Social media: More of the same
In recent years social media has become the main medium for sharing opinions and information. One of its functions has become to gauge the majority opinion in a society when peaceniks and liberals were hoping that it would become a new frontier for peace and cultural exchange.
Social networking has a role in perpetuating stereotypical views of Indian’s in Pakistan and vice versa. Being ‘not-Indian’ has been an important part of the construction of the Pakistani identity. National ideology and traditional media aid these views. As much as we would like to believe that social media and communication could transcend issues of race, religion, and culture, as its usage becomes pervasive, it reinforces dominant views and stereotypes.
Facebook is the primary medium where news reports are shared in today’s world. But an interesting development is that a lot of the big Pakistani English papers and blogs have a significant Indian audience while the reverse is not true. Not many in Pakistan read and comment on Indian websites. The websites of these newspapers often have Indians posting comments on articles that have to do with security and trade with India. More often than not, these comments turn into arguments that are sometimes extremely derogatory. Social media users make sure that the exchange is not a debate but a shouting match. The option of anonymity makes sure users can say the worst without consequence.
According to the PEW Global Attitudes study of 2016, Indian sentiments towards Pakistanis have worsened since PM Narendra Modi won the elections in 2014. PEW reports that 73 percent of respondents appear to have “uniformly negative” view of Pakistan, and around 55pc of Indians polled go a step further with a ‘very unfavourable’ opinion towards Pakistan. Negative Indian sentiment towards Pakistan has risen 9 points since 2015. In a similar survey from 2011, only 14% of Pakistanis saw India in a positive light. This is to the extent that a majority of Pakistanis consider India a more serious threat to their country than al Qaeda or the Taliban when there have been more Taliban attacks in Pakistan in the last five years than any armed conflict with India. It is no wonder that social media is a narrow echo chamber of dominant sentiments.
It has been argued in academia that “counter-publics” on the Internet can be a possible way forward for freedom of speech and tolerance. The Internet offers this space for marginalised groups to form their own public spheres, yet this is not without risk as even social media tools form part of the strategy of national elites to hijack and control narratives. There is no real reason to believe that social media can engender narratives that are any more sustainable in traditional media. For every marginalised person enabled by YouTube to get their voice out there, whether it is a woman seeking celebrity on her own terms, or an activist dissenting against the state- there is a traditional army of trolls, censors, hate mongers, experts and conservatives happy to cut them down to size. It is not safe and it is not sustainable (unless it achieves memes status, like Qandeel Baloch’s catchphrase “How em looking?” and even she was in the end murdered).
The case of the mutual hatred between India and Pakistan will never be resolved without traditional structures taking the lead. These include sociological building blocks of education, including religious education, and the formal structure of the state- especially how legislatures deal with issues of foreign policy.
Yes, the media has a key role in the India-Pakistan peace process, especially as there is no real open battlefront. A soft strategy to improve relations can work. Social media can function as a classroom to promote understanding. There are Facebook pages that try to do this. One of them is titled, “Romancing the border”, to promote cultural sensitivity and acceptance of the ‘other’, redefining the other as being similar to the ‘self’.
Yet one must remember that in the international arena, national security comes first and mutual benefit comes second. Peace, perceptions and the end of hate are not priorities when one country has a resource crisis and the other a security dilemma. South Asian journalists tend to remain entrapped in jingoistic nationalism and the role of the media has only been limited to institutionalised exchanges and conferences. Though traditional and new media can help to create positive images of the other country and counter the traditional views of the ‘enemy’, it cannot just wish political peace into being.
Those in governmental power and position, far removed from the citizen’s political life, carry out diplomacy. Either a political peace is hammered together by the top politicians of the government, or general perceptions change enough among the populations of India and Pakistan such that they pressurise the government through a democratic process to negotiate peace. Neither the population, the media, nor government in either country has gone far enough in its efforts to catalyse such a change, nor do they want to.
We live in a new world where information is faster and cheaper to get, where opinions can be broadcast globally in a 140-character structure. But who produces this information, how it takes a certain nature is still very much based in the non-digital world, and we know that this “real” world comes up with very limited options and viewpoints on the “other”.