A little over a decade ago, dismissiveness was not an uncommon response when activists would warn against the blocking of websites as a policy issue. The connection of that warning to ad hoc, arbitrary and unlawful executive action and violation of fundamental rights — especially free expression and right to information — was not instant. Social media was viewed as an adversary: a platform lacking both regulation and editorial control, a place of unverified information, abuse and harassment.

When the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca), 2016, was first introduced as a bill, many in policy circles and even within mainstream media were of the view that regulation of social media was necessary. While critics of the law pointed towards the dangers of excessive criminalisation of speech and powers for law-enforcers, the traditional response was that ‘something’ was needed. That ‘something’ metastasised into a potent silencing tool in the hands of the state, exactly as predicted.

Curbing obscenity, blasphemy, harassment, hate speech and ‘fake news’ — otherwise appropriately distinguished as disinformation and misinformation — has been used by successive governments as a ruse to introduce regressive legislation and regulation intended to control political discourse. YouTube was banned for three years when the PPP was in power. The PML-N introduced Peca. The PTI notified the social media rules and the Peca Ordinance, expanding existing restrictions and empowering the authorities further. Over the years, various reports have pointed to the acquisition of filtering and surveillance technology. A recent proposal by the PTA now seeks to restrict the flow of Internet traffic in Pakistan by forcing it through local instead of global DNS.

In 2022, more value is being attached to free expression, right to information and the right to do business online. This is more pronounced in public discourse. There is less apologia and more unequivocal condemnation by political parties and the journalist community towards measures to control social media through regressive legislation, regulations and their implementation. The public reactions drive and swift legal challenges to the bans on PUBG and TikTok, as well as against social media rules and Peca Ordinance, are proof of this. But getting here has been a steep learning curve.

Our political parties love to champion free speech as long as they are in the opposition. When in power, however, each of the major parties has advanced laws to quell dissent.

While greater connectivity and adoption of social media platforms has contributed to its relevance, denial of mainstream space to otherwise mainstream actors due to censorship, as witnessed between 2017 and 2022, left them with no option but to turn to social media to establish their political relevance and utility.

When weekly columns by regular columnists were dropped by newspapers, the censored content was featured on Medium or put out through the authors’ Twitter accounts. When prime time anchors were sacked from their jobs, they established YouTube channels. When politicians became persona non grata on television, their press conferences and political rallies barred from mainstream coverage, they turned to live streaming on social media to keep themselves relevant and connected to their support base.

Vlogs and YouTube channels have now become the go-to sources for hot takes on current affairs: for perspectives that are otherwise inaccessible. It is in this environment that the PML-N chief opted for Zoom to address party workers, and the recently ousted PTI chief took to Twitter Spaces and podcasts to propel his narrative. Mainstream news outlets are now reliant on promoting their content on social media, where much of the discourse and narrative-building is taking place. Political satire thrives through memes, GIFs, WhatsApp stickers and TikTok videos.

Over time, the state’s relationship with social media has changed too. Rather than suspending services on every occasion or initiating cases through proxies, occupying the same platforms and manipulating discourse on them is now part of the new modus operandi. From the PM to the ISPR head, they all have to keep an active profile on social media, particularly Twitter. This where the war of narratives if fought and won; or lost.

The PTI was always more social media savvy, and it has worked for it. The irony is that while in government the party launched the Digital Pakistan initiative to promote a ‘positive’ image of the country, but its ministers and supporters were portraying a negative image of themselves on Twitter!

In this era of ‘fifth generation warfare’, a phrase popularised by a former ISPR head, the bolstering of one’s own narrative is done by drowning out and targeting the views of others in a game of patriot-versus-traitor binary.

Two statements, issued in 2020 by women journalists, pointed to the gendered nature of abuse on social media; a culture popularised by the PTI, but prevalent in every political party. Targeted campaigns are launched against critics, especially journalists, attacking their character, discrediting them as peddlers of ‘fake news’ or accusing them of being on the payroll of political opponents and foreign entities.

Social media presence comes at a cost. Disappearances, detentions and arrests of bloggers, activists, journalists, political workers for their social media posts have been a regular feature since 2017. Journalists and activists are always collateral in power games played by the state and political parties. In this age of social media, the stakes are only higher.

The writer is co-founder and director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.

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