Last November, Aisha Butt, a police officer in Pakistan’s Punjab province, tweeted a photo of herself, from an open-air meeting held by the police, with her infant daughter on her lap. Aisha was reading papers, fielding requests from locals in her jurisdiction. The accompanying tweet, in English, read: “It is difficult but not impossible.” The tweet received over 14,000 likes. “This is such a badass picture,” one person wrote in reply. “All the power to you!”

In Pakistan, cops don’t go viral unless something truly tragic — or heinous — has transpired. Pakistani cops have long had a bad rep: stereotyped as overweight and lazy, accused of everything from committing extrajudicial killings and torture to demanding bribes from commuters and free food from street vendors. A survey from 2016 suggested that only 34% of Pakistanis had trust in the local police. 

The police now want to show their more nuanced side in a place where they can build influence: the social media timeline.

Over the past couple of years, Pakistani police officers have joined Twitter to push back against criticism and reshape their image. Using a mix of moralizing and humor, officers have amassed followers by turning their lives into reality TV. On Twitter, the police have posted about a socially distanced funeral, “honey traps” that lead to kidnappings, and a heist — not involving sacks of cash but of pine nuts, which are worth millions of rupees. The police get all kinds of requests. For urgent assistance, to report a crime, or to solve a quintessentially Pakistani problem: “Phupho has come uninvited to bhanji’s wedding,” tweeted police officer Amna Baig last year, using the Urdu words for aunt and niece. She was tasked with making the aunt leave — a request she relayed to her 50,000 followers.

Officers on Twitter aren’t just providing insight into how policing works or the abysmal conditions they operate under. Their online presence also allows people to report crimes by tagging them in tweets. For many Pakistanis, interacting with a cop online may be the first time they see them as human, rather than as bribe-taking killing machines. 

Butt, the officer who tweeted her child, wanted to show that women officers can be committed both to their work and to their family. She wanted women to come forward. She wanted to highlight the conditions under which cops operate. When she sent the tweet out, “I was saying that this is difficult but not impossible,” Butt told Rest of World.

Illustration of a smiley face emoji wearing a Pakistani police officer's hat

Her Twitter-famous daughter is now a little over a year old, but last summer, Butt asked her superiors to give her a side assignment for a few months, while her daughter was growing up. She was told: “We don’t want to waste an officer like you. We know you can do the work.” Butt was posted to Ferozewala, a place she describes as one of the toughest areas in Pakistan.

Her thousands of followers also saw her getting promoted to lead the Anti-Riot Squad as well as the Dolphin Squad, a special branch of Lahore’s police department tasked with fighting street crime, which puts her in charge of more than 4,000 officers. She’s the first woman to do so. 

Her husband, also a cop, is posted in a different city, and she often tags him in her tweets, jokingly asking him to comment on her work. Butt now has over 70,000 followers and is a charismatic presence: when asked what it was like to be on duty while both the Women’s Day March and the Pakistan Super League cricket series were underway in Lahore, she joked that she would have been out shopping if she’d had a day off.

Policemen stand guard as Sikh pilgrims arrive at a shrine in Nankana Sahib, some 75 kms west of Lahore on November 7, 2019, on the occasion of the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev. - A corridor that will allow Sikhs to cross from India into Pakistan to visit one of the religion's holiest sites is set to open on November 9, with thousands expected to make a pilgrimage interrupted by decades of conflict. (Photo by Arif ALI / AFP) (Photo by ARIF ALI/AFP via Getty Images)
Arif Ali/AFP via Getty Images

For many years, Pakistani police officers didn’t have an online presence. For those who did, it was mostly limited to infrequently updated Facebook fan pages. An officer we are calling Ali was one of the first cops to develop a large following on Twitter. Ali and other police officers spoke to Rest of World on condition that they be identified by a pseudonym because they are not authorized to speak to the press.

Ali began posting about the police three years ago — including a tweet about his first day at the academy — but his tweets began getting traction in 2018. “The most important thing was that the sacrifices our officers have made, when they are martyred, people do not know about that,” Ali said. While he got negative responses on Twitter, Ali found that people didn’t know about the full extent of the police’s work, or their limitations. As Ali’s Twitter following grew, so did complaints from across the country, alongside comments from people who were empathetic to cops.

The relationship between law enforcement and citizens is complicated in authoritarian Pakistan, where the rule of law is often enforced by a literal crack of the stick. There have been numerous incidents in recent years that have stood out as examples of police excesses: the case of Rao Anwar, a notorious police officer accused of the extrajudicial killings of over 400 people, or the firing on religious and political protesters in Lahore. A 2016 Human Rights Watch report noted that “Pakistan’s police are widely regarded to be among the most abusive, corrupt, and unaccountable institutions of the state.” 

Illustration of an eagle-shaped badge with a follow icon in the center

The police force, which dates back to even before the creation of Pakistan in 1947, is meant to be the primary law-enforcement agency of the land, managing everything from traffic to crime investigations. But in practice, it has to deal with the competing powers of paramilitary forces and the military, which wields extensive power in the country and has an immense PR operation, winning it praise online by nationalists. 

While the elite can bypass cops altogether and engage with only senior officers, the underprivileged have to deal with the lower ranks of the police, are routinely harassed and mistreated, and find it difficult to register complaints. This is reflected in how cops are perceived in real life and online — abused, reviled, mocked — always the punchline, never the hero. 

To fight this, cops like Ali encouraged their peers to join Twitter and share their experiences. Soon enough, police bosses, who knew the force had an image problem, tapped into this seemingly organic movement. Police departments have official Twitter accounts. Cops tweet about investigations. Tweets make their way to the officers’ own WhatsApp groups, where cops mull over how they’re going to deal with an issue trending online or to send across complaints made on Twitter to relevant officers.

Many cops tweet about issues that reflect personal causes they want to educate people about: civic responsibility, violence against women, the abuse of children. Jamil Ahmed, a senior police officer in the Sindh province, started sharing stories on Twitter about the oppression of women. “People [then] started reporting all such violations,” Ahmed said, “whether it was child marriage or vani or karo-kari or honor cases or [cases of] settling scores with opponents.” (The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reported more than a thousand cases of honor killings and sexual violence in 2018, though the true number is likely much higher.) 

Officers say that people’s perceptions shift when they get a response and see their problem being taken up in real time. “Now people have a forum on which they can hide their identity and vent their frustration, and they can say that this is wrong, that is wrong — things that perhaps they can’t say in front of us,” said Butt. “This helps us understand the mindset of people and what they want from us.”

Policemen disperse vendors as time to close a market arrived during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus, along a street in Peshawar on April 28, 2020. (Photo by Abdul MAJEED / AFP) (Photo by ABDUL MAJEED/AFP via Getty Images)
Abdul Majeed/AFP via Getty Images

Some officers have figured out that, on social media, they have to get ahead of the story, whether it’s condemning misconduct or trying to put out facts to set the record straight. “It’s almost like they’re feeding off the public’s vibe,” says Zoha Waseem, a research fellow at the University College London’s Institute for Global City Policing. “If there is an incident that’s gone badly for them, you sometimes see their personal accounts go quiet; they just won’t talk about anything. They wait for things to cool down, and then their accounts become more active.”

Cops are also figuring out what they can talk about online. “I used to tweet on every topic, and that caused issues for me,” says Ali, who has more than 15,000 followers. “Then I drew some lines for myself. I will not show political biases; those are my personal choices; there are some things in society that I will not talk about.”

Illustration of a Pakistani police badge

One of those, for Ali, is religious extremism: tweeting about religious discrimination led to people calling Ali an infidel. “You have no idea the sort of stuff that people comment on,” said Sidra, an officer who also asked to be identified with a pseudonym. “There are so many times that I want to retweet saying, ‘What the hell?’.” But offensive comments cannot come from within their ranks; cops have had to be told by their colleagues to not tweet jokes that would cause offense. 

While the police have been trying to sway opinions on Twitter, the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown have handed them a PR coup, as photos and videos of cops pleading with worshippers to not go to mosques have spread across social media. “It gives one great happiness” to see the police being recognized, Ali said.

But cops are praised and raged at in equal measure. In Karachi, cops were criticized for putting alleged violators of the lockdown in a stress position known as a murgha (rooster); in Lahore, police officers posted footage of a girl who’d been detained for violating the lockdown and shamed her for being out on a date. Perhaps Pakistani cops can never really win over Twitter — or the public. 

“I often say that, in a case, one person is on the right side, and one is on the wrong side,” Butt said. “And our job is not to please people. Our job is to deliver justice.”