Beyond the pale

Published August 9, 2022

A LINE has been crossed. Even in a toxic online environment where the bounds of decency are repeatedly transgressed, there are limits to what can be treated as fair game by social media trolls. By any standard, brave men who have given the ultimate sacrifice in the service of humanity are not fodder for lynch mobs in cyberspace to use as material for politically motivated propaganda. But when political point-scoring is elevated above all other considerations, anything is possible.

On Aug 1, six army officers and soldiers carrying out relief and rescue operations in flood-stricken Balochistan were martyred when the helicopter they were travelling in crashed in Lasbela district. The tragic dimensions of the incident were lost on some social media activists who generated a vile torrent of abuse against the military, with some tweets carrying a reference to “regime change”.

The ISPR in a press release on Friday condemned the “hurtful and derogatory comments” that have “caused deep anguish and distress” to the victims’ families and the military’s rank and file.

While the identity and affiliation of those who drove the campaign is yet to be definitively established, the absence of former prime minister Imran Khan and President Arif Alvi from the martyrs’ funerals sparked speculation, putting the PTI leadership on the back foot and scrambling for damage control.

Meanwhile, a former office-bearer of the PTI’s student wing issued a video statement in which he apologised for his role in the social media campaign.

Read: The curious case of anti-state smear campaigns on Twitter

The FIA on Sunday formed a team to trace and arrest those involved. Clearly, matters this time have gone too far and patience with foul-mouthed, out-of-control online activists is running thin.

In a talk with a TV channel, the DG ISPR said that “We can tackle such propaganda collectively and this has to be condemned on every level”.

However, it bears mention that not too long ago, in the halcyon days of the ‘one page’, the youth who have now crossed the line were coddled as ‘front-line warriors’ pushing a hyper-nationalistic ideology in the ‘fifth-generation war’. Fed a narrative fuelled by hate and division, they were primed to attack political opponents as well as anyone not in the service of the one-page ‘vision’; now that a new chapter has opened, they have turned their guns on a section of those who enabled them.

If a change is to come about, there must be no exceptions to the collective repudiation of invective that nowadays passes for political rhetoric or fair comment.

This also requires the political leadership to reflect upon what example it has set for its supporters to follow.

Mr Khan’s relentless vilification of the opposition in language that ill behoves a national leader has contributed much to the polarisation that manifests itself in the vitriol spewed on social media. When such ugliness is unleashed, everyone at some point suffers the fallout.

Published in Dawn, August 9th, 2022

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