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SOCIETY: THE POLITICS OF HASHTAG ACTIVISM

Updated May 13, 2017

A spectre is haunting Pakistan — the spectre of social media. For Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar, it is even “lethal for democracy” — no control, no censors, just pure, unadulterated rhetoric. A growing war of information has encapsulated the political landscape of Pakistan. Now, online discussions can quickly transcend into angry mobs and 140 characters can cost one their life.

Without a doubt, the hashtag has emerged as the strongest tool for political influence, or rather, a tool to create political turbulence.

Illustration by Rohail Safdar
Illustration by Rohail Safdar

Nisar’s statement came in the wake of a tweet from the handle maintained by the incumbent director-general of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) criticising a government notification in reference to a news story on civil-military relations. The tweet sent the government, media and the public into a frenzy where many accused the military spokesperson of overstepping his bounds. Nisar believes that state institutions communicating with each other through social media will put the system in mortal danger.


Social media is far more influential in politics than it’s often given credit for


For quite some time now, political figures as well as military officials have been using Twitter to make official statements. These are picked up by mainstream media and easily replicated as press releases. Till a few years ago, social scientists argued that in order to liberate a society, all you need is the internet. Little did they know, Pakistanis would drag the lesson in another direction altogether.

Social media can span national boundaries giving access to international scrutiny. And this is where political discourse online becomes critical, as the Pakistani political community is yet to learn the art of digital political correctness. An immediate challenge for institutions in the face of heightened political activity online is to escape public attention in terms of negative criticism. A war of Twitter trends and hashtags seems to be the most popular antidote to the challenge.

It comes as no surprise that the hashtag #PanamaVerdict alone generated more than 10 million tweets in Pakistan within two days of the Supreme Court’s judgment, while a reference given to Mario Puzo’s Godfather in the verdict rose to second position on the list of popular trends. Fast forward to a few days later, the Sharifs requested the Supreme Court to expunge the reference from the verdict.

Without a doubt, online space in Pakistan is political and it is by no means irrelevant.

THE DIGITAL LANDSCAPE

According to statistics released by digital companies, the total number of social media accounts crossed the 44 million mark in Pakistan in 2017. Facebook is the most popular platform at over 31 million users across the country whereas Twitter has 3.1 million users of the total 50 million who have access to the internet. Over 130 million people have subscribed to mobile services out of which more than 37 million have access to 3G/4G network.

When asked whether the hashtag has an impact on party decision-making, social media manager for the PML-N, Atif Rauf comments: “There is an ongoing war of narratives which the leaders have to cater to. Politics in the age of social media comes with more public responsibility.”

Separately, a research conducted by Dawn established that the age group which engages most on social media ranges from 18-25 years of age, which amounts to 50 percent of the total social media population of the country. If measured from the age group 15-34, it will cover 90 percent of the total social media users in Pakistan.


Social media can span national boundaries giving access to international scrutiny. And this is where political discourse online becomes critical, as the Pakistani political community is yet to learn the art of digital political correctness.


Given that the audience which is active on social media is largely young, anybody looking to promote an idea or a cause targets this demographic, their hopes and aspirations, and even their anxieties. For example, the social media feed is integrated by anchor persons in nightly talk shows and the content is pushed through Facebook and Twitter for greater public participation and ‘following’. What may appear to be a convenience to many, in actuality works as a double-edged sword.

In a country such as Pakistan, where the culture of breaking news has taken root, many young people take to social media to express their opinion on a burning topic. Of course, these views are almost always tagged with a hashtag.

“We have become an ad hoc nation,” regrets political activist and lawyer Jibran Nasir. “Hashtag movements are driven to direct authorities to take notice of a situation and then we move on to the next cause. The focus of digital activism is restricted to a 48-hour cycle of condemnation and then the hype dies down.”

The authors of Political Turbulence: How Social Media Shape Collective Action argue that we are living in “chaotic pluralism” which is highly unstable, unpredictable and often unsustainable. “Politics in the age of social media is better described by chaos than by conventional social science,” the comprehensive study establishes.

“It has become a responsibility to comment on every matter that is trending,” stresses Nasir. “While most of us play our part as social justice warriors online, banned outfits are expanding their networks and building alliances as their Twitter network has multiplied to district-levels drawing a good number of members to join their party.”

ONLINE TO #IRL (IN REAL LIFE)

There was a time when Facebook updates and tweets had little significance on real-life events. Not anymore.

In the days of yore, violence had no face. The odds of acquiring footage were slim for local conflicts and culprits had an easy way out. When a 23-year-old university student in Mardan was recently lynched to death by an enraged mob over charges of alleged blasphemy, the case gained severity as the events unfolded on social media.

“As long as there is a camera to record the brutality of the crime, the incident will not go unnoticed,” argues Nasir. “There was no TV camera to record how Mashal Khan was beaten, there were no intelligence agencies present in the vicinity to record when he was shot.” And yet, the issue came to the fore as Mashal’s friends and colleagues began raising a hue and cry over the barbarity. “In the era of the trend bulletin, where a tweet or WhatsApp video becomes a headline, social media is instrumental in bringing issues to the forefront,” adds Nasir.


In a country such as Pakistan, where the culture of breaking news has taken root, many young people take to social media to express their opinion on a burning topic. Of course, these views are almost always tagged with a hashtag.


The spread of graphic content in times of conflict and turmoil is an aggravating matter of concern in light of recent events. Images and footage shared online grabs international attention, discouraging governments from using force to quash protests.

Not long ago, authorities in India-held Kashmir announced a one-month ban on 22 social media services, including WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter. The Indian government said anti-state elements were allegedly misusing social media to incite violence and mobilise protestors after images and videos depicting the abuse of Kashmiris by Indian forces went viral online, fuelling protests in the disputed region. The decision not only failed to mask increasing civilian repression from becoming the focus of global attention, but also drew harsh criticism.

CHANGING TIMES, CHANGING DEMOGRAPHICS

In 2013, Pakistan witnessed the largest voter turnout in the country’s history due to electoral campaigns via digital activism. The country’s social media demographics show the youth comprises 50 percent of the total social media population. But what does that mean for future campaigns?

Social media has evoked a sense of social responsibility in public which may translate into an era of new faces, without political lineage, expressing interest in the upcoming elections. Maleeha Manzoor, a volunteer at the PPP social media wing, explains that they are focused on educating the younger population about the party’s history so that they may take guidance from past events to shape future policies.

“We recently launched an interview-based campaign where the PPP’s founding members and their aides shared their political experiences with the younger members,” says Maleeha. “Such initiatives are crucial at a time when the party is reorganising and recruiting fresh members.”

However Imran Ghazali, digital campaigner at Alif Ailaan who led Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s (PTI) social media campaign for 2013 elections is not entirely convinced that political parties are utilising social media in the best way. “Most of the political parties and groups are involved in meaningless hashtag wars just to make it to the top 10 trends,” he says. “Back in 2012, when digital political activism was introduced to Pakistan, hashtags were motivated by a cause and the aim was to highlight the issue and not make it to the trends list.”

For Ghazali, the assertion that several political workers are more focused on maintaining their online presence as compared to activity on ground is true to some extent. “Social media platforms do help build support but are not an alternate to street activism,” he argues. “For instance, the PTI was able to raise a huge amount of donations [ he estimates roughly 300,000 dollars] for the election campaign through its website,” he tells Eos. “At the end of the day it depends on the motive, content and how one communicates their objectives with the audience.”

The hashtag maybe be derided for exhaustion of opinion and its banal ubiquity, but with political activists’ growing reliance on it for generating political debate and promoting causes, it is turning out to be far more influential than it is often given credit for. In fact, for politicians and public officials it seems a bigger cause for worry than other media. Perhaps to avoid the kind of missteps that often comes across these days, training about the internet and social media should be a first step for all those in the public eye.

As political temperatures rise, in the wake of #PanamaVerdict and in the lead-up to elections, 2018 will surely be a telling year.

The writer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 14th, 2017