Social media war
A COUPLE of months ago I wrote on these pages vis-à-vis the need to think critically about new information technologies and how they will shape life on the planet in the long-run. As Keynes famously said, in the long-run we are all dead. Besides, contemporary developments are already confirming that all is not well in the virtual world.
My focus in this essay is on what has come to be called ‘social media’, which, while not unrelated to corporate and state media publications and channels, is generally perceived to be relatively free in terms of space for dissenting views. Like other societies, Pakistan has over the past few years witnessed explosive growth in the use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter. One might expect, then, that the space for dissent in our land of the pure is increasing.
In fact, the majority of ideas that circulate on social media are a mirror of what goes on in society at large. So for every one person who openly demands accountability of state institutions for the murder of Sabeen Mahmud or the massacre of Ismailis in Karachi, there are 10 or more that celebrate the murders of ‘enemies of the state’ or peddle the narrative that such violence is fomented by foreign conspirators trying to undermine Pakistan.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of social media pages which are clearing houses of hate speech targeting individuals and collectivities propagating progressive views. Direct threats of violence are standard fare. In some cases those running these pages openly claim to be representing the state, justifying their hate speech in the name of defending Pakistan against saboteurs.
Now this goes way beyond someone like Malik Riaz using the name ‘Bahria’ independently of the navy’s wishes (which, by the way, is an alibi that I have a hard time digesting). To the extent that there are social media sites that clearly use the name of state agencies and these sites incite violence against individuals or groups purportedly acting in the interests of the ‘foreign hand’, should such sites not be subject to scrutiny? And if such sites are indeed appropriating the name of the state unlawfully, should they not be shut down?
I am the last person who would argue in favour of censorship of any kind — my point is to call attention to the clearly duplicitous attitude of the state’s surveillance apparatus which otherwise wastes no time whatsoever in shutting down social media sites and censuring related activities that are considered ‘immoral’ or ‘unpatriotic’. Should we assume, then, that the plethora of sites parading as defenders of the ‘greater national interest’ whilst actually peddling hate are indeed paragons of morality and patriotism?
There is nothing new about hawkish rhetoric or incitement to violence in this country. Establishment ideologues have been at it since the very inception of the state – insiders such as the DG ISPR during the Ayub Khan era, A.R. Siddiqi, have written openly about the sophisticated methods employed by the security apparatus to sustain the so-called ‘ideology of Pakistan’ as well as the holier-than-thou image of the men in khaki.
What is new is the use of social media to reinforce ideological hegemony, and to criminalise those who dissent against the hegemonic order.
I am not suggesting that social media pages engaging in hate speech and liberally praising certain security agencies are simply fronts of the establishment. In fact, I want to emphasise precisely that there are hundreds of thousands of ordinary Pakistanis, mostly young, that have imbibed the siege mentality propagated by state ideologues and it is these social media users that are drowning out the Tweets and posts of dissidents.
Yes the social media does provide space to those whose hearts and minds have not been won over by the incessant rhetoric. But my point is only that this space is limited, and that the social media should not be considered a panacea to Pakistan’s reactionary slide.
Certainly, the battle of ideas can be fought on social media just as it is fought in newspapers, in educational institutions, in workplaces and in homes all over the country. Progressives lag behind in almost every such sphere of Gramscian civil society, so if some ground can be made up on social media then the medium should not be ceded to right-wing forces.
But the battle of ideas cannot be won if progressives do not engage with the running battles of the poor and dispossessed in our society. It is by resisting the structural violence of thanas, katcheries and patwaris; state-sponsored violence against ethnic-nations and religious minorities; patriarchal norms and practices; multinational capital and imperialist powers that progressives can turn the tide. All media will then sit up and take note.