Here we go again…. with a rolling of the eyes and a loud sigh, the internet rights activists brace themselves to react to the reverberations around the intent to ban social media in Pakistan.
Nothing in the recent pronouncement of some members of the judiciary, and the holier and more patriotic-than-thou brigade is different from what we heard during the YouTube ban days (in 2012). The complaint is the same, the ire is the same, and so is the counter argument!
What has, however, changed between then and now is that now we have a cyber crime law (Prevention of Electronic Crimes Ac 2016) bulldozed on us, despite serious reservations by rights-based groups on the pretext that it would ‘fix’ such problems.
But how does one fix a loudspeaker if it is used by someone to spew hate? Or amplify content that hurts the sentiments of others? Taking it away will not change that person’s ability to do so, nor bring about a change of heart. Only punishment will make that happen.
Social media is nothing but a platform that amplifies opinions. In itself, it does not take sides, and is not supposed to. And that is where the argument spins out of control. The providers of these social media platforms have community standards and processes to deal with content that is considered offensive. While devising them, the tolerance limits are benchmarked at the higher level of societies that allow freedom of speech, even to the point of freedom to offend.
When people, with scant understanding of how the medium works display this lack of understanding by calling for the banning of the platform – this complicates matters.
This kind of freedom is difficult to get one’s head around for those of us living in societies accustomed to restraint, bordering on repression as far as articulation of thoughts and ideas is concerned. This then leaves space only for the dominant narrative. To those who decry the bypassing of cultural sensitivities, the counter argument is that there is a process to take down offensive material.
As in the case of the YouTube ban however, the reaction to the video was offline... on the streets and in the courts. This is the crux of the problem. When people, with scant understanding of how the medium works display this lack of understanding by calling for the banning of the platform – this complicates matters.
For a country that has always, even before the cyber crime law, had the power to view user data in Pakistan through pliant ISPs, there is never a need to ban the platform. They can always get to the ‘culprits’, but that does not make for much grandstanding does it? So we go to the court and demand a takedown of the entire system!
The examples of such morally upright and ‘bastions of freedom’ countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, North Korea and China are cited to show how they protect their citizenry from the onslaught of evil through social media. We do, after all, draw our spiritual and economic inspiration from at least three of them, so why not follow in their footsteps?
However, to cut the comedy here, this is serious stuff. Blasphemy is serious enough to warrant a more careful approach as a mere whiff of suspicion can play with lives. The cavalier, rather callous manner in which the issue of the supposedly blasphemous bloggers was handled shows that handing the power people who do not understand the medium is playing with fire.
As far as the narrative of ‘anti-State’ content is concerned, this lies totally exposed in a manner that any such discussion is not even laughable! Everyone knows that it is another name for curbing political dissent and criticism of the powers-that-be. If curbing anti-state content was the objective then the social media accounts of militants recruiting people for terrorist activities would have been shut down.
No, the axe hangs over a platform that has made a space for itself between the ‘seth’ media and state media. A platform where alternate discourses are carried out. But this is not all. It is about the growing number of users (thanks to 4G technology) that further add value to the cell phone footprint in Pakistan, and also about the growing number of ways social media is used.
People are not just ranting over it. They are making money. Big money. And the numbers keep growing daily. It is not just about stay-at-home ladies making cupcakes or camisoles to sell on Facebook…. which in itself is a huge argument in favour of the social media platform as it triggers women’s economic empowerment.
The people dismissive of the way Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and increasingly, Snapchat are used, need to look at the spin-off benefits. All progressive businesses have their social media arms. Companies or people using these platforms are rapidly adding zeros to their balance sheet. The size of the industry is nothing to be dismissive about.
As for banning of the social media sites, one wishes the people demanding it, and those paying heed, learn how this medium is different. It is known as an intentional medium; nothing jumps out at you – you have to go searching for the content you want to see.
My question is: Why are you looking for offensive content by especially searching for it? If the posting and searching of pornography is a crime, wouldn’t it be the same for posting AND searching for it? And here we have the Government putting out ads in newspapers encouraging people to go looking for offensive content. Where is the sense in that?
If someone is posting blasphemous content from Pakistan, the state has the means to track them down. For the rest, don’t look for it and you won’t get offended!