Has Fake News in Pakistan Found Russian Allies?

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It all started with a story marketed as “Exclusive”. It was alleged – days before The New York Times and The Observer exposed its use of leaked data of 50 million Facebook profiles – that Cambridge Analytica had been hired by Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to sway the public opinion in his favor.

Published on Eurasia Future – a website self-identifying itself as a “multi-dimensional platform offering the latest news and analysis” – the story was written by a Pakistani court reporter Tayyab Baloch who works at a local Urdu-language TV channel.

It was first of a series of articles published by Eurasia Future, all claiming that Nawaz Sharif, in cahoots with Jang Group, was running a smear campaign against the judiciary in Pakistan.

"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 mainstream media in Pakistan,” one of the stories read.

In another story, it accused the prime minister’s Laptop Scheme – a laptop distribution program for the qualified students in Pakistan’s higher educational institutions – of being a ploy by Cambridge Analytica to collect data on Pakistan’s youth.

However, the stories quote not a single on-the-record source. Instead, one of the reporters claimed his source was an official from BOL TV – a news channel embroiled in controversy over the financing of its parent company, Axact. The aforementioned news channel is also known for its pro-establishment views and has been accused of threatening the safety of several liberal journalists and activists.

Curiously, all the news stories published originally at Eurasia Future have now been removed. In fact, the Director of Eurasia Future issued an unconditional apology to the Jang Group for publishing a series of reports which he found out were “wholly false, malicious and highly defamatory”.

However, the damage has been done. The stories are all over Pakistani social and mainstream media. From TV talk shows to senior Pakistani politicians like Bilawal Bhutto and Sherry Rehman, the following reports have been discussed and shared widely.

It is important to note that these reports come against the background of growing political tensions between the Sharif-led PMLN and the country's powerful military and judicial establishment. After his disqualification, Nawaz Sharif built his public campaign based on the narrative that he was removed extra-constitutionally and that the country's establishment was bent upon forcing him out of politics.

Perhaps the most important and interesting aspect of the fiasco is a sudden interest by Russian propaganda websites in Pakistani politics – that too ahead of the general elections scheduled to be held in July.

Imagine my shock when I saw the Director of Eurasia Future, Adam Garrie sharing these stories on Twitter, exclaiming: “Make Pakistan Sovereign Again”. In another tweet, he wished Pakistan could get rid of Nawaz Sharif. Several individuals involved with Eurasia Future are also regular contributors for Sputnik International and Russia Today (RT).

Mr. Garrie also writes for Global Village Spaces, a well-known pro-establishment Pakistani news and analysis website registered under Moeed Pirzada’s name. Is it a mere coincidence then that he was the first news anchor in Pakistan to take up this fabricated news story on his TV show?

Perhaps, Eurasia Future was not the only website that shared these stories. Another Russian think tank geopolitica.ru also carries these stories, along with several others by the same author which paint a very anti-US, anti-liberal picture of South Asian politics in general and Pakistan in particular. In a recent piece, the same author accused Nawaz Sharif of amending the constitutional oath regarding the finality of Prophethood at the behest of the liberal west.

Russia has been accused of meddling in election campaigns in several Western countries, including the United States, France and Germany and the Brexit referendum in the UK. In almost all these cases, Russia’s use of misinformation as a soft power tool against its adversaries is telling of its changing strategies to counter the liberal world order.

It is solely because of such organized disinformation campaigns in Europe and beyond that the governments are scrambling to counter fake news. For example, a dedicated platform “EU vs. Disinformation” funded by the European Union does the task of debunking the false news and information that goes viral on social media on a daily basis.

Keeping the following context in mind, it is curious, to say the least, that all of a sudden pro-Kremlin analysts and platforms are taking a keen interest in political developments in Pakistan.

While it cannot be ascertained if these Russian outlets are working together with some journalists to spread disinformation and propagate a nationalist, pro-establishment narrative on Pakistani social media, the little evidence surely suggests that it can turn into a well-organized campaign – and it certainly has seen some success as #CambridgeAnalyticaLeaks trends on Twitter.

Umer Ali is a Pakistani journalist currently based in Denmark. He reports on human rights, conflict and free speech. He tweets at @iamumer1.