Social media’s efficacy
Pakistan’s social media scene has become vibrant enough to influence the conventional media in various ways. Every other Pakistani internet user is a social media user. Latest figures from Socialbakers, a leading social media and digital analytics firm, place the number of Pakistani Facebook users at 7.8 million. Independent estimates suggest roughly three million Pakistanis are on the micro-blogging website Twitter.
Twitter, by design, is relatively more inclusive than Facebook. This social media aspect is captured by one of the most popular tweets, such as “Facebook is where you lie to your friends. Twitter is where you e honest with strangers.” It has been observed that sometimes, the 140 characters of a single tweet can be more powerful than long essays of many thousand words.
Twitter happens to be the place where much of the open debate is actively taking place. Even in Pakistan, an ecosystem has cropped up wherein a good number of opinion makers – including celebrities, politicians, religious leaders, social scientists, literary critics, journalists, columnists, analysts and rights activists – remain engaged among themselves as well as with the not-so-larger-than-life users.
The reach and power of social media is impressive. But certain questions are being raised. For instance, what is the effectiveness of social media sites in creating or shaping debates on issues of social and economic imports in Pakistan? How reflective is social media of the broad range of opinions prevalent in the society? Can social media be relied upon as a complementary tool to educate and inform the public?
It appears that answers may take their time to make it, but some patterns are emerging.
Alas, the apparent predilection for political correctness has led to growing convergence of opinions among even the so-called intelligentsia here on Twitter. Without differing perspectives and counter narratives – and without referring to or checking the facts – no meaningful debate can be had.
What is now indisputably known is that almost all political parties have deployed social media wings to fight it out on the digital battleground. Twitter affords an enormous amount of anonymity, and thousands of fake user accounts thus created have been seen actively participating in political point-scoring through generating catchy but often derisive Twitter trends and mocking rival party leaders.
Cyber political activism has also fueled the roll phenomenon. Trolls abuse social media by resorting to affronts rather than reason in their discourse. Such irresponsibly dangerous behavior essentially pushes serious and informed users away from social media engagement.
Informed observers fear that agenda-driven funding has now penetrated into the social media, too. They refer to the gradual build-up of divisiveness in public opinion in the aftermath of the recent shooting attack on Malala Yousufzai in Swat as a recent example of this. They are concerned that a lot of money from radical groups has been finding its way into the social media, and is going unaccounted for.
The issue of instant dispersion of misleading and unfounded information has also made many skeptical of the efficacy of social media in Pakistan. At best, the rumors spread on social media can graduate to short-lived facts, but such propaganda is always agonizing for those on the receiving end.
These issues are not specific to Pakistan only. But if these patterns hold, then the civil society in Pakistan as a whole is going to suffer. The responsibility lies primarily on activists and general users to habituate social media in a way that is a force of good for themselves and others.