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After Asia acquittal, 17,000 Twitter accounts spread TLP hate: study

Researcher breaks down party’s digital strategy

SAMAA | - Posted: Mar 3, 2020 | Last Updated: 2 years ago
Posted: Mar 3, 2020 | Last Updated: 2 years ago

Top 200 most active Twitter user network in study by Rizvan Saeed of ANU

In the end of January 2019, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan made headlines protesting against the acquittal of Asia Noreen, a Christian woman accused of blasphemy, by flooding Twitter to call for her public hanging.

Researcher Rizvan Saeed from the Australia National University has broken down aspects of the TLP’s operation on social media by studying the activity of 17,000 Twitter accounts.

He presented his research at the second International Conference on Media and Conflict in Islamabad on February 12, 2020.

Saeed studied data generated over one year on Twitter by the TLP. He used open source software for hashtags and keywords such as #SalamShuada_e_Faizabad or #ManiMentalZubanKoLagamDo. The data set was for 17,196 Twitter users and 203,855 tweets.

Saeed found that 86% of the tweets were in Urdu or Roman and only 13% were English. More tellingly, only 3 tweets out of 203,855 were sent from a verified account over a whole year.

Number of accounts opened that spread TLP hate. Credit: Rizvan Saeed of ANU

Generally people on Twitter with real accounts have more followers compared to friends, explains Saeed. Friends are users who follow each other and patterns here can expose organized target campaigns. Saeed found that the TLP users had fewer ‘followers’ and more ‘friends’. This happens because there is a mutual agreement to follow each other or follow back.

These 17,000 accounts retweeted more than they had genuine conversations, which is tantamount to just trying to amplify one message rather than have a back and forth debate on the platform with people not in your immediate Twitter circle. This shows how organized the group was. The data set showed 96% retweets.

Number of accounts opened that spread TLP hate. Credit: Rizvan Saeed of ANU

“It has been observed on Pakistani Twitter that organized groups mention their fellows on a particular hashtag so that the next person can pick up the hashtag and start retweeting it,” Saeed notes in his paper. A ‘mention’ is also how the group trolls or targets people on Twitter.

Saeed’s data showed that TLP Twitter accounts opened in 2019 sent almost two-thirds of tweets. “All of the top trending hashtags of TLP were propagated inorganically,” he also writes. “On social media, anyone can hijack anyone’s agenda.”

Saeed saw that the first “massive wave” of account openings took place in January 2019, which is the time when there was a government crackdown on the TLP leadership in response to their agitation against the Asia Noreen case by the end of 2018.

The second wave of account openings was in August 2019. “This might have been done to protest against the revocation of Article 370 in India that was about Kashmir’s special status,” he notes.

The third big increase was noticed in October 2019. “This was part of preparations for the Labbaik conference that took place on November 2, 2019,” Saeed writes. “It suggests that TLP’s online activities are very much driven from offline events.”

When he drilled down into the wording of the tweets, Saeed found clear patterns. They ranged from general abuse and hate, to accusing people of blasphemy to glorifying terrorists or terrorism. The people who tweeted also gave threats and incited violence.

Many of them made direct death threats. This is problematic because now these tweets fall under cybercrime. The Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016 has made it a punishable offence to also tweet with the intent to glorify an offence relating to terrorism or any person convicted of a crime relating to terrorism.

The TLP users Saeed studied called every behavior they did not agree with at the social and political level “blasphemy”. He gives the example of two tweets. One tweet that attracted the TLP user ire was from a big media house that did a story that the London bridge attacker was of Pakistani origin. The other example was when the government issued coins in the name of Sri Guru Nanak.

Saeed cites some of the hate comments or threats posted by TLP members on social media platforms:

Zaban kaat kr rakhdengey (We’ll cut your tongue out)

Qayamat tak tmhari naslai khouf-zada rahengi (Your future generations will live in fear till the Day of Judgment)

Tumhari aik boti bhi nahi milegi (Not a single piece of your flesh will be found [once we’re done with you])

Ye yad rakhna na Ghazi Ilm Din ka khanjar dafann hua ha na Mumtaz Hussain Qadri ki rifle (Don’t forget, neither has Ghazi Ilm Din’s dagger been buried nor has Mumtaz Hussain Qadri’s rifle). Saeed noted that the TLP Twitter data set showed that they also targeted the Students March, Aurat March, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s speeches and his slogan to turn the country into a Madina-like welfare state.

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