounts are being suspended on one pretext or the other,” he tweeted. “Authorities are in contact and issues will be resolved soon. Stay put as responsible users to defeat all those involved in this.”
But there were hints that the recent suspensions were not exclusively linked to Pakistan’s rivalry with neighboring India over the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir. In a December 4 tweet, Ghafoor alluded to the suspensions in December being linked to exiled Pakistani dissidents who frequently criticize Islamabad for censorship and extensive curbs on the media. They also accuse the military of running online troll armies to malign and discredit pro-democracy activists and rights campaigners.
“With less than 1% comparative reach ‘they’ elusively and wishfully claim winning 5GW,” Ghafoor tweeted on December 4 as here referred to “fifth-generation warfare,” a term Pakistani military officers and analysts use to identify security threats Islamabad faces because of cyber and information warfare. “A selfless voluntary passion for Pakistan as yours can never be defeated, let alone by ‘them’. And you know ‘them’,” he added.
As activists celebrated the takedown of what many see as troll accounts, Ghafoor again talked about the issue in an apparent bid to boost the morale of those whose accounts had been affected.
“Just don’t bother especially about the few irrelevant ran away ones,” he wrote. “Keep doing your sincere bit for good of Pakistan. Let them expose themselves through their foul expressions and failing attempts.”
It is not clear how many accounts Twitter has suspended, but searches on the platform revealed the numbers could be substantial, with some users complaining that they have suddenly lost thousands of followers.
A Twitter spokesperson told RFE/RL's Gandhara website that the company considers platform manipulation, including spam and other attempts to undermine the public conversation, a clear violation of its rules. "We take proactive action against millions of accounts each week for violating our policies in this area,” the spokesperson said.
Earlier a Twitter spokesperson told Dawn that the company does not allow platform manipulation regardless of the political views expressed. “This means that coordinated abuse, hateful conduct, attempts to game trends, and the spread of disinformation at scale are all violations of our policies,” the representative said.
Meanwhile on December 6, some 100 protesters besieged Dawn’s Islamabad bureau for the second time in a week. They chanted slogans against the paper and set copies on fire.
In recent years, international media and rights watchdogs have frequently criticized Pakistan for imposing censorship on the media and launching harsh crackdowns against activists.