August Issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Published 15 years ago

The Pakistan Youth Alliance’s (PYA) logo is striking. Placed on the right-hand side of their Facebook page as the display picture, it features a young man yelling, his face painted a patriotic green and white. It’s supposed to exhibit the anger and frustration the youth of Pakistan feel. This is exactly the kind of emotion that the PYA wants to channel into a potent force for the betterment of society.

One of several youth-based organisations that are organised through Facebook, the PYA was created in the aftermath of the Emergency Rule of 2007. Founder Syed Ali Abbas envisioned it as a socio-political awareness campaign that was meant to awaken the youth of Pakistan from their apathy. “Our focus was to create street activists rather than sit-at-home activists,” Abbas explains. Street activists, it would seem, is indeed what they have created. The PYA has organised dozens of events across the country, be it a peace rally after an air space violation by India in Islamabad, or a car and bike rally participation in Lahore for the restoration of an independent judiciary.

Their methodology was simple: use Facebook to recruit and coordinate members, and thus spread their message quickly and effectively. Today, they have a decentralised structure in which area heads are nominated from within their particular domains and each must seek approval from a central executive body. With approximately 2,700 members, the red tape is not unwarranted.

It comes as no surprise that the ever-evolving Facebook has taken Pakistan by storm. Today, there are 714,600 people over the age of 18 who have registered Facebook accounts. Fourteen thousand of them are in college, mostly between the ages of 18 and 25. While most use Facebook as a way to display their photographs, inform their friends about their lives, and to stalk people’s daily activities, the web phenomenon has become part of a greater internet revolution — one that uses organisations such as the PYA to instigate activism.

The PYA is not the only organisation that aims to initiate activism in the youth of Pakistan. Inspired by the general feeling that the situation in Pakistan is going from bad to worse, Rehan Afzal, a Pakistani student at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, also used Facebook to develop his own organisation, the Pakistan Youth Movement (PYM). Similar to the Pakistan Youth Alliance, the PYM aims to bring about real change in Pakistan by organising its youth. Their initiatives have involved raising money for the IDPs and organising a massive seminar about the state of youth activism in Pakistan.

It is the resources of Facebook, and the fast-paced ways in which the PYM’s founders are able to use the web-based platform to connect with members, which enables both organisations’ success. “Facebook is sort of like an e-office of PYM,” Afzal says. “We contact our members through Facebook. Most of our events are announced on the site. We interact with each other through Facebook chat. We discuss many important socio-political issues on the group’s discussion board.” Clearly, their organisations would never have been as effective without the social networking sites.

Currently there are over 250 Facebook groups based in Pakistan. These include groups that formed during the Emergency Rule, some that organised rallies for an independent judiciary, and others that were advertised in other mediums as well, such as the Yeh Hum Nahin (YHN) anti-terrorist movement. But, in reality, how successful are these groups in terms of revolutionising activism? While both the PYA and the PYM firmly believe that the youth of Pakistan are the vital element in initiating change, it seems that success is measured by sheer numbers. According to Afzal, the PYM is successful because they have 8,000 members on their Facebook page, and inboxes filled with e-mails of young people wanting to join the cause. If this is a game of numbers, it would seem that PYM’s success is insurmountable. But aside from organising benefits concerts for the IDPs, what real change have they brought about? One of PYM’s recent events included a silent prayer for the heroes of the Pakistan Army — a kind gesture, but not one that would ignite massive change.

Because the spread of messages on Facebook is an almost viral trend, joining a group is simple, and most people join groups that they believe fall in line with their views. However, it seems not all of them act on any of the issues. While most groups boast an impressive number of members, not all of those members are actively involved in the group’s mission. Yeh Hum Naheen’s Facebook page, for example, allows for nothing more than simply joining the group and participating on the page’s forum. According to the RSVPs on the PYM’s Facebook events pages, only a small percentage of members responded as definitely attending any of the events. For the most part, it seems that the message is being spread, but not effectively. And then there are the groups that believe that getting attention is all that is necessary.

Faisal Qureshi, a local television celebrity, says that he believes that the youth can be moved in subtler ways. Creator of Pakistan’s first e-rally, he encouraged everyone to change their display picture on Facebook, Twitter, Google etc. The e-rally began in November 2008 and ended on January 1, and at its conclusion had 9,500 members who had changed their display picture. Qureshi believes half the battle is getting noticed. “It was a solidarity exercise,” he maintains, “the purpose was to show the world that we stand together, that we are owners of the land.” But how much change would this enact?

Qureshi acknowledges that the e-rally would not accomplish anything in the long run, but he explained that it stood for the same value of patriotism that wearing a flag on Independence Day might. However, regardless of how intellectual Qureshi believes his movement is, changing a display picture does not necessarily evoke any sort of activism.

“Showing passion for five minutes is easy,” he says. And indeed, simply changing one profile picture to show your support for the country seems nothing but easy. “Out of the 14,000 members of the group, only 14 really matter,” says Qureshi, explaining that only a small percentage of those who joined his group would be inspired to make any sort of change. According to him, “If you are so passionate about the country, the least you can do is change your picture.”

Waseem Mahmoud, founder of YHN agrees that perhaps massive change isn’t brought about through these online initiatives. His movement began as a song “Yeh hum nahin,” that addressed the idea that the majority of the Pakistani populace did not condone acts of terrorism, and quickly became an effort to collect signatures on a petition to show the world what Pakistanis thought about terrorism. Mahmoud explained that creating awareness was only the first stage in a larger battle against terrorism, and while YHN had accomplished that, they were looking at how the media can be used to combat the problem.

More importantly, due to the fact that most of the youth organisations are solely accessible through the internet, only a small percentage of Pakistan’s youth have access to these platforms. Qureshi recognises that he is only able to target the educated middle-class youth, thus further limiting the amount of people truly affected by the web-revolution. He believes that the educated middle-class youth are the only people who really matter in bringing about concrete change. “Leave aside the poor man who is striving for the next meal. When the middle class is dormant, the country suffers,” he says. By simply asking them to sign a petition, change their display picture, or join a Facebook group, will the indifference of the masses come to an end?

YHN was able to raise awareness with many more people — they managed to acquire 62.8 million signatures in only one month. Mahmoud claims that only 110,000 of those signatures were acquired through the internet. In addition to allowing people to SMS in their names for the petition, YHN had 6,000 on-the-ground volunteers that convinced people to sign the petition. In this manner, unlike PYM, PYA and Qureshi’s internet-only rally, YHN was able to reach almost all socio-economic groups within Pakistan. At the same time, Mahmoud believes that the internet may not be the most effective means of targeting people in Pakistan.  “I don’t think the internet is that advanced in Pakistan because we don’t have that many computer literate people,” he says.

On the other hand, the PYA and the PYM are attempting to specifically target the youth of Pakistan. Abbas of the PYA says that Pakistan’s youth can play the role of a catalyst — as this is the age where passions are personified and ideals are built. Similarly, Afzal contests that Pakistan’s energetic youth are well equipped to change Pakistan for the better.

While it is certainly true that only a small percentage of the country’s youth has access to Facebook, this small percentage seems ready to make a change. For example, after the March 3 attacks on the Sri-Lankan cricket team, the PYA organised a walk and vigil in Islamabad to show solidarity with the victims of the attack. Crowds of people gathered in the streets with candles and placards expressing their sentiments for the innocent and defenseless who are often the real victims of terror. In Karachi, PYA organised a seminar on Swat, entitled, “Swat, heaven on earth or haven for extremism?” which was held at the National Law University on April 26. More recently, they organised a massive fund-raising effort for the rehabilitation of the IDPs. The Pakistan Youth Movement also organised a fund-raising camp in Lahore in which members raised funds that were used to provide mattresses for nearly 100 IDPs. More than all of these events, it’s possible that dialogue is what’s truly making the youth agents of change.

“We have to revive and redefine patriotism to get actual output from it,” Abbas explains. “We keep debating on what the system should be, but trust me, it’s the people running it who’re wrong. No angels will descend from heavens to take Pakistan out of this chaos in which we are presently.”