Social media — a war of opinions
“There are laws to protect the freedom of the press’s speech, but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press” — Mark Twain.
In the context of today’s online media, the above 18th century author would be bewildered to find out that everyone now holds the power of information by just making an online account on Twitter or any other social media website. Academics, scholars and researchers in the developed world are currently busy researching this new field of accessible online media. Some scholars have raised questions on its credibility and ethical standards whereas some schools of thought have found it a vital catalyst to form public opinion. The International Asian Research Journal’s study has revealed that China stood first among the world’s top 20 tech-savvy countries, India at third and Pakistan at 12th place in 2012. With the changing trends in Pakistan, social media is another popular model in elite and urban areas.
With Pakistan’s reference, the following is missing here on this important media platform: tolerance, respect, educated minds and ethics! While following the conversation on politics and media on Twitter, I found that people do not have any tolerance for each other’s opinions and views. One hardly finds tweets on Pakistani forums talking about societal reforms, health, education, science and technology! What happens if everyone in society becomes a journalist without having the necessary skills and knowledge? Many opinion makers giving their opinions based on limited vision. For instance, on Twitter, follow any political thread or any journalist news story and you will not find any visionary debate but only trashy language used by people to curse each other. Even without reading any relevant articles and reports, ‘Twitteratis’ form an opinion at the drop of a hat.
In a recent article, ‘Why we are so rude online’ published in The Wall Street Journal, the author wanted to know why are we so nasty to each other online. Whether on Facebook, Twitter, message boards or websites, we say things to each other that we would never say face to face. Should we not know better by now? How does one behave in 140 characters? Critics have been debating over how freedom of speech applies to the internet where everyone has a right to express him or herself. I believe that freedom of expression can be done in a more respectful, polite and civilised manner instead of antagonising, provoking and demoralising each other. We cannot provide the context in 140 characters but we can generate a positive debate and argument on social reforms rather than fanning the flames of hatred.
There is as yet little in-depth research into the role of the social media in developing countries, although some researchers have some insights and are able to point ways forward. A study, ‘Social media in Pakistan: catalyst for communication, not change’, has discussed why social media tools in Pakistan cannot presently produce large-scale change. It identifies five ways in which Pakistan’s social media acts as a communication tool: it breaks or gives greater attention to stories ignored by traditional media, it plays a mobilisation role by disseminating information about protests and other social campaigns, it promotes humanitarian efforts by coordinating and advertising initiatives, it serves as advocate for social causes and it stimulates communication between politicians and their constituents.
In the study, many observers lauded Pakistan’s social media for bringing social issues into the limelight. Over a six-month period from late 2010 to early 2011, the number of Facebook users doubled from 1.8 to 3.6 million, while between August 2011 and January 2012, the number of new Facebook accounts increased by a million. Facebook, according to Internet traffic monitoring data, is currently the most popular website in Pakistan. Pakistanis are also increasingly taking to Twitter. The micro-blogging platform was the 10th most visited website in Pakistan in June 2010, compared to 14th the previous year. The study argued that by providing access to information, it empowers the masses and strengthens democracy.
In traditional media models, consumers were powerless entities sans choice, relying on the media to tell them what they should be thinking about in their everyday lives. However, with the popularity of the internet and social media, this power relation does not seem to exist anymore as now people, via the use of social media websites, are equally involved in the social process.
Research suggests that many Pakistanis have joined protests based on information obtained via word of mouth or mainstream media coverage, and not via social media, thereby undermining depictions of new media as a mass mobiliser. In this way, Pakistan’s traditional media outlets co-opt the ability of new media to serve as a force for change. Furthermore, traditional media can exploit social media for its own gain. Pakistan’s major television channels all boast Facebook and Twitter accounts with tens of thousands of likes and hundreds of thousands of followers. However, polling between 2008 and 2011 reports even lower figures, ranging from one percent use in rural areas to seven percent use across the country as a whole. Pakistan’s internet penetration rate exceeds that of its South Asian neighbours, yet lags well behind those of Arab Spring nations such as Tunisia (36 percent) and Egypt (26 percent).
It is little wonder that only about six million Pakistanis are estimated to be on Facebook and only two million on Twitter. Among its South Asian neighbours, Pakistan’s Facebook penetration rate (3.4 percent) is exceeded only by India’s (3.8 percent) and Sri Lanka’s (5.8 percent) yet is significantly lower than that of Tunisia (26 percent) and Egypt (11 percent). Comparative figures for Twitter are difficult to obtain, although they likely mirror those of Facebook. Some argue that the country’s shrinking liberal sphere is retreating to Twitter and Facebook to promote its views, leaving non-liberals and hardliners to shape debate on offline venues such as television news shows and the streets.
I am not myopic toward innovations or social media but, as a critical thinker and voracious observer, I view media platforms as watchdogs — aggressive, persuasive, responsible holding institutions accountable for as well as able to produce serious content. Our government thinks that shutting down television news channels and banning social media networks are the only solution but the long-term solution is to increase the literacy level and educate the masses so that media outlets learn to behave maturely.
Since Pakistan is a relatively less-researched area, academic archives lack sufficient information on the role and emergence of new media in the country. Thus, studying the role of the internet in developing countries like Pakistan would be a step further in evaluating the pace of globalisation on the other side of the world, and whether the new means of information technology have any role in fulfilling the needs of news and information in the democratisation of the developing region.