Bots and Pakistan’s Social Media Space

With more than 55 million mobile internet users and another 2 million fixed broadband subscribers in the country, Pakistan has conveniently surpassed South Korea, Spain, Canada, Australia and countless other developed countries to rank 20th in the world for online population.


With such massive numbers, Pakistan’s online population presents enormous potential as well as ample challenges. If we look at growth trends, more than 90% of this population came online in the past 4 years – mainly after the introduction of 3G and 4G technologies – and it wouldn’t be entirely incorrect to say that our online ecosystem was not prepared for such massive adaptation.


To put things into perspective Pakistan had no cyber-crime laws until late 2016, our nation’s awareness about basics of internet such as identity theft, phishing, privacy, online harassment, scams and frauds etc. was non-existent. Against this backdrop and dirt cheap internet prices, the entire nation embraced the internet with nothing much to do online except to use the internet for basic telephony (voice and SMS) and social media.


State of Social Media in Pakistan
With a lawless online space – mainly due to limited capabilities of the FIA/NR3C (National Response Centre for Cyber Crime) – the social media in Pakistan is yet to be used maturely.


To put it candidly, such a largely incognizant and technically handicapped internet population is nothing less than an unguided mob that can be manipulated by anyone. And this is exactly what has been happening in the recent past and is likely to pick up momentum in the days to come.
With competing political motives, 2018 general elections and widening polarization, social media is going to struggle with misinformation, propaganda and more agenda driven content than ever before.


As said above, due to the fact that the online ecosystem is yet to be equipped with needful laws and general awareness, there will be individuals and organizations that will misuse social media for their vested interests.


Regional references – mainly from the Middle East and from U.S. as well – are already available that confirm the fact that social media was successfully used to drive propaganda and misinformation among masses. It is feared that the same can be replicated in Pakistan as users consume and re-share information without verification as long as it adheres to their personal beliefs and opinions.

To put things into perspective Pakistan had no cyber-crime laws until late 2016, our nation’s awareness about basics of internet such as identity theft, phishing, privacy, online harassment, scams and frauds etc. was non-existent. Against this backdrop and dirt cheap internet prices, the entire nation embraced the internet with nothing much to do online except to use the internet for basic telephony (voice and SMS) and social media.


Fake News is the New Normal
Unlike developed markets, where social media is considered as an alternate media for accurate, more factual and non-commercial reporting, Pakistan is yet to see the line of approach where more factual information is floated on to the internet. In fact, the flood of misinformation overshadows any attempts of factual reports that seldom make it to the social media, eventually nullifying any potential positive impacts of the internet.


While Pakistan is not alone in facing the said challenge, the inability of cyber crime law enforcement agencies – mostly because of limited resources and capabilities – make this place a haven for conspiracy theorists and propaganda drivers.


It won’t be out of place to mention that online-only publishers – otherwise considered as an alternate media with less-commercial interests – are also part of the problem because they, albeit unwillingly, resort to misinformation since usual monetary avenues are not at all available to them like they are in the West.
With the amount of money used in media these days, it can provide a quick-buck for a lot of publishers to support an agenda or a theory based on the liking or the disliking of someone who’s funding the project.


Due to this prevailing situation, political parties, and local and foreign propaganda agencies are investing more in social media in Pakistan to achieve their desired results but at the cost of spoiling the entire internet space of Pakistan.

Regional references – mainly from the Middle East and from U.S. as well – are already available that confirm the fact that social media was successfully used to drive propaganda and misinformation among masses. It is feared that the same can be replicated in Pakistan as users consume and re-share information without verification as long as it adheres to their personal beliefs and opinions.


Organized Propaganda through Social Media Bots
Through references and previous cases in the west we know that highly sophisticated and engaging automated tools – usually referred to as bots – are available that can easily be used to influence the opinion of masses. Such tools, or bots, are extremely intelligent and are able to converse with the individuals for a greater impact on someone to manipulate his/her opinion about a particular topic.


While I am not entirely sure if such bots have made it to Pakistan’s online space, one must not rule out the possibility of such exceedingly advanced and next-generation bots to be brought into action in Pakistan.


Even though it is going to be very hard – technically and otherwise – for artificially intelligent bots to make a mark in a country like Pakistan, it will be a no-brainer for Pakistani political parties to not to invest in social media bots.


If you are curious about why it’s technically hard for bots to be effective in Pakistan, that’s mainly because of local languages, local demographics, behaviors and wide array of other elements that – I think – are not researched enough to be able to develop a bot that’s intelligent enough to engage a common Pakistani in a meaningful conversation.
Just in case if you are wondering, such social media influencing bots are developed after a lot of research and gathering tons of data on the individuals that they are going to target when deployed. For instance, these bots learn how to respond to a broad spectrum of interaction from very basic conversations to intense arguments. An effective engagement is only possible if 200% of a person’s data is available to these bots.


As mentioned above, there are extremely intelligent and advance-stage bots available and in-use in the western world, but it is doubtful that a similar amount of investment would have been made for Pakistani market.


Less intelligent, more generic and general purpose bots, however, could easily be spotted in action in Pakistan.
These are the bots that keep on posting (fake) news, particular (pre-defined) tweets or Facebook statuses or continuously re-tweet few accounts that are assigned to it. These bot activities have become routine activity on Twitter and Facebook in Pakistan.
While incapable of responding to more than a few basic things, these bots will keep supporting an agenda regardless of how severe the opposition they may face.


How to Identify the Bots

In Pakistan, as mentioned above, it is highly unlikely that a sophisticated conversational bot is used – they can easily be identified if they don’t respond to your question in a human manner. Moreover, their bio’s would usually be less clear with more generic images on their profiles, indicating that everything is just made up or maybe lifted from the internet. Similarly, if a Twitter or Facebook account is seen active round-the-clock, with a tweet or status update every 15-20 minutes, you should easily be able to mark the account as a bot and not a human.


As mentioned earlier, the government is already behind the curve when it comes to raising awareness of the general public. Internet users who do not have high-qualifications and are not in the habit of verifying information are more likely to fall for online propaganda as compared to a person who’s more aware and qualified with solid vision.
The only solution to the present-day online space dilemma is to remain more vigilant, gauge every word that we read online and only pass-on information that’s verified to make sense of the world around us.


The writer is a Data Network expert. 
E-mail: [email protected]
 

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