By Umer Farooq
There is a perennial fear among Pakistan’s decision making circles that social media activism could possibly trigger widespread protest movements based on trivial matters. This fear is based on the images and impressions following the events of the Arab spring, which, as the popular narrative indicates, were triggered by self-immolation of a street vendor in Tunisia over a brawl with a policewoman. In the subsequent events social media activists made best use of the social media tools to mobilize Arab opinion. Interestingly, the Western NGOs, which played a crucial role in training these Arab social media activists, were funded by some of the western governments including US State Department.
This fear also has some local basis: For instance all the trouble makers in Pakistani political scene are making use of the social media tools to the fullest. Tehrik-e-Laibak Pakistan (TLP), only a month ago, tried to use the social media to mobilize Pakistan’s public opinion, when the Supreme Court exonerated Aasia Bibi in blasphemy case. Pakistan’s conventional media, including Television and Newspapers, almost completely blacked out the protest that was launched by TLP in several Pakistani cities after the Supreme Court’s verdict. There was a fear that a blow by blow account of the TLP protests would result in a snowball effect on the streets and therefore media, by whatever means, was asked not to report the protest.
But the TLP was hardly deterred. The video in which one of the TLP leaders was giving a ‘Fatwa’ of killing Supreme Court judges and appealing to the army to overthrow its leadership, went viral on the social media within a short span of time. The Pakistani state was facing a ‘riots like’ situation in several cities, where TLP workers and some onlookers went out of control after watching videos, statements and speeches of the TLP leaders on the social media. The Pakistani state tried for some time to control the social media by blocking the Internet facility in some areas. But the task proved to be almost impossible to implement due to the widespread diffusion of technology in Pakistan.
The TLP protest could hardly be described as popular upheaval. But it was an example of successful use of social media tools to mobilize a lunatic fringe of the society, which had the potential to disrupt civic life in the country. The message, however, could have larger social appeal among the masses if the images and impressions generated by TLP protests are allowed to persist in the social media sphere. Diffusion technology in this situation poses a big problem for the society. Almost everyone in the urban areas (where the fear of eruption of protest is most perennial) has a smartphone and laptop availability is also increasing.
A year ago, I remember having a conversation with a social media expert, Usma Khilji, over the issue of fear among Pakistani decision makers that social media could potentially prove to be a source of social or political upheaval in the Pakistani society. He brushed aside such fears at that time. He told me that the state could regulate the social media sphere through laws and regulations but under no circumstances, the state should try to control this sphere, “This brings openness in the society and this is a sign of democratic society” he told me.
In the West— where social media technology originated and from where it got diffused in developing societies like Pakistan—debate over the dangers and usefulness of this technology is taking place both in the media and intellectual circles. The Arab Spring is often cited in the West as case in point, which proved usefulness of the social media. For instance, Liberal circles in the West point out that social media use led to the dismantling of authoritarian regimes in the Arab World, making technology useful. But later, when the Trump campaign managers and other populist leaders in the Western countries started making use of social media to defeat their ‘liberal’ rivals. However, when these leaders took the western societies in the direction of authoritarian political tendencies, the same social media came under scathing criticism.
This dilemma begs the question; is there a way through which we, in Pakistan, could allow the use of social media tools for democratic causes, while disallowing its use by those who have authoritarian tendencies?
There is no simple answer to this complicated question. However one thing is clear; we need to regulate the social media sphere and disallow its use for spreading hate or violence in the society.
Disclaimer: Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily endorsed or supported by the Center for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad.