Pakistan had its 12th general election since its independence from the British with a series of events that have been transformative for the country’s future election cycle and campaigning. The country has witnessed a series of internet shutdowns leading up to the election, with mobile networks and internet blockades for citizens as they get ready for the elections and polling day. As of writing, a mobile service blackout is still in place, with many speculating that this will last for days to come. On top of disruptions to the internet, in this election cycle, political parties have also been using emerging technologies, particularly generative AI and deep fake videos, to influence voter narratives and perceptions.
Netblock, a watchdog moniotoring cybersecurity and the worldwide governance of the Internet, posted on X:
⚠️ Confirmed: Live metrics show a nation-scale disruption to X/Twitter across #Pakistan; the incident comes amid political turmoil after a controversial election held under an internet and mobile network blackout 📉 pic.twitter.com/1sZpkbWN6L
— NetBlocks (@netblocks) February 10, 2024
During the campaign period, leading up to the elections, political parties like the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League N (PMLN) used social media to spread their messages and mobilize voters for the elections. With PTI’s leader Imran Khan imprisoned and party leaders being arrested, it was speculated that the party would not be able to have an effective political campaign this election season. However, when facing issues offline, the party resorted to mobilizing its supporters through social media platforms. In December, Pakistan witnessed pocketed throttling with internet services being slowed down and access to social media platforms blocked. On January 7, the country witnessed packeted throttling with access to social media websites being disrupted once again amid a virtual PTI fundraising event.
According to a report by OONI Explorer, which is an open data resource on internet censorship around the world and measured through the OONI probe application, Pakistan’s internet service providers blocked access to two of PTI’s websites and access to a fact-checking news platform Fact Focus the week before polling day.
However, despite the many restrictions over the internet, these general elections also saw the increasing use of emerging technologies particularly generative AI and deep fake videos to influence voters and counter-narratives. In December, PTI’s social media team released a political speech by Imran Khan, who was imprisoned at the time, using generative AI tools. The video carried a disclaimer that the video message was AI generated and the voiceover was based on generative AI tools.
Expat Pakistani Samra Saghir posted on X:
— Samra Saghir (@SamraSaghir) December 23, 2023
On the eve of the election, social media users saw a string of deep fake videos being circulated online of PTI and PMLN candidates calling for a boycott of the general elections this year, which disillusioned many voters and supporters, particularly since many citizens of the country have been wary of the country’s Election Commission.
On polling day, Pakistan experienced a mobile network blackout, with many voters unable to find details of their polling stations. The system requires voters to send an SMS with their Computerized National Identity Card Number (CNIC) to the number 8300 to get this information; however, many voters were left confused over where they would be able to find these details because of the mobile network disruption. This happened despite the federal caretaker government and the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) being specifically directed by the Sindh High Court (SHC) to ensure uninterrupted access to the internet till February 8, after an independent political candidate filed a petition with the court and referred to the frequent suspension of internet services as “unconstitutional.”
Many political candidates have already expressed their frustration on the matter with former senator Sherry Rehman filing a complaint over mobile network suspension with the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP).
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party, posted on X:
Mobile phone services must be restored immediately across the country have asked my party to approach both ECP and the courts for this purpose.
— BilawalBhuttoZardari (@BBhuttoZardari) February 8, 2024
Pakistani civil rights activist and lawyer Mohammad Jibran Nasir posted:
Today the Care Taker Govt backed by the Establishment and despite orders of the High Court have again robbed voters and political parties specifically PTI and candidates of their rights by shutting down mobile services across the Country to ensure there is no live reporting of…
— M. Jibran Nasir 🇵🇸 (@MJibranNasir) February 8, 2024
Amnesty International has also released a statement regarding mobile and internet disruption as an attack on fundamental freedoms such as freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
🇵🇰The decision to suspend telecommunications and mobile internet services on an election day is a blunt attack on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Amnesty International calls on the Pakistan authorities to urgently lift the blanket restrictions on access…
— Amnesty International South Asia, Regional Office (@amnestysasia) February 8, 2024
Mobile networks have remained suspended, even when polling ended in the country, and citizens across the country have been frustrated over this disruption. Additionally, Access Now, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the #KeepItOn coalition also released a statement on reinstating full internet connection and mobile network for Pakistan on election day and after polling.
Pakistan’s general elections, with the use of AI, internet and mobile network disruptions, have been nothing but controversial. Many social media users have questioned the authenticity of election results from the very beginning, and the events of polling day lead many to question whether these elections have indeed been free and fair for citizens of the country.