Misinformation won’t be solved through blanket bans on platforms: X ban in Pakistan

Since the acquisition of X, formerly Twitter in 2022, by Billionaire Elon Musk, serious allegations of hateful and conspiratorial content have made headlines globally on the well-regarded microblogging platform. 

The Conversation had earlier reported on research that’s shows the decline in trust of Americans on Twitter after the acquisition and the migration of many users to alternative platforms like Threads and Mastodon. As well as the rise in hate speech and misinformation in Musk-era Twitter likely related to the removal of important safeguards for moderating content. 

However, most recent research on the pitfalls of Twitter takes it as a standalone platform and we lack comparative studies with other social media platforms that could allow us to make a fuller analysis of content on X. 

This is important because the so-called Twitter-verse doesn’t exist as an isolated and standalone information network. It is embedded in a vast cross cutting networked information and communication environment. 

While in absolute terms there may be a rise in misinformation and ‘fake news’ on this platform in recent years. What that means also depends on the context of a particular information ecosystem in which the Twitter-verse operates, influences and is in turned influenced by. 

To illustrate this point, I would like to highlight the case of the on-going ban on X in Pakistan.  

X gets banned in Pakistan 

X, formerly Twitter, is disrupted in many areas of Pakistan in the aftermath of the landmark general elections on February 8th that shook the powerful military led status quo and pundits alike. 

Pakistan is a hybrid democracy and has both democratic and authoritarian traits. The state regularly clamps down on the Internet, shuts platforms, suppress unwanted online speech through arrests and harsh convictions. Freedom House (2022) codes Pakistan ‘Not Free’ in terms of Internet freedom.

The ban prompted well regarded global and local civil society organisations to raise alarm: https://x.com/amnestysasia/status/1768853878228004977?s=20

Such bans are not new. However, the on-going blanket ban on X is unusual for its duration, on-going for nearly three months, and platform specific suppression. Other popular platforms, like Facebook, WhatsApp, Tik Tok and YouTube, remain accessible.

The government response has been ambiguous; previously one of outright denial, later and after a petition filed by civil society groups challenging restrictions on X, the response is ‘national security reasons’ and X refusal to comply with content removal requests from the government. 

X ban and the fight against misinformation 

The menace of misinformation and ‘fake news’ is indeed a special problem in Pakistan where adult literacywas just 58% out of a population of 241 million in 2019. 

As per research site DataReportal, social media users in the country were roughly 30%. But like elsewhere, Twitter in Pakistan with roughly 4.5 million users, is comparatively an elite platform, with heavy usage of English, and extensive attention by journalists, think-tankers, and political strategists (Mir et al, 2023). Facebook with over 44.5 million users in contrast has much wider reach and appeal. 

Moreover, a higher portion of X users in Pakistan don’t trust mainstream media compared to a typical Internet user according to surveys by Statista. Pakistani Twitterati also relatively frequently consume diverse types of media compared to other Internet users. 

See complete survey here.

So, with a comparatively more affluent, tech savvy, educated userbase, with a healthier media diet on X, illiteracy doesn’t quite explain why the platform has been specifically targeted for misinformation. 

In fact, the reason for X ban maybe the exact opposite of keeping misinformation at bay. Experts argue that such bans are imposed to force compliance from platforms in Pakistan and that it blanket bans actually facilitates misinformation.

X is also a platform known for breaking news stories in Pakistan where authoritarianism has been steadily rising – from scoring 39/100 in 2019 to 35/100 in 2024 on the Freedom House scale. 

The authoritarianism is backed by increasing impunity against journalists. An independent local media watchdog, The Freedom Network reported a sharp rise of 60% in Attacks Against Journalists in its latest reportreleased in 2023. 

All this is happening in the backdrop of digitalization in the country. According to Statista estimates the share of digital media revenues was 9.16% in 2017, 24.5% in 2024 and are expected to make up one-third of total media revenues by 2029. A trend likely accelerated by COVID-19 related disruptions. 

A space for diverse views in authoritarian Pakistan 

While commercialization of media in Pakistan was initially led by satellite and cable television it is now led by the Internet and digitisation. Proliferation of private news channels really expanded the scope of diverse news content before it succumbed to authoritarian measures of the state. Digital realm is following a similar pattern but the state is struggling to manage it. 

This has opened a window in the information ecosystem for persecuted opposition groups, such as the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf party, and advocates of free speech, to inform and mobilize against the government, through mediums like X.

Moreover, many Pakistanis continue to access X through VPNs, including strangely, the government ministers themselves who are responsible for the ban. Notable is that platforms are embedded in commerce in Pakistan’s ailing economy and heavily influence sectors like education, remote work, online trade. According to some estimates the daily costs of shutting down internet comes down to $ 615 million.

Misinformation on X requires a nuanced approach

While Musk-era Twitter receives much flak for misinformation the X-ban in Pakistan shows that context is key to understand misuse of social media platforms. However imperfect X may be, blanket bans on X are harmful for citizen’s rights. 

This should be obvious, although going by the current policy discourse on another controversial platform Tik Tok, not entirely. Like Musk-era X, Tik Tok may not neatly fit a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ platform binary outside the West; there is evidence that the platform’s accessibility contributes to emancipation of working-class women in Pakistan. 

Evidence from Western countries however shows that Twitter has a negative effect on conspiracy beliefs compared to some popular platforms namely, Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp and YouTube. That the way we engage with information on Twitter, through bite sized texts, is perhaps more reliable compared with other platforms. 

Such comparative studies after Musk acquisition are few and far between. Musk has rightly made X subservient to domestic laws wherever it operates. Engagement data should also be made accessible to academics so we may assess the impact of this information system as it evolves.  

Also see: my guest talk on misinformation for Arts Concepts


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