IN the 1970s, Deng Xiaoping opened China to the world, ending decades of isolation. As inevitable foreign influences flowed in, Deng famously responded to criticism by saying, “If you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in”.
He may as well have been talking about social media because years later, China, along with a host of other states, has decided that it has had enough of the flies, fresh air be damned.
The Chinese approached this in typical megaproject style, instituting ‘The Great Firewall of China’, a massive combination of legislative and technological actions to regulate the internet. In effect, China didn’t like the actual internet and decided to create its own. While this regularly and rightly draws the ire of rights campaigners, it’s a model that is looked at with envy by other states who can only dream of the resources required to put such a project into effect.
In its 2016 report, Freedom House states that internet freedoms have been steeply declining across the world over the last six years, a trend that is expected to continue. Currently, some 27 per cent of all internet users live in countries where people have been arrested for publishing, sharing, or merely liking content on Facebook. In 2016 alone, authorities in 38 countries made arrests based on social media posts.
States have also gone beyond blocking sites to blocking messaging services like WhatsApp and Telegram, and have extended their reach to target sites that people can use to initiate and sign digital petitions or call for protests. Power to the people may be a useful slogan, but it’s not something many states actually want, as the side effects of such empowerment can be rather unpredictable. Also, bashing social media is fun to do and a convenient distraction from the real problems that plague the land.
It’s a favourite pastime of Turkish President Erdogan, who has labelled Twitter a scourge, blasted Facebook for being immoral and denounced YouTube as a devouring force, leading one to believe that Erdogan really doesn’t like trolls, emotional status updates and funny cat videos.
Crackdowns on social media are typically justified as being in the defence of the universally sacred unicorns known as national security, values and (in our case) ideological frontiers.
But the beauty of ideological frontiers is that they are, by definition, invisible and can be drawn and redrawn at the whim of whoever happens to hold the ideological pencil in his hands at the time. The result is that rather innocuous activity can and has led to the prosecution and incarceration of netizens across the world. Take Turkish physician and civil servant Bilgin Çiftçi, who was put on trial for posting memes comparing Mr Erdogan with Gollum from the Lord of the Rings. So surreal was this trial that Peter Jackson, the director of Lord of the Rings, offered a defence for Çiftçi, saying the pictures were of Sméagol, who is a sweet character, and not his evil alter-ego Gollum.
Seeking expert advice, the court appointed two academics, two psychologists and an expert on cinema and television productions to assess the true nature of this fictional character. Çiftçi was eventually given a suspended sentence of one year, in what was undeniably Middle Earth’s trial of the century.
He was lucky when compared to Amr Nohan, an Egyptian student who got sentenced to three years when he threatened national security by photoshopping Mickey Mouse ears on a picture of Egyptian president Sisi. Similarly, a Thai man was arrested for ‘liking’ a morphed photo of the Thai king.
Right next door in India, the admin of a WhatsApp group was jailed for sharing an ugly and obscene morphed picture of Prime Minister Modi.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Pakistan (always a latecomer) has joined in the grand crusade to muzzle social media, with none other than Chaudhry Nisar leading the charge. The spin is familiar, with the usual straw men being used to justify what is in fact an ill-concealed and ill-conceived attack on free speech and expression.
One wishes the powers that be would realise that muzzling voices does not translate into changing minds, or that social media has the inherent value of acting as a societal safety valve in a country where other avenues of expression are limited.
Instead, our state seems to be annoyed by the chirping of this canary in the coal mine and would prefer to not be warned when the level of toxicity is approaching fatal levels. Perhaps it would be instructive for our government to note that when the Turkish coup plotters took control of state media, it was social media that came to Erdogan’s rescue, but why would they remember this, when the once-embattled Turkish president himself has forgotten?