Fractious Pakistan poll fertile ground for disinformation

Published February 9, 2024
Election officials count ballot papers after polls closed at a polling station during Pakistan national election in Lahore on February 8, 2024. Photo: AFP
Election officials count ballot papers after polls closed at a polling station during Pakistan national election in Lahore on February 8, 2024. Photo: AFP

ISLAMABAD: Fake boycotts, fictional ballots and blasphemy smears: a deluge of disinformation accompanied Pakistan’s contentious election, with a delayed vote count underway on Friday.

Pakistan’s poll is the most fraught of recent years, with ex-prime minister Imran Khan jailed and his arch-rival Nawaz Sharif appearing to be the favourite.

Early results show Khan’s anointed candidates faring better than expected, after a polarised campaign rife with accusations of rigging and still with no clear winner.

“All different political parties made sure that they participated” in the flow of false information, Pakistan director of internet watchdog Bytes 4 All Shahzad Ahmed told AFP.

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There was also an information vacuum when authorities blocked mobile phone and data services during Thursday’s polling hours, citing security concerns a day after 28 people were killed in twin bombings claimed by the Islamic State group near candidate offices.

Deepfake boycott

Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) were both falsely claimed to have called for election boycotts, with AFP debunking several such posts on social media.

The false boycott claims were seen by observers as apparent bids to stifle turnout of the 128 million Pakistanis eligible to vote on Thursday.

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One video on X – viewed nearly 130,000 times – supposedly featured PTI-backed candidate Raja Basharat relaying boycott orders from Khan because supporters were being harassed.

However, Basharat has said the video was a “deepfake” fabricated by artificial intelligence and not an official statement by him.

PTI had not called for a boycott and the PTI’s central information secretary Raoof Hasan told AFP on Thursday they were urging voters to turn out.

In Sharif’s case, footage was dredged up from 2007, when he pledged to sit out a vote under military ruler Pervez Musharraf, and released on TikTok with misleading context.

Like his opponents, he made no such call during campaigning for the current election.

Conspiracy claims

Posts also claimed Pakistan’s election commission printed a huge surplus of voting slips, touting it as evidence of a plan to stuff ballot boxes and influence the outcome.

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“Election Commission is crossing all limits to defeat PTI,” said one such TikTok video “liked” nearly 50,000 times.

However, Thursday’s election was for both national and provincial assemblies, meaning each voter was issued with two ballots.

“Tactics have graduated from the crude stuffing of ballot boxes to ‘pre-poll rigging’ – short-hand for denying candidates known to be out of favour with the military room to campaign freely,” Farzana Shaikh of the Chatham House think tank wrote last week.

Pakistani media also reported a viral WhatsApp message that claimed Khan masks were out of stock after selling more than a million in a single day on popular online retailer Daraz.

The message seemed to suggest huge grassroots support for Khan but Pakistan Today said Daraz denied any such rush of sales.

PTI said the blocking of mobile phone and data services during voting hours was intended to disconnect their activists on the ground and prevent a landslide.

But experts say it also made social media “rife” with disinformation.

“Censorship and lack of access to information will obviously breed disinformation,” digital rights activist Usama Khilji told AFP.


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