My tenacious and in-depth coverage of technology, curbs to freedom of expression online, political propaganda on social media, and digital rights has revealed to the public the non-transparent regulation and political manipulation of social media activity in Pakistan, supplying much-needed evidence for policy advocacy and debate.
With the help of data from Pakistan’s telecomm regulator, digital rights groups, the transparency reports of Internet companies, and social media activity analysis, my series of news reports and features shed light on the efforts to control Internet content, especially online dissent, and the manipulation of online discourse for political ends in Pakistan.
In July 2018, I wrote a long-form exclusive for Herald – Pakistan’s oldest news magazine renowned for its investigative reporting – about how political parties use and manipulate social media for poll canvassing, the gradual digitisation of politics and the rise of Pakistan’s tech-savvy voter base.
I also wrote an investigative report for the same publication, exploring the rise of computational propaganda and weaponisation of fake news in Pakistan.
In the backdrop of the overall climate of censorship in the country, I wrote a cover story for Dawn’s weekly magazine on government efforts to control digital content with the assistance of a vaguely worded cybercrime law.
Besides, investigative reporting, I have written news stories on an emerging crackdown on political speech in Pakistan and the government’s requests to social media companies for content removal.
While the focus of online clampdown is Pakistan, the coverage is largely relevant to the international audience as well since authoritarian tech is a global issue. In my reportage, I explored how misinformation works in India and UK and have interviewed international authors to make the read relevant for the global audience.
For the cover story and long-form work in Herald, the reporting period was 15 days maximum — that I managed with my full-time desk job in the paper’s national section. The research was done online and interviews were conducted over phone.
What makes this project innovative?
In a developing democracy such as Pakistan, civil rights and particularly free speech are at a grave risk of being undermined in the digital realm. With plans to ‘regulate’ social media, the government has increasingly reported political content to social media companies. In the current climate rife with online surveillance and censorship, there is a persistent need to approach digital concepts of governance with the right expertise. However, despite its importance and relevance, the subject remains severely understudied in Pakistan. Only two and a half years into my journalistic career and coverage of technology and human rights, my stories have won national awards and critical acclaim, and allowed me to become a leading (and youngest) journalist in the country on related topics. The cover story on Pakistan’s internet clampdown was the first comprehensive report on online censorship in Pakistan which offers detailed insight into what type of content is monitored, and how it is regulated in the country. The report contains exclusive information with regards to stakeholders who have the authority to monitor digital spaces, and how the country’s vaguely phrased cyber crime law is being used to crackdown on dissenting voices. Similarly, my work in the Herald remains to be the only long-form reportage on Pakistan’s hypernationalist trolls and misinformation. For social media transparency reports that are reported in other publications as well, only my stories are accompanied by infographics to add value to the reportage, unwrapping data in the narrative form. Thus, I am confident to say that at this point I am the only journalist in Pakistan with a dedicated beat on authoritarian tech.
What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?
In the cover story on online clampdown, I wrote about a political party’s website being blocked by the government authorities. The news about the blocking was not carried by any other publication due to censorship. After my story came out, a lawyer filed a petition in the court for the website to be unblocked, and to direct the authorities to guard citizens’ fundamental rights in online spaces and exercise its powers to block content online strictly in accordance with the law. The petition cited my report for reference. Besides legal impact, my reportage has also received national recognition. Earlier this year, I was awarded Pakistan Data Journalism Awards in two categories. The competition received 76 entries from major cities to districts, from local newspapers to national dailies, and from digital-only publications to large news media groups that publish across media, and the stories submitted to the contest and the participating journalists used data to report on a wide array of issues of public importance. I was the only journalist (and the youngest) to be awarded in two categories. Although my stories were published in print, they were also carried on the publication’s website. In December, my story on war of narratives was the most popular story on Herald’s website for three days it was tagged on the homepage with over 45,000 views — a significant number for a website that has an average of 10,000 views. The same story was translated and carried in an Urdu political magazine. These stories have also been cited in various international reports covering internet freedom, including those by Freedom House and The Digital Rights Foundation. Due to these stories, I have been invited to various panel discussions on free speech and regulation by the digital rights experts of the country. Following my Herald story on coordinated hashtag campaigns against journalists in December, the Digital Rights Foundation asked me to conduct a research for a project with the Denmark-based International Media Support, mapping risks to activism and speech of women information practitioners of Pakistan.
Source and methodology
For my work in Herald, I monitored Twitter trends and user activity both manually and using data analytics tools. During the 15 days reporting period, I dedicated peak Twitter activity hours of the country (3pm, 5pm, 7-9pm) to record top hashtags and active users. This helped me narrow done top users of major propaganda trends, top tweets and content identified as spam. Once I selected the leading Twitter users participating in the trends, I used scrapping tools to analyse their Twitter profile; details included followers, following, tweets and likes. This helped me write about common topics they tweet, kind of people they follow/interact with and the frequency of their Twitter activity. For the cover story in EOS, I used data from transparency reports of social media companies— Twitter, Facebook and Google. I also got exclusive official data from the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority — the official government authority responsible for blocking and monitoring content. I also used findings of a network measurement test carried by research think tank, Bytes For All. The interviews were all conducted over phone as it was not possible for me to travel owing to the desk job.
To monitor hashtags, I used Project Shikari tool funded by the International Centre for Journalism (ICFJ). The tool which was available to selective journalists for a temporary period allowed me to analyse hashtag trends with access to top users, top locations, top tweets, language, influencers and peak activity. Other online tools I used were Politwoops to track deleted tweets by politicians and Twitter audit to get an estimate of the number of fake/low-quality followers of politicians. I scraped Twitter data using Tweepy and filtered the results on MS Excel.
The projects were done independently.