Pakistan’s real social media problem

On April 29, the Pakistan army in a tweet “rejected” a notification by the Sharif government. The content of the tweet is not the subject here, but the rising practice of expressing grave statements on social media.

The army, as the most respected institution of the state, legitimised the used of social media for official purposes of the highest importance. It is no wonder that everyone uses it as their personal loud speaker. Where once social media was thought to be the bastion of non-serious content and the shady home of anonymous trolls, today it is just as good as one’s word, with real and serious consequences.

2017 has been a difficult year when looking at social media. Apart from the usual viral hits, which are mostly funny, like the former PM’s statement “muhje kyun nikala” being the butt of many jokes, there have been a large number of terrible stories involving social media.

In January five activists known on social media for their secular leftist views went missing. Four of them were returned to their families weeks later, with their reputations tarnished by a virulent campaign to paint them as enemies of Islam deserving execution. Last week they were all cleared of the charges of blasphemy. No group claimed responsibility for their abduction, and the government and military denied involvement. Five men went missing for a crime they did not commit, and were abducted by an entity that does not exist. Pakistan continued to be the impossible state for another year.

In March, the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called blasphemy an unpardonable offence and directed the state machinery to find those responsible for putting blasphemous content on social media and bring them to justice. Thus former Interior Minister Ch Nisar Ali Khan became the right-wing crusader for blocking social media content.

In April a mob beat Mashal Khan to death at Abdul Wali Khan University, Mardan, over accusations that he had committed blasphemy on social media. It was social media that broadcasted the tragedy of his death and the horror that the youth of Pakistan has become, ready to kill anyone to protect Islam in a Muslim majority country. Mashal was cleared of all blasphemy charges by a joint investigation team.

An investigation carried out by Dawn in April 2017 revealed that 41 of Pakistan’s 64 banned outfits were present on Facebook in the form of hundreds of pages, groups and individual user profiles. The biggest outfits on Facebook were Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) with 200 pages and groups, Jeay Sindh Muttahida Mahaz (JSMM) with 160, Sipah-i-Sahaba (SSP) with 148, Baloch Student Organisation Azad (BSO-A) with 54 and Sipah-e-Muhammad with 45. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Tehreek-e-Taliban Swat, Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi, Jamat-ul-Ahrar also have a smaller but strong presence. The report suggested that a majority of these users appeared to be based in larger urban centres such as Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar and Quetta. Those users that had publicly listed the educational institutions they had attended are mostly based in large, government-run universities, particularly in Sindh and Balochistan, evidence of a clear radicalisation of the youth. No state official has blamed them for anything, none of their personnel have gone missing, no mob has tried to attack anyone alleged to be from a banned outfit, and no social media outrage was reported over terrorism in 2017.

In May, dozens of social media users were detained or interrogated by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) for posting “anti-military” content. The FIA reportedly compiled a list of 33 social media users for carrying out propaganda against the army and the news of such repressive measures made global headlines.

In June an Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) sentenced a man to death for sharing blasphemous content about Islam on social media. It first glance the report read like news from Iran or Saudi Arabia. This is the current state of our laws, and the state of how blood hungry our society is when it comes to debate over religion (and even over the military).

The final straw on the camels already broken back was the viral video of a senior Pakistani army officer distributing money to anti-government protesters in Islamabad. The footage was interpreted by some evidence of the “soft spot” the military is believed to have for religious groups, even when were clearly challenging the writ of the state.

Earlier this month, technology and social media were blamed for a rise in HIV rates in Pakistan. Not that contraception is taboo, or that there is a serious problem of non-consensual sex and abuse in Pakistan- but that online communication directly caused AIDS. Another example of how ham-fisted our understanding is of technology and how far we can go to blame anything other than our own violent selves and values.

Death, HIV and terrorism – all were found on social media in 2017.

I have written before that I do not see social media as a positive force. It is an echo chamber the loudest and brashest of us all; it is a tool to be manipulated (as it has been with countless blasphemy allegations). If society is sick, social media will show us a sick picture it. If the state can crackdown on dissent on the streets, it can on the Internet too. This is not to say that social media should be censored, that is akin to censoring free speech. But there has to be some real movement towards creating a basis for a nonviolent society and leaders (religious and otherwise) who can handle dissent without protesters occupying capitals and without inexplicable abductions.

Many a sane Pakistani probably knows that Islam does not need protection, especially not on social media. More resources to protect people from hunger, brutality and exploitation would protect Islam by proxy.

Most sane Pakistani’s probably also understand that the military does not need protection as the strongest and most loved state institution. Its criticism is needed and is marginal. As the best of the best, the military should be above responding to any criticism. Positive or negative public opinion has no real effect on its actual function of physically protecting Pakistani lives and territory.

But we don’t live in sane times, and we don’t live with sane people. Social media in 2017 was an apt reflection of our times. Here’s to hoping for less blasphemy accusations that cannot be proven and fewer crackdowns on the very small number of social media warriors in 2018. Social media, and a mainstream media, need dissenters and debaters, no matter the topic, to create better ideas for change and reform. It is time we start protecting living breathing people more than we protect institutions.

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