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Limits of the social media

July 19, 2012


‘WHAT is this social media, and why is it so important?’

Variations of this question rang out all weekend as news spread of the Social Media Mela, a conference that brought Indian journalists, writers, and activists to Karachi to discuss with their Pakistani counterparts how the social media has affected various aspects of their lives.

According to Wikipedia, social media is, simply put, “web-based and mobile-based technologies which are used to turn communication into interactive dialogue among organisations, communities, and individuals” (also known as Web 2.0). It includes Twitter and Facbeook, but also blogs and microblogs, online communities, YouTube and any other space on the Web that is accessible to all and enabled by “scalable communication techniques” — meaning that it can be accessed as easily on a humble mobile phone as on a sophisticated laptop.

The conference illustrated how Pakistanis are using social media, integrating it into culture, politics, activism and education, amongst other disciplines and areas, in a positive and constructive way. Recognising the potential of the social media to effect far-reaching change in Pakistan, the US Consulate organised last year’s social media conference but this year took a back seat and left it to the NGO PeaceNiche, run by Sabeen Mahmud. She and her team decided to make Pakistan-India relations a primary theme at this year’s event, and for many attendees, the highlight of the weekend was meeting the Indian guests who were able to attend thanks to former Interior Minister Rehman Malik’s personal influence in having their visas issued.

The conference had a laid-back, relaxed feel with a desi atmosphere. Speakers from a variety of organisations and disciplines, as well as appealing graphic designs, gave the mela a unique branding, with an army of young volunteers ushering guests around the venue and a buzz that lingered for several days after the event. During the sessions, attendees learned how the social media has been used to raise funds for a movie in India (‘crowdfunding’), enhance and support the learning activities in a school in Kashmir, effect political change through online petitions, create instant celebrities in the arts and media, engage Pakistani youth in the political process and raise awareness about media ethics, sexual harassment and human rights issues. The Indian guests returned home with many negative illusions about Pakistan countered, and crates of mangoes to share with their families.

But the conference was as much about the limits of social media as it was about what it can achieve. This was brought to light in Ali Dayan Hasan’s keynote speech on social media and human rights. The Pakistan director of Human Rights Watch said that the social media helped spread information quickly and was useful for recording human rights abuses, but policymakers had to listen and effect change in government — which the social media has not been able to achieve.

Raheel Khursheed, communications director for India’s, also addressed the issue of armchair activism enabled by the social media, saying bluntly that online activism was useless if it was not followed by real-world action. Beena Sarwar, a peace activist, echoed Hasan in her blog observations about the social media conference: “Political establishments have the power to change [the situation between India and Pakistan], if only they would follow the voice of the people.”

That voice is being expressed louder than ever on the social media, but is anyone from the government actually listening?

In Pakistan, there is an image problem in the context of the social media. Its proponents sometimes expect far too much of it; they are almost evangelical about its powers to change society and the political system. They will be disappointed by the fact that the social media mela did not solve the Kashmir problem, eliminate corruption, stop the killing of the Hazara Shias or the Baloch, or the persecution of Ahmadis and Christians. Such people need constant reminding that the revolution will not come just because people click ‘like’ on a Facebook link or retweet a popular politician’s messages.

By the same token, many don’t take the social media seriously enough. Its detractors are often those who simply don’t understand it. Take the example of Pakistani journalists who think that the social media is merely reporting about social events.

Jokes aside, mainstream media in Pakistan has practitioners who feel that the social media is no competition to traditional print or broadcast journalism, or lacks legitimacy as a medium. And those Pakistani politicians who are online and tweeting to their followers seem to think of the social media as a game or a popularity contest: who has the most ardent followers or who has the most abusive trolls.

The power of the social media lies in its ability to give a voice to people traditionally left out of the mainstream media, to hold political figures and governments to account for their actions and abuses, and to mobilise people to action in communities and across them.

But there’s still a huge gap between intent and action, and it will take several years for the social media scene in Pakistan to mature enough to have a tangible effect on governance and policy. Still, learning, observing and experimenting without fear is the most intelligent approach to understanding what the social media can and can’t do for us.

The writer is the author of Slum Child.