Hate speech gains acceptance

Updated June 09, 2014

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A SMALL-SCALE survey conducted by the online freedom of expression group Bytes for All of hate speech in social media used and frequented by Pakistanis has produced some disturbing, though not unexpected, results.

Over 91pc of nearly 600 respondents surveyed claimed to have come across hate speech online and a partial analysis of 30 popular Facebook and Twitter pages and accounts has shown how user comments are usually peppered with some form of hate speech. The names of the targeted groups will also cause little surprise: Shias, Ahmadis, Indians/Hindus, atheists/unbelievers, state institutions, women, gender minorities, Jews and local ethnicities.

To be sure, views expressed online do not automatically reflect the views of wider society, especially in a country where roughly 10pc of the population is believed to be online. Yet, with the 3G/4G telecommunications revolution now just a matter of weeks or perhaps months, the number of Pakistanis online will certainly climb dramatically and soon. Hate speech online will be disseminated even further as a result. Also while the anonymity of sitting behind a screen tends to coarsen public comments and discourse in the online world internationally, there is a case to be made that the younger, tech-savvy Pakistanis online are taking their cultural, and hate, cues, from a society where such talk is increasingly acceptable currency.

Meanwhile, what is the response of the state here? Rather than curb hate speech while committing to protect robust debate online, the government is quietly and increasingly seeking to shut down political dissent. Both Facebook and Twitter have been requested by Pakistani authorities – whose legal powers to do so is in doubt – to prevent users inside Pakistan from accessing certain websites and pages that espouse what ought to be, and constitutionally are, perfectly legal dissenting political views.

Given some of the hate speech online that the survey has highlighted, was there really an acceptable reason for authorities like the PTA and Ministry of Information Technology to seek to make an overtly political rock band’s Facebook page unavailable inside Pakistan? How does peaceful activism set to music come in for censure when promoters of extreme violence and hate are able to operate with impunity?

Leave aside the legal and constitutional case against censoring political views while ignoring hate speech online, and focus on the broader impact of a state with lopsided priorities. While one side — the promoters of hate, violence and intolerance; militant groups; terrorists — are busy selling their ideology and promoting an idea of Pakistan that is intolerant and bigoted, the state has nothing by way of a counter-narrative.

Yes, government reports like the National Internal Security Policy do tend to cursorily highlight the need for a counter-narrative rooted in democratic, constitutional and pluralistic notions of Pakistan, but does anyone in government take such idea or initiatives seriously? The result is there for all to see: easily available hate material that can be and is readily lapped up by sections of a young population whose hearts and minds are being competed for and won over by agents of hate.

While not every hateful word can or does lead to violence, there is surely more than just a correlation between the amount of hate speech against and the violence suffered by groups such as the Ahmadis and other religious minorities. With access to the online world about to explode, now is the time for some serious thinking.

Published in Dawn, June 9th, 2014