A GROUP of women journalists have decided that enough is enough and have released a joint statement condemning the climate of abuse and threats that has been created on social media by accounts that are allegedly connected to people belonging to, or professing to be followers of, the PTI government. They were joined by the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists as well. Both groupings called on the government to take action against those who use social media to hurl threats, or circulate personally identifiable information of women journalists, or put into circulation doctored images designed to cause offence and attempt to humiliate them.
This has become a very serious problem now, but the important thing for those using these tactics in an attempt to silence critical voices to know is that it is not only futile, but counterproductive. I have often wondered what goes through the mind of a young man (and yes, the overwhelming majority of those engaged in this sort of trolling are men) when he puts out an abusive message for a journalist.
Consider this. A typical journalist, not even among the big names, can have an audience in the thousands, a medium size one will usually be communicating on a regular basis with tens of thousands, and on some big days, perhaps hundreds of thousands. The big-name TV anchors routinely communicate with an audience that is measured in the millions on a daily basis.
Imagine yourself at an event speaking to a hall packed with around 30,000 people. Each of them can hear your words clearly and are paying attention. A few hundred are standing in a corner heckling you. Who will you reserve your attention for? The tens of thousands who are listening to you or the few hundreds who are heckling? The answer is obvious.
Those who are apparently being encouraged to engage in abusive behaviour against the government’s critics are searching for new ways to escalate such conduct.
So watching the behaviour of this misguided youth I often wonder what they think they are accomplishing by engaging in abuse. Do they think the other party will stop, reflect, and desist from being critical of those in power due to the abuse? Do they think others who see the abuse will change their minds about the contents of the journalists’ work as a result of the abuse? What exactly is the objective of using abuse as a standard language in which to engage with the work of others?
Ultimately, it’s futile to use abuse as a weapon in social engagements. And once those who resort to this sort of behaviour begin to tire of the futility of their efforts, they up the ante and start hunting down personal details about their target and make those public, or doctor images to put their targets’ face on compromising photographs as a means of mockery. Some women journalists say photos of their faces have been photo-shopped onto pornographic images and put into circulation as a way of harassing and intimidating them.
All those who have been critical of official circles have faced trolling of this sort, but women journalists are usually targeted with a particular ferocity. In their statement, the group of women journalists allege that their social media timelines are often “barraged with gender-based slurs, threats of sexual and physical violence”. They go on to say that such behaviour has “the potential to incite violence and lead to hate crimes, putting our physical safety at risk”.
At the moment, I am not aware of many incidents where online attacks of this sort spilled over into the real world. But the large numbers of young men who are apparently being actively encouraged to engage in abusive and threatening behaviour against the critics of the government are growing increasingly frustrated, and searching for new ways to escalate their hateful conduct. If left to their own devices, it is inevitable that there will be an incident of a real-life attack by one of these random youth whose mind is too addled on the poisonous rhetoric of official circles.
It is sad to note that this behaviour has been normalised from the very top. All of us vividly recall moments in the ruling party’s ascension to power, for instance, when a senior party member struck Daniyal Aziz of the PML-N during a live TV show. This same corps of young men not only loudly cheered on the act, but started referring to Daniyal as ‘Danielle’, suggesting it is a woman’s place to get slapped by a man.
Remember the days of container politics in 2014? There was a virtually unending river of abuse that came down from the container top, and now that river even flows through parliament where childish and abusive tropes are commonly used by the treasury benches to caricature and abuse the opposition in parliament. What these young men on social media are doing is emulating the behaviour of those they perceive to be their heroes.
Some social media outlets are now tweaking their rules to discourage this sort of behaviour. This is a welcome development, but it is not the answer. What is needed is for those at the top, starting with the prime minister himself and then all the way down, to loudly and visibly start discouraging this behaviour. After this, there needs to be outright condemnation of it. And then must come the penalties, the arrests and prosecution of those who use social media and other means of modern communication to threaten and abuse others in patently illegal ways.
This behaviour is stunting the growth and development of those young men who have been encouraged to engage in it. A sizable section of our youth run the risk of growing up with these toxic attitudes. One shudders to imagine what sort of fathers and husbands they will be if these attitudes are allowed to harden.
The writer is a member of staff.
Published in Dawn, August 13th, 2020