THE sophisticated and imaginative use of social media can endow any entity, particularly governments, with an immeasurable advantage as it acquires the means to communicate directly with the target audience to either win it over or overwhelm it at very little cost.
For example, many Pakistanis on social media cited with great pride the statement of a retired lieutenant-general of the Indian Army last year when he suggested that the media wing of the Pakistan Army had stolen a march on his own army’s setup.
This was after a number of apparently ISPR-led social media campaigns, particularly those in the aftermath of the ‘punitive’ Balakot strikes by the Indian Air Force against what were perceived as militant targets, following the deadly bombing of a paramilitary convoy in India-held Kashmir.
Of course, the performance of the Pakistan Air Force in downing the Indian fighter jet and the capture of its pilot gave Pakistanis something concrete to wave in the adversary’s face and cause it more pain via social media.
‘Rules’ are being made, bypassing parliament, to make social media platforms fall in line.
Despite scrutiny by social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter which resulted in the deletion of some accounts allegedly run by the military, in all likelihood after complaints from India, this element of Fifth Generation Warfare (5GW) capacity of Pakistan remained intact.
Let’s also look at the example of the army’s ‘same page’ civilian counterpart, the PTI government. Its prime minister, Imran Khan, has been on record attributing his party’s rise and success when it was in opposition in some measure to its social media wing, which functioned like a well-oiled machine.
There is no doubt the party’s social media wing helped to rope in a new category of voter, ie the urban middle-class youth, and made corruption the biggest issue in the country. So much so that today even the frail state of the economy is not important enough to draw the attention of the multitudes of PTI backers.
Anybody on social media who has been critical of the PTI will tell you how their timelines are routinely swarmed by dozens of handles, fake and real, attacking them, their position on an issue and not even sparing their person.
At the drop of a hat, these attackers will accuse you of being corrupt, being on the payroll of this political party or that or this foreign government or that foreign agency; they do not even stop there, often going to the extent of questioning your parentage.
It appears before the last election, the PML-N’s Maryam Nawaz Sharif identified this as one of the major weaknesses of her party and a social media wing was hurriedly set up to counter and challenge the PTI’s domination of social media space.
The PML-N social media wing, though much younger, and seemingly less organised than the PTI’s, soon started to give as good as it got. The PTI’s social media domination was no more complete; a new kid on the block appeared willing to jump into the ring to take on the senior adversary.
When the PML-N’s relations soured with the establishment some of the party’s social media activists got into trouble with the authorities and suffered threats and intimidation, even being arrested and detained before being interrogated by law-enforcement officials.
In a twist of irony, PML-N activists were targeted by the agencies, using the same cybercrime law passed by the party itself. At its draft stage, the PML-N and its minister Ms Anusha Rehman, herself a lawyer, were warned by rights advocates that some provisions of the law could easily be used and abused for the suppression of free speech. But they did not listen.
This was not the only occasion, when the PML-N paid for its own folly of not listening to common sense. When the PPP proposed after winning the election in 2008 that the two parties agree to scrap, or at least reform, the NAB law so that it was not used as a tool of persecution against the opposition and political engineering in the future, the PML-N refused. If only it had the vision to realise how dearly it would have to pay later with a host of top leaders either incarcerated for months without trial or sentenced in dubious cases because of the application of the NAB law.
Now the PTI and it backers, assuming the latter support the curbs on social media, are doing exactly the same. Intoxicated by the power they have today, ‘rules’ are being made, bypassing parliament, to make social media platforms fall in line.
I seriously believe that these big companies whose footprint pretty much extends across the world are not likely to succumb to Pakistan’s pressure to allow it to police users and censor content on their platforms.
This can result in a deadlock with Islamabad denying them access to the country. In the short term, this could bring relief to the government and its backers from criticism on social media too as they have already brought to its knees the traditional media in Pakistan.
In the long-run, it would deprive the users of a release valve, a learning tool to exchange ideas, experiences and thoughts with the wider world at near-zero cost and take away an essential life aid in this century.
But more than that, if there is ever a change in government, the incumbents would have deprived themselves of a medium to rally supporters and prepare the ground for a comeback. Similar would be the fate of Pakistan’s response to threats from across the border and it would take away an effective tool in any 5GW effort.
Even if free speech does not appear to be a worthy cause to the rulers, self-preservation warrants they lay off social media platforms, hone in their own presence on these and don’t act like fools to believe that without social media all bad news will go away.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, February 16th, 2020