Illustration by William Banzai
It’s lamentable that our people are not unaccustomed to things magically disappearing, and a few missing leftist pages on Facebook naturally sink to the bottom of our priority list. But that doesn’t mean we are unfazed by the latest trend of snapping one’s fingers and making all that which doesn't agree with the status quo, vanish into thin air.
Pakistan’s political arena is majorly a battlefield, stretching exclusively from the far-right to the center. Leftists, liberals and seculars dare each other to touch the boundaries – like children challenging one another to enter a ‘haunted’ house – and perform a victory dance when they return 'unshot'.
They have taken some solace in existing, if not openly in the real world, then on the internet; using the social media to keep their side of the discussion alive. Quite bafflingly, even that appears to be ruffling far too many feathers.
Also read: The Facebook faithful
The last couple of days have been a tumultuous period for the embattled liberals on social media, as they discovered that many of the secular, left-leaning pages on Facebook had been allegedly removed. It’s particularly ironic that some of these pages, ardently protesting to bring back the missing Balochs, have themselves gone missing. Whoever’s responsible for their disappearance, could not have sung these pages a more fitting swansong; one that allows their owners and their legions of followers to turn to Pakistan and say,
See what we’re talking about?
I do not use the word ‘legions’ casually. ‘Laal’, one of the missing pages, had over 400,000 followers, supposedly making it the largest leftist Facebook page in South Asia. Others too enjoyed sizeable audiences.
So where did they all disappear?
Facebook has a contentious history of blocking profiles and pages that needn’t be, while allowing some obviously offensive pages to remain operational (especially, if they post in languages other than English). A good example of the latter, is the outrageous amount of time, and a vehement campaign by concerned Pakistan Facebook users, it took for the social media giant to take down a page posting compromising pictures of young boys with unconscionable captions.
Facebook admits that the decisions are not always made in accordance with its own judgments. It periodically receives demands from the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and the Ministry of Information Technology to block access to pages with blasphemous content or “criticism of the state”; demands that Facebook occasionally honors.
The owners and followers blame PTA for the assault on their freedom of expression; some claiming that the organisation has itself confirmed that it did so. The move does fit well into this body’s usual work pattern. The very mention of PTA, to the social media cognoscenti, invokes the image of an internet monarch with a bear pelt around his shoulders, banning whatever he subjectively deems harmful or offensive.
Did they expect us to not notice, or request a formal explanation?
Do the hundreds of thousands of followers of these pages spontaneously combust?
Or do they come around even more determined and sagacious, to form new groups and pages?
It’s time Facebook overcomes its identity crisis, and clearly defines what it stands for. It isn’t becoming of an entity that spearheaded the social media revolution to be silencing the expressions of private citizens for being indigestible for their authorities.
Does Facebook, then, exist merely to serve the whims of governments around the world? Is it just as enslaved to the Big Brother as most of our countrymen today or could it be the impartial voice-for-everyone platform we so desperately need in these times of repression?
As for the PTA, it must realise that its regulatory powers have to have some restrictions when dealing with people’s speech on the internet. Or at least, it should mirror the same determination in managing the constellation of pages supporting extremist elements and spewing vitriol against Pakistani minorities.
List of Facebook pages allegedly blocked: