In today’s digitally interconnected landscape, the people, the government and corporations require swift and succinct updates on important issues for immediate impact and action, particularly amidst a backdrop of ongoing social media restrictions and the prolonged X (formerly Twitter) ban.

A mere ten years ago, government agencies scarcely utilised social platforms for public engagement, as many of these channels were non-existent or primarily served social purposes. However, the paradigm has shifted significantly. Social media has evolved into a recognised mode of communication, facilitating enhanced connectivity between public sector bodies and the citizens they represent.

Many foreign organisations assist Pakistani companies in generating employment opportunities by facilitating the export of goods and services for developmental initiatives in burgeoning markets. As such, various non-governmental organisations, non-profit organisations, and fundraising institutions have identified social media as an especially beneficial platform for advancing their goals.

For example, The Citizens Foundation (TCF), with over 28,000 Instagram followers, and Transparent Hands, with over 16,000 Instagram followers, are some of the top NGOs in Pakistan involved in welfare activities to provide the best education and healthcare services, respectively, to the underprivileged and poor of Pakistan.

Surging VPN reliance due to internet and social media restrictions negatively impacts businesses dependent on such platforms for online connectivity and engagement

The connections such organisations make through X and other social media platforms are crucial. They optimise their impact on these platforms by strategically tagging partners in relevant posts, through cross-sharing, and mutually promoting content that resonates with their followers.

A week ago, TCF posted a video about a donation which received over 5,500 likes. Creating engagement and impressions this way leads to further business growth as the content reaches the right audience using the right hashtags.

A year of bans

What happens when governments restrict such websites? It’s a lose-lose situation. Politics aside, the government is losing a lot of business. The influencer marketing industry is greatly impacted. Corporations lose out on using these influencers for campaigns to grow their business. The advertising industry is adversely affected.

What follows is chaos since this triggers a surge in demand for Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) as individuals seek alternate means to access the restricted platforms.

Pakistan has enforced internet restrictions five times this year. Among them, three instances occurred in February, directly linked to the elections, while the remaining two happened in January during virtual events organised by the PTI.

Following the public outcry over the arrest of former prime minister Imran Khan, authorities in Pakistan blocked access to X and other social media platforms on May 9, leading to a surge in demand for VPNs in the country.

On Dec 17, Pakistani authorities blocked social media platforms for seven hours during an online opposition event. This action resulted in a comparable increase of 229 per cent in the demand for VPNs in Pakistan, according to research by independent VPN review website Top10VPN.

The demand for VPN services in Pakistan more than doubled on Feb 19 compared to the daily average over the 28 days prior as the authorities blocked X.

Following the prohibition of social media platforms in Pakistan on Jan 20, there has been an extraordinary spike in the request for VPNs, as reported by Switzerland-based internet privacy firm Proton, marking a remarkable 6,000pc surge, almost four times higher than average as the government severely throttled access to all major social media platforms during an online event held by a popular political party.

Nord Security, a VPN provider operating in Pakistan, also reported that the interest in its products doubled. Meanwhile, ExpressVPN noted a 67pc surge in traffic from Pakistan to its website within 24 hours of the disruption, which has since risen to 80pc.

Additionally, Surfshark, another regional provider, reported a significant increase in new user acquisitions, ranging between 300pc and 400pc compared to the previous month. This data suggests Pakistani users’ rising reliance on VPN services for internet access and privacy.

This increased reliance on VPNs can have detrimental effects on the economy. Firstly, the proliferation of VPN usage can decrease productivity, as people spend valuable work hours circumventing social media bans rather than focusing on their tasks.

Secondly, businesses reliant on social media for marketing and customer engagement can suffer from reduced reach, engagement and connectivity with their target audience, potentially impacting sales and brand visibility.

Finally, increased demand for VPN services may strain internet infrastructure, leading to slower connection speeds and higher costs for businesses and consumers. While social media bans may aim to address various concerns, their unintended economic consequences underscore the need for nuanced approaches to regulation and digital governance.

The writer is the head of content at a communications agency.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, April 1st, 2024

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