A sensationalist news report headlined “Exclusive: Hacking Democracy — Cambridge Analytica Turns to Pakistan” is going rounds on social media in Pakistan. From senior political leaders to national and international journalists –it has been shared widely across social media platforms.
Published for the first time on a website called Eurasia Future, the news report claims that the disqualified former Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif has hired the services of the controversial data firm Cambridge Analytica “to rescue his political career and to make sure PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League — Nawaz) win in upcoming general election.” The report further adds: “The ongoing well organized data-driven campaign against Pakistan’s judiciary has hinted that this firm has introduced a new online targeting campaign by controlling/manipulating social and main stream media in Pakistan.”
The report has since been discussed in several TV talk shows in Pakistan. In fact, the Co-Chairman of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) — one of the main opposition parties in Pakistan — Bilawal Bhutto demanded the ruling PMLN to come out clean over the allegations.
The following reportage comes in the background of growing political tensions between the Sharif-led PMLN and the country’s powerful military and judicial establishment. Nawaz Sharif has since built his public campaign based on the narrative that he was removed extra-constitutionally; that the country’s establishment is bent upon forcing him out of politics.
In this context, an allegation of this nature, if proven true, could be damning for Sharif and his party, which is a subject of several ongoing corruption investigations — except that the report is not true.
Apart from the fact that the writer, one Tayyab Baloch, fails to quote any source(s) behind this information or present an empirical evidence, the ‘report’ itself is full of grammatical errors and incoherent sentences.
Any reader with a critical eye would notice a barrage of unproven accusations and claims in the report. For instance, it calls the owner of Pakistan’s biggest media enterprises, Jang Group, Mir Shakeel-ur Rehman the “godfather of Pakistani media” and accuses him of controlling Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA).
The report goes on to praise BOL news channel for propagating an “alternative patriotic narrative”, due to which, the author claims, “fake cases” were registered against the CEO, Shoaib Shaikh.
Funded by its parent company Axact, BOL Network was launched in 2013. An IT firm itself, Axact was reported to be behind a million-dollar business based on selling fake educational degrees. BOL Network has been subject to severe criticism by many in Pakistan for its extremely nationalist agenda and has also been accused of endangering the lives of liberal journalists and activists.
However, this is not the only article Mr. Baloch wrote for Eurasia Future. In the first a series of reports, he made similar claims. There, he states the source of information, which is “an individual working for BOL TV”.
First, Mr. Baloch, who is a court reporter for a local Urdu-language news channel Abb Tak, claims Cambridge Analytica, in cohorts with Jang Group, has been running a “smear campaign” against BOL news channel. Later in the article, he claims Nawaz Sharif has also hired the firm to “slander the judiciary”.
A UK-based firm, Cambridge Analytica claims to change the user behavior through data. It has recently come under severe criticism after a series of investigative reports by The New York Times, The Observer and Channel 4 revealed it had used leaked data on 50 million Facebook profiles to influence the 2016 US Presidential Elections.
In another article titled “Western Firm Cambridge Analytica is Meddling in Pakistan’s Democracy — Not Russia” for the same website, Tayyab Baloch insists that there is an “ongoing well-organized campaign against Pakistan’s judiciary and state institutions.”
In a phone conversation with me, he claims that his source is a well-placed official working at Cambridge Analytica. “The firm was approached by the former Prime Minister’s son Hassan Nawaz and his advisor Mussadiq Malik,” he says.
Curiously, the article claims that Cambridge Analytica has recently announced to give the “Reed Award” to its campaigners who worked behind the scenes to target the judiciary in Pakistan. However, neither is Cambridge Analytica among the winners of 2018 Reed Awards, nor are the awards provided by the firm itself. In fact, the awards are given by Campaigns & Elections — a US-based magazine focusing on the innovations in the political campaigning.
When asked about his source behind this claim, Tayyab Baloch sends me the screenshot of a tweet by Cambridge Analytica. It is an announcement for being voted as one of the finalists for “Best Use of Online Targeting for Judicial Campaign” in Reed Awards. As it turned out, Cambridge Analytica was indeed voted as a finalist, but did not win the award.
“When I saw the tweet, I realized that perhaps Pakistan is the only country where an anti-judiciary campaign is on a full swing, so I figured that the award was for Cambridge Analytica’s operations in Pakistan,” he tells me, undeterred by the fact that CA didn’t actually win the award.
Interestingly, following article also takes a very pro-Russia stance, rubbishing the accusations regarding Russia’s meddling in the US presidential elections.
Two other platforms where Tayyab Baloch’s report has been published are globalresearch.ca and geopolitical.ru — both known pro-Russian platforms. Being a regular contributor at geopolitical.ru, he mostly writes against the US policies in South Asia. In one of his recent pieces, he goes on to allege that Nawaz Sharif enabled an amendment in the constitutional oath regarding the finality of prophethood to win the support of the liberal west.
Eurasia Future, the website which originally published these articles identifies itself as a “multi-dimensional platform offering the latest news and analysis on the most important events shaping our world today.”
Most of the articles available on the website have a curiously pro-Russia slant, with one article by the Director Adam Garrie describing the Ukrainian government as a “fascist regime”. Another of his articles describes the results of the latest Russian presidential elections as the people opting for “wisdom and caution”. Other members of the following website also contribute for RT and Sputnik — both of which have been alleged to be the mouthpieces for Russian propaganda.
In one of his tweets, Adam Garrie exclaims: “Make Pakistan Sovereign Again!”. In another, he demands Pakistan be freed from Nawaz Sharif and ‘infoterrorists’ at Cambridge Analytica. Among several other publications, Garrie also writes for Global Village Spaces — a pro-establishment news and analysis website registered in the name of a Pakistani TV anchor Moeed Pirzada. Pirzada discussed the report on Cambridge Analytica’s alleged intrusion on one of his recent shows.
In a tweet, he also called on Pakistani agencies to investigate the allegations regarding Sharif’s use of Cambridge Analytica’s services.
How a badly-written, badly-sourced report would be shared by hundreds on social media and become a part of the public discourse tells us a lot about the social media users’ willingness to confirm their biases. What is perhaps more preposterous is the fact that its contents have also been shared by several well-meaning journalists and politicians in Pakistan — adding credibility to a fake, sourceless news.
Umer Ali is a Pakistani journalist currently based in Denmark. He reports on human rights, conflict and free speech. He tweets at @iamumer1