Troll armies

Published August 16, 2023

THE country’s political culture has never plumbed the levels of crassness that have been on display since the last few years. Fuelled by self-righteous rage, the trolling takes on a vicious performative aspect thanks to social media. It respects neither personal space nor geographical boundaries. Anyone, anywhere, is fair game. The past week has been particularly brutal. On Monday, former PML-N lawmaker Hina Pervaiz Butt — while accompanied by her teenage son — was accosted by hecklers on the streets of London: a number of video clips circulating on social media showed her at the receiving end of verbal abuse, as well as taunts hurled at her party leader, Nawaz Sharif. Some days ago, Judge Humayun Dilawar, who found Imran Khan guilty in the Toshakhana case and sentenced him to three years in prison, found himself similarly targeted by PTI supporters in the UK while attending a judicial training course in Hull. Last year, PML-N leader Marriyum Aurangzeb was confronted by a hostile group of Pakistanis in London while she was inside a store. Groups of hecklers shouting slogans and even on occasion vandalising property have become a regular feature outside Mr Sharif’s residence in the British capital. These displays of animosity achieve little but betray an inflated sense of self-importance and bring Pakistan into disrepute.

Political differences, howsoever sharp, do not have to reach a stage where they breach the basic norms of decency. Unfortunately, the PTI chairman cultivated a reductive, black-and-white narrative against many mainstream politicians in intemperate and rabble-rousing language that encouraged the party’s fervid support base to target these individuals or, indeed, anyone critical of Mr Khan. The apparent carte blanche combined with the PTI’s social media savvy saw many an online lynching of opposition politicians as well as independent-minded journalists. Women journalists were particularly singled out for character assassination and horrifying sexualised trolling. Sometimes, incendiary tweets designed to provoke cyber mobs emerged from what seemed to be PTI-linked social media accounts. So polarised is the atmosphere that political parties were identified by journalists as the largest single-source threat actor that targeted them between 2022-2023. Certainly, leaders of other political parties have also used unseemly language against those across the aisle — some are repeat offenders especially where sexist rhetoric is concerned — but the PTI has brought political discourse down to where it is a consistent race to the bottom.

Published in Dawn, August 16th, 2023

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