Could Pakistan’s social media become a bastion of extremism?
In recent days, New Delhi has accused social media in Pakistan of fomenting religious violence in India.
India has provided no proof to substantiate this claim, but the accusation is a reminder of an often-overlooked reality: In Pakistan, the medium has a menacing side and often displays extremist sentiment.
Most discussions about the social media sphere in Pakistan describe it as a last redoubt of liberalism. With liberal space rapidly shrinking in Pakistani society, the narrative goes, the country’s outspoken supporters of tolerance and diversity are flocking to Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and other forms of social media to voice opinions no longer safe to espouse offline.
There is undoubtedly some truth to this view. Some of the most visible personalities on social media are Pakistan’s liberal journalists (many of them writers and editors affiliated with English-language newspapers), human rights advocates, and NGO leaders. They denounce sectarian violence, circulate petitions calling for less media censorship, and spotlight stories about state repression and moral policing long before they receive coverage from Pakistan’s traditional media.
However, as I emphasise in a new study on Pakistan’s social media (published by the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Center, or NOREF), this is not the full story. Pakistan’s social media world is populated by many decidedly non-liberal actors. The Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) are active on Twitter, and numerous other militant outfits have Facebook accounts. Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a global Islamist group pledging non-violence yet calling for the conquest of India and destruction of Israel, is banned in Pakistan but compensates for its lack of public demonstrations by spreading its ideology via mobile phone, Facebook, and Twitter.
An eye-opening study by journalist Wajahat S. Khan reveals how extremist social media users in Pakistan generate counter-narratives to compete with the messages promoted by their liberal counterparts. Khan analyses new media responses to the assassination of Salman Taseer, and makes some unsettling discoveries: New Facebook pages in honor of Taseer’s killer, Mumtaz Qadri, appeared simultaneously with those formed to commemorate Taseer; Facebook users urged each other to use Qadri’s face as their profile photos; and Millat Facebook (an Islamist version of Facebook) became a prominent venue for pro-Qadri commentary.
Social media resources in Pakistan, therefore, manifest the same extremism that is on display in Pakistani society. Ominously, there are few checks on this sentiment. New media, like the traditional media, are not regulated. No one can prevent the LeJ from tweeting calls for sectarian war, just as (to be fair) no one can stop liberals from denouncing the repugnant tactics of conservative personalities by resorting to these very same tactics (recall how Facebook and Twitter users lambasted Maya Khan for violating privacy rights, only to then post and tweet links to private photographs of Khan).
Does all this suggest social media in Pakistan will become a new stronghold of extremist thought? Not yet, because the medium doesn’t have the reach to become one (this lack of reach also explains why Pakistan’s social media cannot serve as a change agent). Internet use in Pakistan lies somewhere between 20 and 30 million people, of whom only 1 million have access to the broadband technologies that facilitate social media use. Pakistan’s Internet penetration rate — 11 to 17 per cent of the population — lags well behind those of Arab Spring nations like Tunisia (36 per cent) or Egypt (26 per cent). Only 2 million Pakistanis are estimated to be on Twitter, and about 6 million on Facebook.
However, social media penetration is growing. Pakistan has gained many new Internet users in recent years (mobile Internet use rose by a whopping 161 per cent in 2010), and Facebook accounts increased by a million between August 2011 and January 2012. According to Internet traffic monitoring data, Facebook is now Pakistan’s most popular website.
Some may argue that social media tools serve as a moderating influence, because they compel extremists to share space with their ideological opposites. On Twitter, for example, ultra-conservatives regularly engage with super-liberals. These interactions rarely happen offline in Pakistan, where hard-liners and liberals never share the same room, much less a conversation.
Unfortunately, social media can’t tame the most extreme of the extreme. Think of the LeJ, which peddles sectarian hatred by fully exploiting the power of social media — and most recently by disseminating, on radical online forums, an appalling video depicting the group’s beheading of two abducted Pakistani Shias.
Thankfully, there’s a silver lining here: Social media can also serve as a tool against future radicalisation. Millions of Pakistanis harbor grievances, few have outlets to voice them, and such bottled-up sentiment often explodes into militancy.
Fortuitously, social media can provide this missing outlet, and peacefully relay grievances to the many political leaders and parliamentarians engaging the medium.
That’s certainly a better alternative than seeking the Pakistani government’s attention through self-immolations or suicide bombings.
The author is the program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. You can reach him at email@example.com
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.