In a 25-minute-long documentary titled, “War, Lies, and hashtags: Pakistan’s Twitter Battles”, Al Jazeera documents the life of a Pakistani man, Farhan Virk, who has earned a name for himself in the Twitter community. Despite being a doctor, he identifies himself as a ‘Twitter influencer’ who peddles anti-India propaganda on the platform. Farhan holds the potential to make any hashtag trending on Twitter.
Even though he claims to have received no patronage from the propaganda machinery of the Pakistani government, many suspect otherwise. Unlike others, he takes pride in calling himself a ‘troll’. Farhan runs a group, named, Team Imran Khan, and boasts of a whopping 1000 followers. They work in tandem to make anti-India hashtags viral on Twitter. He calls himself ‘alt-right’ and seeks inspiration from the likes of Alex Jones and Steve Bannon, far-right political personalities in the US.
Despite being abused by Indians for his anti-India rhetoric, Farhan is firm in his resolve. Amidst escalated tensions between the two countries, the propaganda machinery of Farhan comes handy. In one instance, when he was about to lose a Twitter poll, Farhan received a call from the Special Assistant to the Prime Minister of Pakistan. He spent 10,000 PKR to change the Twitter poll results in his favour by hiring bots from foreign firms.
Pakistani media reports ‘sarcasm’ as truth
His wife, Iram, runs a group called “Team Green” and has about 100-150 active volunteers. They hatch plans to infiltrate Indian Twitter trends so that their tweets stay at the top of the trend. “If someone calls me a troll of the army, then, it is a matter of pride,” the wife of Farhan conceded. Following the Balakot airstrike that destroyed Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terror camps and neutralised 300 terrorists, a desperate Pakistan claimed that only a few trees fell during the aerial bombardment. As such, Farhan, in line with the State narrative, ran the hashtag #IndiaAgainstTreePlantation. And interestingly, the Pakistani news media picked up the trends and reported as if it was actual news.
Falsehood and Propaganda
The Al Jazeera documentary also highlights how Twitter warriors can create the mirage of a war, far-fetched from the reality on the ground. Even though there were no ceasefire violations at the Sialkot border, as testified by people living close to the border, netizens from both the countries talked about happy firing along the Line of Control (LoC). “Apparently, Pakistan has occupied 25 Indian check posts,” Farhan was quoted as saying.
Following the Balakot strike, Farhan got slammed by fellow Pakistanis after he tried to downplay the befitting reply of India through surgical strike 2.0. “My ideology is of national interest. To protect your national interest, even if you say something that’s not true, but it influences the people in a positive way, then, I do not consider it propaganda,” the Twitter influencer conceded. During the dogfight that ensued between the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and Indian Air Force (IAF), Farhan and his Team Imran Khan participated in a Twitter trend, #PakistanStrikesBack, and was able to rank it as high as number two in global trends.
The propaganda material loosely revolves around altered images of politicians, doctored videos, and unverified and even defamatory news items. Reportedly, who has run over 4,500 propaganda hashtags through Team Imran Khan and is an asset for the current political dispensation in Pakistan to ward off political rivals or change narratives as per convenience, in case of international conflicts. He is a ‘thought leader’ to his followers but remains a ‘proud troll’ in the eyes of many.
Is propaganda sustainable?
While tweets cannot be monetised, Farhan has pinned his hopes on his youtube earnings. In one scene, he and his wife could be seen in a cafe and celebrating over a meagre earnings of $24. “This is my hard-earned money. Hard work is the key to success,” Farhan emphasised. Despite having a medical degree, he has chosen the profession of an ‘unpaid’ propagandist as he is under the impression that the work of twisting narratives on social media is more important than being a doctor.
“This is the age of social media warfare. Nowadays, the army needs to play a significant role on social media,” Farhan highlighted. He revealed how the party leadership of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) come to him seeking for solutions to their problems but forget when the issues are resolved. Six months from the surgical strike, Iram’s account was suspended along with that of the volunteers of Team Green over their contentious tweets on Kashmir. With surmounting bills, Iram has moved on to mainstream media and remains hopeful to appeal to a wide range of audiences and become a successful news anchor.
As for Farhan whose life centered around social media, his Twitter account was eventually banned, for multiple violations, in December 2019. He now hopes to restart his medical career, earn money, and fight for elections. Despite his pro-government tweets, the IT cell of PTI has distanced itself from him. Farhan is a true representation of how the Pakistani government uses ambitious individuals, brainwashed by pseudo nationalism, into devoting their life for a cause that will remain unfulfilled forever.