Opinion
Wednesday Oct 13 2021
By

Disinformation campaigns and Pakistan cricket

Shadab Khan bats as New Zealand’s wicketkeeper Tim Seifert (L) looks on during the first T20 international cricket match between New Zealand and Pakistan at Eden Park in Auckland on December 18, 2020. Photo: AFP
Shadab Khan bats as New Zealand’s wicketkeeper Tim Seifert (L) looks on during the first T20 international cricket match between New Zealand and Pakistan at Eden Park in Auckland on December 18, 2020. Photo: AFP

There is a complex, organized, and well-planned disinformation campaign that Pakistan finds itself in the middle of.

The purpose of such a campaign is to create a false perception of Pakistan's internal security and present it as a threat to the international community and the region at large. It is because of these disinformation campaigns that the New Zealand and English cricket teams recently cancelled their tours to Pakistan at the last minute.

Pakistan cricket may emerge out of this crisis and eventually host heavy-weight international teams again, however, if we don’t proactively strategize for disinformation campaigns against us, Pakistan will keep going back in circles and there will be another crisis around the corner soon.

The New Zealand cricket team was touring Pakistan for the first time in 18 years. The team arrived in Pakistan and practiced for a few days. However, on September 17, the day of the match, the New Zealand team decided to abandon the tour citing an unspecified security threat.

Pakistan’s Information Minister, Fawad Chaudhry later revealed that the tour was canceled on the background of fake Facebook posts and emails.

These fake emails and threats are not entirely new for Pakistan. In fact, in 2018 when the West Indies team came to Pakistan, the West Indies cricket board received threats with a fake email ID in the name of Ehsanullah Ehsan, the leader of TTP. The West Indies tour went ahead regardless and Pakistan successfully hosted them for three T20Is.

Pakistan was informed of the fake emails and posts by Interpol New Zealand to further investigate the validity of the threats.

Upon investigation, the Pakistani security agencies concluded that the threats were not just fabricated but they were generated in an organized manner to spread disinformation and cancel these tours.

While the New Zealand government refused to share any specific intelligence, it is important to acknowledge the impact these fake threats might have had on New Zealand’s decision to cancel the tour.

The fake IDs from which these email threats were sent to the New Zealand team were created solely with the purpose of jeopardizing the tour.

One of the emails was directly sent to a New Zealand player named Martin Guptill using a secure email service called proton mail. The email itself was used only to send this one threat by using the name Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan, a banned political party in Pakistan.

The email was generated by an Indian citizen in Maharashtra as shown by further investigation. There were also fake Facebook posts that threatened the New Zealand team of an attack if they came to Pakistan.

A few days after the fake Facebook post, Abhinandan Mishra, bureau chief of the Indian newspaper Sunday Guardian, wrote an article claiming that the New Zealand team may face a terrorist attack in Pakistan.

This article was written in the newspaper without any verification of its authenticity or validity. It’s likely that this was a result of not just cognitive bias but a part of more complex web of disinformation campaign against Pakistan.

It is, however, important to note that Mishra has also been regularly in touch with former Afghan vice president Amrullah Saleh, who is known for his anti-Pakistan views. Moreover, the Sunday Guardian was founded by MJ Akbar who served as minister for external affairs in the Modi-led BJP Government.

It is possible that these events could have been individual isolated acts by hyper-Indian nationalists but this raises two major questions.

First off, are a few people capable of spreading such large network of misinformation all by themselves? Secondly, are all other global and regional actors so naïve as to believe a few fake emails/posts generated by some hyper-nationalists from India? While one of these possibilities could in theory be true but the likelihood of them being true collectively is far less likely as the world in 2021 is fully aware of how disinformation in its essence works.

On the other hand, although there is little direct proof of Indian state's involvement, there is plenty of evidence to link it up to a more organized campaign where non-state actors have the backing of the State. The Indian chronicle campaign that was released by EU Disinfo lab is a recent incident that we must not forget where hundreds of fake NGOs were being operated solely with the purpose to spread disinformation that was not just being created to spread fear about Pakistan and its place in the international community but also to create a disinformation channel so large that it becomes difficult to find any truth beyond that channel.

Cricket is no different, it is one sport that isn’t just popular in South Asia but is haunted by politics, it is bearing the brunt of aggressive geopolitics by the Indian state from a few years now.

A failure of a complete revival of international cricket in Pakistan sends a strong message that the country is unsafe for foreign citizens and that there is a security crisis within the country. It aligns quite conveniently with the narrative that India has been building for years that Pakistan is a safe haven for terrorists and that the country is a threat to the international community and the region.

The disinformation campaign is here to stay and it isn't just a state-centric campaign, it is a complex web of non-state actors that have the backing and support of the state.

The cancellation of the New Zealand tour isn’t the end goal in itself, it is a symptom of the larger threat that Pakistan faces today of disinformation and false narratives being built against it.

Cricket will sooner or later come back to Pakistan, but if we don't find ways to reduce or control the misinformation spread against us, we will be playing catch up for a long time.

The author is a research officer for Center for Law and Security