A changing world

Published June 4, 2024
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

LAST week, the military leadership got together for discussions and brainstorming in what is called the ‘formation commanders conference’. The series of meetings ended in a press release.

We were told by more than one commentator that the press release which follows such a meeting is the policy statement of the institution. Even if it wasn’t, any press release emanating from the institution is read widely and sincerely. This one was no different.

While the press release was wide-ranging, it also spoke of “politically motivated and vested digital terrorism” against “state institutions” aimed at inducing “despondency in the Pakistani nation, to sow discord among national institutions, especially the armed forces, and the people of Pakistan by peddling blatant lies, fake news, and propaganda”. Most commentators interpreted this as being directed at the use of social media by the PTI. No wonder, then, that this point was discussed in detail, along with other issues highlighted. Many read it as a warning to the party.

However, interpretations aside, it also sent some of us in search of the meaning of the term ‘digital terrorism’. The manner in which it was used — spreading despondency and discord among people and institutions through fake news and propaganda — seems different from many of the definitions available at forums which research terrorism or cyberterrorism or digital terrorism, where definitions vary, as they also do in the case of terrorism. Some of the definitions focus on attacks on computer systems and the use of viruses, others on the use of internet to conduct violence, while some may focus on terrorists using these technologies to carry out violent attacks. It may seem unnecessary exercise to split hairs but definitions do matter.

After all, Pakistani society in general and the Pakistan Army in particular know better than most the scourge of terrorism. Even at present, we are struggling with the challenge — according to one report, during the first four months, the country reported nearly 250 incidents of terrorism and counterterrorism operations, while fatalities numbered around 280.

Equating criticism on social media with terrorism can distract attention from violent threats.

The fears are that the challenge may grow as we struggle to get a grip on it, as has happened in the past, where at one point the militants even controlled tracts of territory. Commentators are pointing out that the situation can deteriorate rapidly, especially as the country’s leadership is grappling with a multitude of crises.

In this larger context, equating all shades of criticism and incorrect information on social media (however organised it may be) with terrorism can undermine or even distract attention from the seriousness of the violent threat we face in Balochistan and KP.

After all, if the primary institution, which is the first line of defence, will term certain actions ‘terrorism’, the people are bound to believe it and think it is no different from the lives we are losing in the physical world. This can complicate matters because, in the past also, we have grappled with a time when half the challenge was to convince ordinary citizens of the threat that terrorists posed.

Second, it is also worth pointing out that these press releases are perhaps read and absorbed the world over. For who doesn’t know that, more than the politicians and civilian governments, it is Pakistan’s military that is heeded internationally as the only ‘modern’, ‘meritocratic’ institution in a country which is crumbling faster than is safe or comfortable? For it to appear to set itself against the changes in the world is a bit worrying; at times, it appears the discomfort is with the use of modern communication strategy, such as social media, rather than its improper use. The criticism in the press release is being viewed in the larger context where X has been blocked in the country for months and the government is also planning to bring in some new legislation to ‘regulate’ social media.

What message will this send to the world? Surely, our message to the world should be one which is in sync with the modern world. This is particularly important at a time when Pakistan is trying to encourage foreign investment and exports. While a focus on traditional exports is fine, some suggest the country needs to focus on nontraditional areas such as IT, where growth in past months has been healthy. But this will require better policies and more stability rather than internet outages or bans on platforms, permanent or temporary.

Similarly, young people need to be encouraged to enter the field instead of being discouraged. This seems a bit difficult in the prevailing environment, where government officials are setting themselves against modern technologies which are changing the entire world.

Third, there has to be a better understanding of the context in which the criticism on social media is taking place instead of painting it all with the same black paint. Be it the criticism of the state on social media or other conversations on X, YouTube and elsewhere, no one is denying there are issues which need to be addressed. But this needs to be done after much consideration and consultation, which will address the problems without asphyxiating the entire space. Our efforts to regulate social media should not be at the expense of its benefits and place in the present and future. This will not be easy to do if the dominant discourse is about equating the entire social media universe with evil or terrorism.

Other than being an integral part of the future, we also need to understand it is an intuitive tool for the younger generations. If they are expressing anger and frustration on it, one must try and understand the roots of the anger. And if this younger generation now overlaps with the support base of an aggressive political party, the need is even greater for reaching out.

To simply create or confirm the confrontation will increase the distance between the state and younger generations. Surely, even in counterterrorism, it is best to weaken the ‘monolith’ the non-state actor appears to be.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, June 4th, 2024

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