February Issue 2015
The New Voice of the Nation
Early in 2014, representatives from various political parties complained on a national talk show about hate speech targeting them on social media. So-and-so was called such-and-such, they all seemed to say, with the name of the politician and the slur changing, but the ‘venue’ remaining the same: social media.
What the talk show host tried to explain to these chagrined politicians was that social media isn’t a homogenous or authoritative entity. Name-calling aside, if certain politicians were getting attacked on social media, it was because segments of the public were dissatisfied with those politicians’ respective parties. The host also tried to explain that if someone, showing his support for a particular party in his or her Twitter handle spreads hate speech, it does not mean that their views are endorsed by that very party. But as is prone to happen on Pakistani talk shows, his words seemed to fall on deaf ears.
Although the guests at this talk show may have had a somewhat clumsy understanding of social media, one thing was clear: that social media mattered very much to them.
I recently spoke to Jahanzaib Haque, my former boss who is currently the editor of Dawn.com, and he noted the newfound importance given to social media in 2014, but with one caveat: “I was surprised by how quick traditional media (TV/print) has been in recognising the importance of Twitter for news, while completely ignoring Facebook, which is actually a mammoth with 20 times the local users. But at least we have taken one step in the right direction.”
It’s true. Pakistanis are on social media. They talk about social media. They complain about social media. But in terms of reflecting on trends and usage, identifying patterns and demographics, very little work has been done.
Not always, but often enough, people see what they want to see on Facebook and Twitter. “Social media is yet another mirror for society, and given that our society is very polarised, the same appears in online discourse. Twitter is for the elite, Facebook for the masses, and both have been built to ensure users do not have to encounter material they do not like or which challenges them. The few places where ‘discourse’ does take place is between political party supporters or between secular and sectarian, and even here most of the discourse is counterproductive and enforces old views,” Haque said.
Bearing this in mind, the turning points in Pakistan’s social media landscape in 2014 need to be taken with a grain of salt. The effects of these developments may be limited to one circle of discourse and there are probably many other turning points that may be ignored since they are more on the fringe.
In 2010, Facebook was briefly banned in Pakistan. In 2011, an IT consultant in Abbottabad unwittingly live-tweeted the raid on Osama bin Laden. In 2012, #IamMalala took over Twitter, locally and internationally. And in 2013, Pakistanis proudly posted photographs of their inked thumbs after casting their votes (and in some cases, photographs of the crowds waiting to vote all day since the ballot boxes and papers were missing in their station).
So what happened in 2014?
A lot. Bilawal Bhutto, the young chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) went trigger-happy on Twitter and made so many remarks about rival parties (not to mention one controversial tweet about taking back Kashmir from India) that his party advised him to dial it back a notch or two. Videos of a PPP senator being offloaded from a plane by angry passengers for delaying the flight went viral. Karachi University graduate Imaan Sheikh made waves all over the subcontinent with her hilarious meme-driven reviews of Bollywood flicks and she now enjoys a distinction that even many of our local politicians don’t: her very own verified blue check on Twitter. During the deadly attack on Jinnah International Airport, an unofficial account for the airport, @AirportPakistan, live tweeted updates that were picked up by news websites. And towards the end of the year, Imran Khan found himself in the limelight not for his anti-government protests but because rumours of his marriage, and videos and photographs of his purported bride, Reham Khan, were circulated all over Facebook and Twitter. Khan went on to tie the knot with the former BBC journalist in a small ceremony and while that may have broken the hearts of many of his followers, it didn’t exactly break the Internet.
So what really stood out in 2014? Social media, as Haque mentioned earlier, is a mirror for society and the one thing that really shook the country this year was the attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar on December 16, in which more than 130 people were killed. Images and stories from the attack were widely circulated on Twitter. Facebook profile photos went black in protest and the phrase ‘The smallest coffins are the heaviest’ popped up everywhere online. As with most tragedies, the outrage could have been limited to that, to hashtag activism. But it wasn’t.
Gibran Ashraf, a senior sub-editor at The Express Tribune’s Web Desk, explained, “[The] subsequent channelling of anger into protests against Maulana Abdul Aziz of Lal Masjid and using social media — facilitated by mainstream media after the Taliban threat — saw the rise of civil activism driven by social media.”
What Ashraf is referring to is how Pakistanis — and one Pakistani in particular — did not just express their anger on Twitter or Facebook but took it to the streets. Mohammed Jibran Nasir, a lawyer by profession, first made his name in 2013 when he contested the elections as an independent candidate. He may have lost the seat, but he persisted and became involved in many projects, including everything from a campaign about censorship, cheekily titled #KholoBC, to a food relief camp for IDPs.
On Twitter and Facebook, Nasir popularised the hashtags #NeverForget and #ReclaimYourMosques and posted quotes by Lal Masjid cleric Abdul Aziz condoning attacks by the Taliban. But he didn’t limit himself to just that. Joined by dozens of fellow protestors, he took to the streets and did something nobody would have thought possible. He got an arrest warrant from the police against Abdul Aziz. Knowing the country, knowing the way law and order works here, there is little hope of Aziz being taken to task. But knowing that there are people willing to put their neck on the line (Nasir received threats from the Taliban for his protest only to have more people come to his support) gives not just hope, but courage to others in the country.
Protests continue to this day, and change, surely, will be slow. But what can we expect from 2015? Gibran Ashraf said, “2015 has started with a mixed bag for social media. On one hand, it faces more curbs as the government haphazardly tries to clamp down on hate speech online, which was included in the prime minister’s 20-point National Action Plan. On the other hand, social media is increasingly becoming the place where news ‘breaks’ — if not for journalists, then at least for the public.”
Haque is pessimistic in his outlook and predicts that freedom of speech will be curbed even more in 2015 and that the misuse of social media to target women and minority groups will increase.
But even though the year has begun on a bleak note, with the nation in mourning, there are perhaps some things to look forward to. Even if there is a crackdown on social media, people will find a way to continue to express their views and share information, just as they have continued to find ways to access YouTube which remains banned in the country. People will continue to make light of government mismanagement just as they are now, with the wide-scale petrol crisis and electricity outages. And the next time the militants strike against the country, its citizens will be even more vociferous in their condemnation.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s February 2015 issue.
Zehra Nabi is a graduate student in The Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University. She previously worked at Newsline and The Express Tribune.