This is now starting to get out of hand. After a series of weeks in which the government and the courts have outdone themselves in their efforts to silence dissent and stifle free expression, flinging allegations of treason at political opponents, journalists, and ordinary people who merely ask questions about matters of collective national importance (like the construction of the Diamer-Bhasha Dam), the madness has spread to the general public and social media. Earlier this week, the Beaconhouse network of schools was trending on Twitter for all the wrong reasons; the organization was accused of treason after images were circulated online showing maps from textbooks used in its schools that displayed Kashmir as a part of India, as well as copies of exam papers that asked why India had triumphed in the wars of 1965 and 1971. As these images and the hashtag ‘BoycottBeaconhouse’ spread across social media, accusations that the organization’s schools and colleges were also spreading ‘vulgarity’ and ‘obscenity’ also started to circulate, accompanied by pictures of young men, women, and children dressed up for cultural events. Predictably enough, the tens of thousands of tweets and Facebook posts about this called for Beaconhouse to be banned for the activities it was allegedly engaging in at the behest of hostile foreign powers, for its administrators and teachers to be tried for treason and punished, and for similar ‘anti-state’ elements to be eradicated from Pakistan.

The absurdity of all these allegations should be self-evident. The question of how maps depict Kashmir in Pakistani textbooks has long been a contentious one, and even Google has had to cater to local sensitivities by adjusting its popular Maps software to reflect official government positions in both India and Pakistan. Accordingly, as Beaconhouse itself clarified in a statement, the offending textbook mentioned on social media had been flagged some time ago and was being phased out. Similarly, the problematic exam question referred to on Twitter was from the O-Level examinations, and had been set by an external board and attempted by students across Pakistan, not just at Beaconhouse. To accuse the school of following some kind of nefarious anti-state agenda on the basis of such flimsy accusations is simultaneously silly and dangerous, just as it is deeply worrying to see keyboard warriors frothing at the mouth when viewing images of small children dressed up in costumes for school plays and extracurricular activities; it would take a particularly diseased mind to link this to ‘obscenity’ and yet that is precisely what thousands of people did on Twitter.

It would be easy to dismiss this latest social media uproar as yet another storm in a teacup, holding the public’s attention for a day or two before the news cycle shifts to the next new event or faux-scandal. Yet, to do this would be to miss the very real dangers associated with this kind of ideological policing. First, it is worth mentioning the ‘trends’ of this kind of social media are not spontaneous expressions of collective sentiment. They are, in fact, manufactured and planned, promoted by key social media influencers who use the technological tools at their disposal, as well as their popularity, to push particular agendas. Political parties in Pakistan, as well as the state itself, have invested heavily in building the capacity to manipulate social media in this fashion, and the campaign against Beaconhouse bore the hallmarks of a coordinated campaign. In particular, numerous social media accounts unofficially aligned with the PTI were at the forefront of the ‘BoycottBeaconhouse’ trend, and were instrumental in ensuring it spread as quickly as it did.

While the accounts that spread this campaign are not directly supported by or linked to the PTI, it is worth considering how many of them were, and are, at the forefront of the party’s messaging on social media, both during the elections and now when the new government is struggling to find its feet. The PTI is not alone in this, although its large social media footprint and the enthusiasm of its online supporters makes it feature prominently in these exchanges on Twitter and Facebook. This is worrying for several reasons; even though the party may not have a direct connection to these accounts, informal linkages clearly exist, and the party’s refusal to comment on or reign in its supporters is troubling, just as it is not encouraging to see how the broader political environment appears to be one in which social media vigilantes feel empowered enough to level serious allegations against individuals and organizations with little to no evidence. Unfortunately, it is probably only a matter of time before the online activism has real-world consequences. In India, for example, the role of social media in inflaming communal sentiments on the basis of fake news, flimsy allegations, and unsubstantiated rumours has led to violence on several occasions, and it is reasonable to fear similar events taking place in Pakistan.

Over the past several years, academics, journalists, and activists have been raising the alarm about censorship in Pakistan. It is an open secret that there are certain issues upon which it is imprudent to comment, and the disappearance and abduction of individuals who appear to have said the wrong thing or asked the wrong questions has only reinforced the power of these ideological red lines. This has been taking place amidst an expansion of the state’s powers of surveillance through the use of the internet and its associated technologies, and matters have been made even worse by the spread of a public narrative in which dissent and opinion are automatically being conflated with treason if they happen to diverge from the mainstream orthodoxy.

What needs to be understood is that critical thinking and free expression are crucial to the development of any society. It is only be questioning received wisdom and by speaking truth to power that lessons can be learnt from the past and the powerful can be held accountable. Those who insist on defending the status quo in the name of national interest, and who therefore willingly or unwittingly choose to not question the powers-that-be, should simply reflect on whether or not this strategy, and the defence of the established order, has worked for Pakistan in the past. The country faces many challenges, and it seems unlikely that deference to authority and unquestioning obedience will yield the kind of progress and reforms Pakistan needs.

 

The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.

hassan.javid@lums.edu.pk