Information Warfare: Hashtag Merchants


December 22, 2019: In Pakistani army and pro-military Islamic groups have been conducting an online Information War against government opponents as well as media outlets that are critical of the military. Now the military is particularly angry that the Dawn newspaper has been reporting on how the military and Islamic groups have been manipulating messaging apps like Twitter and WhatsApp to generate popular opposition to opponents and make it easier for the military to falsely accuse these critics of crimes and arrest or simply murder them. This form of manipulating messaging and social media websites is nothing new and the Pakistani military relies on the Chinese for all sorts of unofficial assistance in such matters.

The Chinese have been using these techniques a lot longer and intensively than anyone in Pakistan and as a result, is taking a lot more heat over it. For example in mid-2019 Twitter and Facebook announced that they had shut down hundreds of accounts that were being used by China to spread false and disparaging news about the millions of pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong. Twitter revealed that their analysis software had discovered over 20,000 suspect accounts but that most of these appeared to be legitimate accounts of people who sided with the Chinese government. Facebook reported that they had found a large number of accounts that appeared to be taking orders from the Chinese government to discredit and disparage the Hong Kong protestors or simply drive pro-protestor users off Facebook pages or discussions favorable to the protests. This effort to find and cripple the Chinese Information War operation on Twitter and Facebook confirmed earlier estimates that about half a million Chinese were working for this Information War operation. The Chinese effort was not just directed against the Hong Kong protestors but also sought to boost China’s image among the worldwide Chinese speaking social media users. Even in Pakistan military Information War experts could see how the Chinese Hong Kong Information War operations were and appreciated that those same techniques were working for them in Pakistan.

The Pakistani military used this on a smaller scale and while seeking to avoid being identified as the instigator of all this mischief. As a result, the Dawn news reporting on how it was being done was particularly damaging to the military. The Dawn also reported on how widespread these messaging manipulating tactics were in Pakistan, which has always had a large Internet-savvy population. The same thing goes for the local community of software developers and Internet experts. This goes back to the early days of PC use and those Internet skills are now common among Islamic terrorist groups as well. Some of these Pakistani Internet experts are members of Islamic political parties and the more radical of these Internet experts provide technical services for Islamic terrorist groups. Not just Pakistanis in Pakistan but many of those living overseas. That includes Pakistanis who have migrated to the West. In this case, it is usually the descendants of these migrants. These young Moslems were educated in the West, are citizens of Western countries and have become radicalized and seek to “defend Islam” with their Internet skills rather than using a gun or serving as suicide bombers. These Islamic info-warriors became increasing useful after 2000 when the Internet became easier to use among the rapidly growing number of Moslem cellphone users who now had access to the Internet and eager users of social media and messaging apps. While the Pakistani Islamic info-warriors figured out the basic techniques for manipulating opinion on social media and messaging apps, it was the Chinese who became most adept at this and, because Pakistan was a major purchaser of Chinese weapons, the Chinese were eager to help the Pakistan military maintain its dominant position in Pakistani society by passing on useful information about this form of Information War. While the Pakistani Information Warriors knew how “trending” topics were selected and given greater prominence, the Chinese had developed better techniques for developing and inserting theses that would rapidly and effectively be seen as trending.

The Chinese began to use the Internet as part of their Information War operations in 2005 when propaganda officials sought ways to deal with growing anti-government activity on Internet message boards. One idea was to organize the pro-government posters already out there. The propaganda bureaucracy (which is huge in China) did so and got so many volunteers that they soon developed a test to select the most capable candidates. In addition, the government set up training classes to improve the skills of these volunteers. Cash bonuses were offered for the most effective work. At one point, the government had nearly 100,000 volunteers and paid posters operating. This quickly evolved into the 50 Cent Army. By 2010 the Russian government adopted the practice and before long there was the 50 Ruble Army in Russia.

The Chinese eventually realized that quality was better than quantity because the less articulate posters were easily spotted, and ridiculed, as members of the "50 Cent Army," "Internet Apes," or the “Water (because of the zombie accounts used for posting) Army.” This was especially the case outside of China. Inside China people just learned to ignore the government posters. That was a wise choice because (currently) about 18 percent of posts on the Chinese Internet come from government-controlled or influenced accounts.

Gradually China grew to depend on quantity as well as quality. They found that the more skilled Internet Apes often appear convincing to many people following Internet based discussions. The 50 Cent Army was often a very worthwhile investment, especially when experienced and skilled posters were used. In this area, quantity does not really match quality. In the United States, China used the same techniques to push political candidates or commercial products. The Americans call this "viral marketing" and is a popular marketing tool worldwide. The CIA has used a similar technique to counter anti-American, or pro-terrorist, activity on the Internet. This activity also made it easier to spot potential terrorists or potential informants.

The Pakistan military did not have the Information War budget that China was able to deploy and had to carry out their online influence campaigns on the cheap. This they did by establishing informal links with pro-military Pakistani “influencers” or, as they are called in Pakistan “Hashtag Merchants.” The military could be useful in other ways, like making complaints to Twitter, or coercing elected government officials to do it in the name of the Pakistani government. Most Pakistanis are hostile to how the military, and Islamic political parties, pressure the government and individuals who displease them. Both the military and Islamic parties will often resort to murdering particularly outspoken critics. While the Islamic parties represent a minority of the population they see it as a religious duty to get their way and the military often backs them. Media outlets like Dawn and several TV and radio stations come under increasing pressure because these outlets are reporting details of these Information War operations that are less effective if the details are widely known.

The largest social media and messaging companies are based in the West where the bad behavior in Pakistan is a violation of the terms of service and as more of the details of military involvement become public, the Western media firms are quicker to respond. One thing the Dawn reporting made clear was how it was relatively easy to use these techniques. As more Pakistanis became aware of these techniques, wholesale public attitude manipulation campaigns become less effective and the reputations of the military and Islamic parties were further damaged.

Before this, the most obvious form of military or Islamic party Information War was organizing crowds of protestors to, for example, appear before the offices of the Dawn newspaper and demand editors and writers be hanged for reporting something the military does not approve of. In this case, the military was displeased with the fact that British police reported that a recent Islamic terrorist attack in Britain was carried out by a man of “Pakistani origin” who had recently served a prison term for Islamic terror activities. Reporting these British “opinions” is considered by Islamic radicals as offensive and anti-Islam and therefore punishable by death. Reporting that the dead British Islamic terrorist was later buried in Pakistan, something that was unpopular with many Pakistanis, was also considered worth trying to suppress or discredit.

Such accusations, and public responses, are common in Pakistan where the military has since the 1980s, adopted Islamic terrorism as a covert weapon against enemies inside Pakistan as well as in neighboring countries. Officially the military denies this but it has been around for so long and so blatant that is has become an open secret. No group took responsibility for these Dawn protests but that was another tactic the military uses. This year the military escalated its use of coercion against “uncooperative” Pakistani media.

The Dawn newspaper is quite popular and has an English language edition that is popular in the West and India. During 2019 Dawn was under attack frequently. Earlier in the year, there was an effort to block the distribution of the Dawn newspaper because Dawn printed an interview with a former prime minister (Nawaz Sharif) who admitted that the 2008 Islamic terror attacks on India in Mumbai were the work of a Pakistan based Islamic terrorist group that has long, and still does, received support and sanctuary by the Pakistani military. The military also sought to suppress news of a recent book by Asad Durrani, a former (1990-92) head of ISI that was written with a former head of RAW, the Indian equivalent of ISI. These two intel experts compared perspectives and it does not look good for the Pakistani military. As a result, Durrani was barred from leaving the country for any reason. Durrani and Sharif are but the latest (and among the most senior) Pakistani insiders to go public with details of how the Pakistani military operates. The military wants to minimize the damage these “traitors” inflict on the reputation and credibility of the military. A growing number of Pakistanis believe it is too late for that.

Dawn continued to report on that Sharif interview, the book and the reaction of readers inside Pakistan and worldwide. Details of the 2008 Mumbai attack are well documented and widely accepted worldwide, and were included in books Dawn gave a lot of attention to. But to discuss this inside Pakistan can get you into trouble. Sometimes fatal trouble. Dawn is the oldest and most read English language newspaper in Pakistan. The military had suspended distribution of Dawn in areas that the military controls (because of military bases, military operations or because of the military controls much of the local economy.) This sort of thing backfires because the military cannot control the Internet and as the news gets through anyway people eagerly seek it out and embrace it. Among those embracing this news are many Pushtuns in the northwest who are openly blaming the military for all the Islamic terrorism and chaos in the Afghan border areas where most Pushtun live.

Now Dawn has exposed the inner working of the military Information War campaign. That has not only made the military more determined to shut down Dawn, but it has also increased popular support for Dawn and the vital job they are doing.




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