On Friday night, Facebook blocked a Dawn.com post for Pakistani users of its platform.
The 2017 update was a news report on politician Javed Hashmi’s news conference in which he criticised the judiciary, the military and politicians with a warning that the country had entered the worst crisis in its history.
An automated message received by Dawn.com stated that the post was blocked “due to legal restrictions in your country”. The company did not share what law was being referred to, nor who ordered the block, though it is well established that Facebook maintains ties with the state in a secret agreement related to censoring content and sharing user data.
It isn’t surprising that the state would use any means at their disposal to control information online, especially in the run up to the elections. It has done this in the past — and is doing so more frequently and at scale. During the Faizabad operation, some of the largest Urdu news sites in Pakistan — including DawnNews.tv — were blocked, as were Facebook and Twitter.
It is unfortunate, but still understandable that local internet service providers would comply given the implicit threat that comes with such orders. But should Facebook do the same? Such misguided, naïve and self-serving censorship on the part of Facebook is not a new phenomenon.
The best example for South Asia is the mass blocking of content and temporary deletion of user accounts in 2016 for anyone who spoke out against India following the killing of India-held Kashmir’s young freedom fighter Burhan Wani.
The message from Mark Zuckerberg appears to be: let’s not hurt the bottom line by getting banned. Keep those in power happy; write off violation of fundamental rights as ‘collateral damage’. It is such ‘pragmatic’ thinking that has led the social media giant into the mess it is in globally with regard to hate speech, privacy of user data, manipulation of US elections by companies like Cambridge Analytica and more.
Facebook needs to recognise that Pakistan is headed into an election where a policy that allows free speech to be curbed on orders by those in power is tantamount to allowing manipulation of the vote through its platform.
Earlier this year, the company promised it would take steps to “curb outside election interference” in Pakistan. It needs to ask itself what it plans to do to prevent election interference from within.
Published in Dawn, May 13th, 2018