The assignment was simple — a presenter was to deliver an upbeat online news package about Pakistan being a safe country to host international sporting events. 

“With clapping hands and cheering crowds, with beating hearts and smiling faces, international cricket is back in Pakistan,” said a man, dressed in a cricket jersey, to camera. The three-minute video was uploaded to the Facebook account of a news organization called CJ Post, which has 316,000 followers, and was posted hundreds of times on Twitter.

There was only one problem: CJ Post is not a real news outlet and the presenter is not a journalist, but an actor.

“Andrew Hamilton,” who has appeared in multiple videos shared by CJ Post, is a fictional newsreader played by a Cuban-born American man hired on the freelance platform, 

Hamilton, whose profile gives only his first name, Luis, has a 5/5 rating on Fiverr, based on nearly 2,000 reviews. He offers script-reading and voiceover services for prices starting at around $25 per appearance and has also appeared as a news presenter in a number of U.S. TV shows, including “NCIS New Orleans” and “From Dusk Till Dawn.”

The video was exposed as being part of a soft power disinformation campaign on June 3, after Facebook removed a network of 40 profiles, 25 pages, six groups and 28 Instagram accounts for violating its policy on “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” Some of the pages — including Pakistan Media Check, Islamabad Press and Asal Baat (Real Talk) — posed as international news organizations and often featured professional script readers acting as news presenters. The majority of pages, which were followed by 800,000 Facebook accounts, were created in 2020 but some had operated since 2011.

“This network appeared to be active across multiple internet services and posted about news and current events in the region, including the ongoing global pandemic; criticism of India and its treatment of Muslims, particularly in the Kashmir region; and also supportive commentary about Pakistan,” read a Facebook report on the network.

The network of pages has been investigated by the U.S.-based social media analysis firm Graphika in a detailed new report. The research reveals that the purported news media outlets published video and text stories about Pakistani politics and current affairs in English, Arabic, Pashto, Urdu, German, French and Russian. 

According to Graphika, many of the stories shared by at least half the fake media outlets were uploaded by employees of an Islamabad-based digital marketing firm, Alpha Pro. The company hired actors and voice-over artists to push a positive image of Pakistan, highlight criticism of India and promote the government-backed China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) investment project. 

According to Jack Stubbs, director of investigations at Graphika, such practices help PR companies to further their client agendas while preserving some degree of anonymity. “Outsourcing the work is often easier and safer for political actors who want to remain one step removed from the hands-on-keyboard operation.” 

“All this shows how political groups can trade on the values of a free press to covertly advance their own interests,” he added.

AlphaPro’s clients include the Pakistan military’s media wing, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), state-owned Chinese infrastructure firms, NGOs, universities and other government agencies. Following the report’s release, the PR firm removed ISPR from its list of client roster.

Graphika also identified at least four former and current AlphaPro employees who worked for ISPR before joining the company. 

According to local media reports, AlphaPro has described allegations of running an influence campaign “baseless.” 

Speaking on condition of anonymity, one of the freelancers hired from Fiverr for a news outlet run by AlphaPro told me that she was “not aware” that her face had been used in a propaganda exercise. 

Responding to a request for comment for this story, a Fiverr spokesperson provided an email statement that read, “It is against our terms of service and community standards to allow anyone to create and/or promote intentionally misleading information or propaganda that is developed and presented as authentic news.”

The findings about the fake news network come in a turbulent period for the media in Pakistan. Earlier this month, freelance journalist Asad Ali Toor was assaulted in his home in Islamabad by unidentified assailants. Toor is known for his criticism of Pakistan’s powerful military. In a related incident, journalist Hamid Mir was taken off air by the privately owned satellite channel Geo News after he made critical remarks about the military at a press freedom protest over Toor’s assault. 

Digital rights activists believe the soft power campaign is only the latest example pointing to a worsening climate for journalists in Pakistan. “This influence operation is a tactic that seeks to fulfil the government’s desire of ‘positive coverage’ when the role of the press is to hold the state accountable,” said Usama Khilji, director of Bolo Bhi, a Pakistan based digital rights organization.