For all its sound and fury, the war of attrition that is currently raging on in Islamabad is merely a pale reflection of the truly cosmic battles that are taking place on social media. Indeed, the invective hurled by Imran Khan and Tahir-ul-Qadri against the PML-N and its leaders is the picture of restraint and collegiality when compared to the abuse that has been hurled by partisans on both sides of the digital battlefield. When looking at the incredibly polarized online political discourse, as well as the heightened emotions it invariably seems to generate, one can only marvel at the extent to which so much anger and energy can be expended for so little gain. After all, despite the prominence accorded to it by the mainstream media and pundits who associate the spread of social media with the democratizing effects of the internet and the rise of popular movements across the globe, the fact is that political debate and activism on the internet have little real world impact and can even be counterproductive.

Over the past decade, a growing body of research has pointed towards two related trends, namely that people are becoming increasingly narcissistic while simultaneously displaying less empathy towards others. While these developments pre-date the rise of social media, it is clear that the advent of websites like Facebook and Twitter has made them worse. The reasons for this are simple; by design, social media places individuals at the centre of attention, providing a platform for everyone to engage in relentless self-promotion and exhibitionism. Constant status updates, selfies, and old-fashioned showing-off, all reflect a belief that an individual’s life and opinions, no matter how banal or boring, are important enough for the world to be interested in them. Those seeking affirmation through the approval of others can easily engage in the construction of online personae displaying the traits that they value, assured of virtually universal support from a carefully curated list of ‘friends’. Given the almost sycophantic levels of positive reinforcement many people receive on Facebook, it becomes easy to forget that they may sometimes be wrong, or that other people may also have opinions and beliefs worthy of consideration and thought.

The problem is exacerbated by the ease with which it is possible to avoid negative feedback and contrary opinions on the internet. Just like the liberalization of the media in Pakistan broke the state’s capacity to dominate the public discourse in the name of nation-building (although it remains important and necessary to question the motives, incentives, and impartiality of private media houses driven more by the quest for profit than any desire to disseminate the ‘truth’), the advent of the internet and social media has made it even easier to articulate different opinions and viewpoints. While this is definitely a positive development, one of the consequences of this fragmentation has been a tendency towards the creation of echo chambers populated by individuals buttressing each others’ biases. People rarely complain about bias in the news when they agree with what is being presented, and social media has made it even easier to seek out likeminded people and media outlets that feed their confirmation bias. It becomes easier to understand the worldview of people who, for example, watch and believe what they see on Fox News when recognizing that the programming they consume through television is supplemented by an entire ecosystem of blogs, tweets, and videos that continuously reproduces and reinforces their beliefs. Social media makes it even more possible to simply ignore contrasting points of view, allowing individuals to construct realities in which arguments, opinions, and even facts are shaped to suit their own world views.

In this context, it is not difficult to make sense of the genuine disbelief exhibited by many PTI members and voters who believed that the hundreds of thousands of ‘likes’ and tweets in support of the party translated into actual electoral strength. Imbued with a sense of self-importance strengthened by the dynamics of social media platforms, many people simply convinced themselves that the virtual reality they inhabited was an accurate reflection of the realities on the ground. In doing so, they were no different from millions around the world who have done the same. As has been comprehensively proven by a range of studies, social media can actually be counterproductive when it comes to political mobilization; it leads individuals to believe that clicking buttons is a substitute for actual action, it facilitates the creation of shallow relationships between people rather than the stronger fraternal bonds characteristic of older forms of organization (like trade unions), it encourages people to ‘support’ causes for status and affirmation rather than any actual interest in reform, and it prioritizes short-term symbolism over long-term strategy and planning. Despite all of this, it continues to be championed as a catalyst for change, and has been credited with toppling regimes and sparking resistance movements in North Africa, the Middle East, and even Pakistan. Even a cursory analysis of the substance of these claims exposes their hollowness, but this has not prevented people from continuing to believe in this idea.

In Pakistan, it is also important to remember that only about 10% of the total population is estimated to have internet access. As such, the entire social media narrative is, predictably enough, one that is driven by the upwardly mobile middle classes and the established elite. For all its emancipatory potential, the internet in Pakistan is a space that continues to exclude the poor and the dispossessed, and their participation in the construction of the public discourse remains as minimal as before. When the frenzied activists on Facebook and Twitter point towards their peers as being representative of some popular will, they conveniently ignore the tens of millions whose voices remain as marginal as ever.

In the past few days, several commentators have expressed surprise and dismay at the uncompromising and uncivil language employed by leaders across the political spectrum in Pakistan. It is perhaps fitting that leaders imbued with an unshakeable sense of destiny, an unbridled belief in their own importance and capacity to singlehandedly change everything, and a messianic desire to acquire power through any means necessary, should cultivate the support of online narcissists incapable of empathizing with their opponents, displaying an uncompromising certitude with regards to their political beliefs, and lacking even an iota of self-doubt or introspection. There is no need to ask hard questions when the answers you want to hear are just a click away and the only ‘facts’ that matter are the ones that you agree with.

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