Despite the threats and risks, the Internet has provided a useful platform for people-to-people contacts. It has also facilitated issue-based engagement among South Asians and is likely to generate a more realistic understanding of the bitter rivals that are India and Pakistan
The creeping foray of social media into the Pakistani society is a tale, which cannot be ignored. In a country marked by political repression and constraints on free speech, the arrival of social media is a fundamental shift that will gradually unfold in the years to come. At present, it is too early to make any definitive judgment; however, this may be a part of the transformational moment in Pakistan.
Deregulation of electronic media took place nearly a decade ago in Pakistan and is altering the power-sharing arrangements among the elites. The media barons are now influential power-brokers, with unprecedented leverage available to unelected institutions (second only to the military). This is why important sections of electronic media are becoming avid power-players, manipulating information and opinion in line with the imperatives of the deep state in Pakistan. The rise of corporate media follows the Indian experience; except that space for alternative narratives and dissent is extremely limited in Pakistan. The mullah-state nexus has a new partner now.
Given this situation, a new niche has emerged where the possibility of articulating positions and sharing ‘censored’ information is easier. Pakistani mainstream media has shied away from certain taboo subjects: the insurgency in Balochistan, the systematic killings of Shi’as, sectarian warfare, the plight of FATA residents and the travails of citizens in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Reporting on these subjects is partly difficult due to physical inaccessibility and security threats faced by journalists, which in turn allows room for conspiracy theories and constructed narratives.
Social media is relatively free of such constraints and has successfully raised the subjects invisible within the folds of mainstream print and electronic media. Social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter have millions of users from Pakistan. A few reports have indicated that Facebook has crossed the mark of 4 million Pakistani users, many of whom are also active members of Twitter. The total Internet users in Pakistan are estimated at 20 million; the upgradation of cellular technology to 3G-bandwidth will substantially increase this number in the years to come.
The downside of these phenomena is a robust presence of online extremists. In line with their overall modern tactics, the Islamist groups (including the apparently non-violent movements like Hizbut Tahrir) and their followers are extraordinarily active on Twitter and Facebook. It was only in January when this shocking reality became clear; immediately after the murder of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, dozens of Facebook pages were created to express sympathy for the murderer, Mumtaz Qadri, who had ‘punished a blasphemer’. Given that Qadri was a Barelvi, the conventional notion of Barelvis being non-violent and inclusive was brutally shattered. This was a clever strategy employed by the handlers of Mumtaz Qadri, who have influenced media debates ever since. In fact, such is their power over popular discourse that Qadri’s act is now commonly believed to be an individual act of lunacy. If anything, Qadri is the poster-boy of Zia ul Haq’s Pakistan.
Yet there was a strong expression of grief and shock over Taseer’s murder from moderate Pakistanis who ordinarily do not fit the description of ‘liberals’. Pakistani liberals accused of indolence and infighting made their presence felt in both mainstream and social media. The Internet provided a relatively secure space for an otherwise threatened species.
The influence of the Pakistani education system, especially its attempts at indoctrination of young minds with false histories and hateful propaganda, pervades the social media as well. More dangerously, it also reconfirms some of the recent surveys on youth attitudes. For example, the British Council survey of 2010 concluded that over 2/3rds of young Pakistanis had little or no faith in democracy. The demonization of politicians by military regimes, school curricula and the mosque-madrassa axis has led to the formation of a young mindset which is not even aware of the importance of democratic freedoms. The reinforcement of stereotypes and false beliefs through internet circulation is a risk that looms large over the future course of social media.
In spite of the limited outreach of social media, the state has not been all that tolerant. There have been several attempts to ban websites and blogs in the recent years. The websites on Balochistan are not always accessible and the latest announcement to curb ‘privacy’ on the Internet – ostensibly to tackle terrorism – are overt threats to the future of Internet freedom. But the power of social media across the globe is such that muzzling of freedoms is another extremely difficult task for governments to implement and sustain. The contest, therefore, is interesting and will be a significant development, given our history.
Despite the threats and risks, the Internet has provided a useful platform for people-to-people contacts. It has also facilitated issue-based engagement among South Asians and is likely to generate a more realistic understanding of the bitter rivals that are India and Pakistan. The good thing is that social media is also helping to build bridges between people in our region and the South Asian diaspora around the globe.
It is also pertinent to mention that the social networking sites provide avenues for expression among the Pakistani youth. Any future policy framework for youth development will have to take stock of social media and its profound impact on the lives of young Pakistanis across ethnic and class divides. With a growing population that uses mobile telephones (currently close to 110 million of which 65% might be active users), opportunities for social and political mobilization have opened up. Notwithstanding the ideological fault-lines, socio-political transformation will be abetted by technology. The Arab Spring experience in the Middle East, Anna Hazare’s problematic movement, among others, entailed the strategic use of social media to publicize and organize protests.
Pakistan is also urbanizing at a rapid pace. Some researchers have indicated that Pakistan’s rate of urbanization is the highest in South Asia. Therefore, the country is entering an unchartered territory defined by an overwhelmingly young population living in dysfunctional cities and towns, growing use of cellular technology and the Internet, and ideological battles being fought on the frontiers of identity. The results of this dynamic remain unpredictable as Pakistan displays a most complex mosaic of contradictions and decay-renewal trends. Social media is most likely to be an influential player: a participant as well as an observer of a country fighting with itself, and yet battling for its survival.