September 3rd, 2020

By Asra Haque & Haider Kaleem


On August 31, 2020, Facebook removed over 700 accounts, groups and pages associated with a network established by individuals (or bad actors) in Pakistan for “coordinated inauthentic behaviour”. Around 435 Facebook accounts, 107 Instagram Accounts, 103 pages and 78 groups were removed for conducting mass-reporting campaigns and raids, generating spam, and spreading misinformation – the activity was revealed following an internal investigation by the social media site.

Coordinated inauthentic behaviour is when groups of pages or people work together in a network to mislead others about who they are and what they are doing. Facebook takes down these networks due to their deceptive behaviour and not because of the content they share as the posts themselves may not be false and may not go against the social media’s community standards.

According to the report, the recently removed Pakistani network targeted social media content criticising Islam, the Government of Pakistan, the Pakistani military, as well as the accounts of individuals belonging to the minority Ahmadi sect. The network claimed to have had taken down 200 accounts as part of its mass-reporting campaign, achieved with automated reporting tools such as a Google Chrome extension called “Auto Reporter”, which itself was created for the express purpose of removing anti-Islam, anti-Pakistan accounts.

The network also encouraged users to create several fake profiles, and distributed tutorials on how to create multiple sock-puppet accounts and using automated reporting tools. Accounts, pages and groups created content in English, Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi, propagating Islamic and nationalist content, and praise for the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) government and the Pakistan military. The network also generated content critical of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Around 70,000 accounts followed at least one of the pages belonging to this network, while a total of 1.1 million users were part of the network’s myriad groups.

The pages and groups used terms and phrases exalting the country, Islam, the Government of Pakistan or the Pakistani military – the military and its various agencies such as the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the army were the more popular themes of these groups and pages. Interestingly enough, the network also included pro-India and pro-Indian military pages and groups, although the motive behind producing such content is unknown.

More worrying is the fact that the network had been operating for a few years now, with its oldest pages having been published nearly four years ago. Hija Kamran, activist and editor for the Digital Rights Monitor, noted that to collect 1.1 million users in a group and to build an audience of 70,000 for one page, it would have likely taken the network several months. In comparison, Facebook was quicker to take down networks with origins in other countries such as the USA and Russia that have been operating for a much shorter period of time, and with a smaller outreach and collection of pages and groups.

“When we have this comparison, Facebook’s actions are inadequate,” she said. “There is another side to things: when we report child pornography, child abuse, gender-based violence, and incel groups circulated by these networks on the platform, those reports either remain unaddressed or are dismissed as they ‘do not fall against [Facebook’s] community standards’.”

She further questioned whether Facebook’s content moderation teams understood the “Pakistani context” behind certain content, such as how gender-based violence, child abuse, and disinformation is viewed and understood in the country.

“When Facebook appointed its first 20 members to its oversight board, they had appointed a Pakistani representative – we understood that the website would have an advantage in understanding the Pakistani context. But till date we have no idea when the board will be made functional,” she said.

Taking into account all these hindrances, it leaves little to the imagination how these networks crop up and are able to continue operations for long periods of time and amass such a user base before they are eventually taken down. Kamran insisted that Facebook and other such social media websites have a responsibility to devise a more effective mechanism of identifying these networks in their infancy before they are able to propagate misinformation that has shown to have an effect on the political discourse and democratic practices in Pakistan.

In a climate where Pakistan’s cyber and telecom monitoring bodies have been active in clamping down on “objectionable” content on social media, going as far as to issue warnings to social media companies, internet service providers, social media users, and outright banning certain apps and sites, one must question how these disingenuous social media networks involved in misinformation campaigns have slipped under their radar.

“These cells utilise religious sentiments to motivate users to clamp down on dissent online,” explained Usama Khilji, director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights. “It was not too long ago that we saw female journalists submit a petition that they were subject to coordinated attacks and threats online. Government agencies such as the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) need to initiate further investigations into the activities of these networks.”

He asserted that official investigation into networks spreading misinformation and taking down accounts to not only protect Pakistani citizens but to also ensure the purity of information to prevent any adverse effects of misinformation on the political discourse on social media. “However, it should also be ensured that citizens’ freedom of expression and right to information is not curtailed as a result of these measures.”

This is not the first time that Facebook took measures to remove networks engaging in coordinated inauthentic behaviour on the website. On April 1, 2019, Facebook removed 103 pages, groups and accounts of a network with direct links to individuals belonging to the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the Pakistan military’s media wing on their site as well as Instagram.

In addition to bolstering support for the country’s military and generating nationalist content, the network was also engaged in provoking Indo-Pak tensions online by stirring sentiments on the Kashmir issue. The oldest pages under this network had been operating for nearly seven years before intervention from the social media website.