AURORA: What led you to take up your present position with the GoP?
IMRAN GHAZALI: I did my undergraduate degree in Business Administration from Ohio State University with a major in finance. After working for JP Morgan for a year, I came back to Pakistan in 2011 and I started working in the banking and finance sector. In my student days, I was involved with different student organisations and I was elected President of the Pakistani American Student’s Association in Ohio State, which received an Outstanding Student Organisation Award during my tenure. I was active in organising and promoting events to promote Pakistani culture and food and we often used Facebook to coordinate and bring people together. It was during my student days that I first worked as a web developer, historian and photographer in various clubs, and pioneered the social media for Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) team as a volunteer.
A: What year was this?
IG: In 2006-7. I continued to be part of the PTI’s social media team even when I started professional life. In 2013, I quit my job at Standard Chartered Bank where I was working as a relationship manager in Karachi. I went to Lahore and joined the campaign trail as a volunteer. I was appointed Head of Social Media for their national campaign. It was this role as a volunteer that prompted me to switch careers after the elections as I saw the potential of social media in reaching the wider public. When I returned to Karachi, I joined Starcom as a senior digital media manager looking after clients such as Coca-Cola, Haier, P&G and others. I learnt the strategic planning part of digital media by collaborating with organisations like Facebook, Google, Twitter and YouTube. After Starcom, I joined Adcom Leo Burnett as Business Director of their Digital Media Unit, where I set up the digital business from scratch and won clients like L’Oréal; I also did a stint at M&C Saatchi. These were all very different experiences from handling social causes and they provided a sound basis to learn and re-evaluate how things work, because at the core of it, the main job is to get the message across. Then in 2016 came an opportunity to move to Islamabad and lead the digital media campaign for Alif Ailaan, a non-profit organisation aimed at promoting education reforms in Pakistan – a social cause close to my heart. Moving forward, I worked with UNICEF as a consultant on a campaign for ‘Clean Green Pakistan’, an Imran Khan initiative. I also worked with the World Bank on the KP Digital Youth Summit. Throughout, I acquired the experience of working for private organisations, but on initiatives directly linked to social causes. It was when I was collaborating with Facebook on a concept note about how to train government organisations to be more effective on social media that the opportunity came to head the digital wing of the GoP. Although I would have earned double the amount at Facebook, I knew that there was a lot of scope for improvement at the GoP end in terms of social media, and that given my experience working for commercial organisations as well as nationwide social causes, I could play an effective role in bringing the GoP’s digital media strength up to par with industry standards and with other countries too.
A: Did the Digital Wing exist before you joined?
IG: It is a newly created wing. The Prime Minister approved the setting up of this wing under the Ministry of Information in December 2019. I applied for the post through an advertisement which appeared in the press in April 2020. Then, there was the selection process and after the board interview I was finally notified in August as General Manager for this Wing.
A: Do you report to the Ministry of Information or directly to the PM?
IG: I report to the Ministry of Information and coordinate very closely with the PM’s focal person on digital media.
A: What is the mandate of the Digital Wing?
IG: We are working on several things. One of the primary roles is managing the official social media assets of the GoP; their Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter accounts in terms of content curation. We are responsible for the content that goes out through GoP assets. The official information comes from the Ministry of Information and we process it and create the content. We are also building up the capacity of the federal ministries and their departments. For example, we recently shot a short documentary on the Ehsaas Nashonuma Program and released it across all GoP social media handles. We collaborate and coordinate with the federal ministries and convert the data into social media products. At the moment, we are in the process of authenticating and verifying all GoP social media assets. Previously, the GoP did not have verified social media pages. We contacted those platforms and we are working with them to verify all those accounts which have all been standardised – there is now a single handle called @govtofpakistan for all platforms. The next challenge – and we have been constantly talking to Twitter about this – is the misinformation that is spread through fake accounts, which is why it is so important to have officially verified accounts. We have sent a list of our officially authenticated accounts to the social media platforms and asked them to verify them. This will help increase our reach and engagement with the citizens of Pakistan and global audiences as well. Facebook and YouTube have been more responsive compared to Twitter. For example, Pakistan’s official UN Mission Twitter account has not been verified, although India’s is verified. Similarly, the Twitter accounts of Indian ministries and their local ministries and councillors are verified but Pakistan’s are not. We have finally been able to develop a channel with Twitter and sent them the list of the accounts they need to verify, and we will be actively pursuing this until it is done; recently they have verified 45 Federal Government accounts. It will help us deal with issues of misinformation and fake news. Recently, a fake Twitter screenshot was circulating on WhatsApp saying that schools were not opening on September 15. It was fake news and the Federal Minister for Education had to tweet that it was a fake screenshot – there are stories like this every single day.
A: Why is Twitter not cooperating when you are simply asking them to verify an account as genuine?
IG: Unfortunately, Twitter’s representative for Pakistan is also responsible for the entire region; if 50 requests come from Pakistan for content verification and other issues, it takes them two to three weeks to respond to an email. This is the problem we are facing. There is no active dedicated team looking after Pakistan. As I said, only recently have I been able to establish direct contact with Twitter; it took a lot of hard work to get in touch with the person responsible for our region. Previously, their representative was from India and this becomes a big problem. Given Pakistan’s issues with India, one cannot expect that person to be neutral in terms of addressing these issues. Maybe Twitter do not see Pakistan as big of a market commercially; this could be a reason why they have not invested in human resources. Facebook have a dedicated team who are very responsive and address the issues we raise. The same goes for Google and YouTube – they actively liaise and coordinate with us and they also visit Pakistan.
A: The Asia Internet Coalition recently wrote to the GoP, raising concerns about new rules aimed at blocking content. Another concern was the fact that the GoP is asking for powers to access data and move that data to Pakistan. Is this correct?
IG: The Pakistan Electronic Cyber Act (PECA) 2016 addressed issues of cyber-crime. However, according to my information, there are issues that have still not been addressed, such as child pornography; according to Facebook, the child pornography content uploaded from Pakistan is one of the highest in the world, which is a very serious issue. Similarly, there are many instances of harassment against women and currently there is no law to deter this kind of behaviour. There are other issues such as defamation and blasphemous and sensitive content that is harmful to people of different faiths. The idea is to update the cyber laws and address those issues. These are legitimate requests, because according to their own rules, they fall under the community guidelines of these platforms. From what I know, Facebook is actively coordinating with the GoP and the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) is handling this issue. Yes, these platforms have concerns about freedom of speech and expression, but even in other countries, there are local issues that are sensitive and the state does have the authority to enact local laws to address them. About a month ago, the Prime Minister spoke to the CEO of Facebook on the phone. They had an open discussion and covered issues such as Facebook investing in literacy programmes and helping women start their own businesses as well as the concerns raised by Facebook. The Prime Minister is very keen on bringing these tech companies to Pakistan as there is huge potential due to Pakistan’s young population. I am sure PTA is talking to them and will be able to develop a working relationship whereby these platforms continue to work in Pakistan and, at the same time, address these sensitive local issues.
A: What about the concerns raised over data collection?
IG: From what I understand, I don’t think the GoP has asked for all the data of all the users who have registered on their platforms to be handed over. The data they are talking about relates to sensitive cases or violations that take place. Even in the US, Facebook is liable to share information in sensitive cases, such as terrorism and child pornography. I think the GoP has the right to ask for that kind of data, if it helps identify people who are violating local rules and involved in heinous crimes.
A: Recently, TikTok was banned and then it was reinstated. Would it not be better if the GoP had a mechanism whereby issues could be discussed and resolved, rather than resorting to banning and then reinstatement?
IG: PTA engaged with TikTok for the past few months. TikTok did an awareness campaign in Pakistan to address some of the issues, but violations continued and some of the content was very concerning. Many parents were concerned about the adverse influence of some videos on their children. Petitions were sent by parents to the Lahore High Court and other courts in Pakistan. So it got to a point where TikTok had to be shut down and then renegotiated with to address these issues again. In an ideal world, I agree that matters should not have reached the point where an entire platform has to be shut down – it unfortunately creates negative PR about Pakistan.
A: What changed? What did TikTok agree to?
IG: This is PTA’s domain, but according to the press release issued, TikTok will remove the content that is causing concern and ban people who upload such content. TikTok will also engage with the authorities regarding any content that is flagged and act on it quickly. The intent is not to restrict people in terms of the content they upload, but in the larger interests of society, content should not negatively influence young children (becoming overnight celebrities, making quick money, suicides, etc.).
A: What else does your mandate cover?
IG: We are working on brand Pakistan and this includes promoting the soft image of Pakistan through tourism and cultural initiatives and collaborating with different countries. At the top is tourism. Unfortunately, due to Covid-19, tourism has been restricted. Although Pakistan was declared one of the top tourist destinations in the world by Condé Nast Traveler, people outside Pakistan still have a negative impression about the country. Part of our mandate is to promote the good things about Pakistan, so that when people look up Pakistan on the internet, they see the real, positive side of Pakistan.
A: Specifically how do you plan to achieve this?
IG: Social media is accessible to people all over the world and we want to increase our reach outside Pakistan. We are coordinating with the Foreign Office – for example, the British High Commission in Pakistan have a Twitter presence and they regularly upload Pakistan relevant videos in Urdu; we plan to replicate this with our diplomatic missions abroad and develop videos in the local language of the country. Recently, in collaboration with the Prime Minister’s Office, we set up an Arabic and Turkish version of the Prime Minister’s account – and it got thousands of followers in one day. Apart from digital diplomacy, for internal audiences, we are strengthening the digital media presence of government channels.
A: How big is your team?
IG: The Digital Media Wing comprises 23 individuals including myself. We have six digital communication officers who are the team leads and under them we have creative content writers, graphic designers and video editors. The structure is very similar to a modern digital agency, where we receive briefs from different government departments and create and disseminate content.
A: How much creative autonomy do you have in terms of developing your social media products?
IG: We have a lot of creative autonomy. The basic factual information comes from the ministries, but there is no dictation in terms of how it should be treated, the kind of language used or who should be featured or interviewed. We plan to collaborate with content creators across Pakistan as well as YouTubers, and they will have total liberty to create content according to their mindset and how they see things. Bringing in human stories is another important aspect; a lot of the content that comes from government departments is data-driven. We want to convert the data into human stories and show how it impacts people on the ground. On Instagram, we have close to a million followers. In order to connect to Millennials and Gen Z, we need to develop content that is interesting, rather than just pushing information at them. The goal is to give them the information and let them be the judge of what they see.
Imran Ghazali was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig. For feedback: email@example.com