M Ali Siddiqi analyses a double-edged sword
It speaks volumes about the inborn naiveté of the human race that it took a tremendously effective communication tool described as social media very lightly. When it came to the anvil it was thought of as a child’s play and was more often treated as a part-time excursion that could be taken advantage of in a state of leisure. Not only that social media was taken lightly but it was treated as a source of entertainment at no extra cost and hardly any complications. People paid little attention to its vast tentacles and the reach it commanded without much effort and came easy in the grip of its users. In the beginning social media users gladly shared their stories and tried to keep it entertaining by employing humour as much as could be done. Social media was rated as an innocuous platform for exchanging pleasantries and was more of a wishing-well phenomenon. It was treated as an innocuous communication exchange mechanism bringing people together in harmony and good humour.
Suddenly the shape, content and intent of the social media transformed into a biting and bitter source of vital information conveyed to its users during the violent Arab Spring. The entire context of social media took a new turn during the Arab Spring when it became a vital communication tool documenting the legendary callousness of well-entrenched Arab regimes. It also exposed the vice-like grip of deeply entrenched ruling elites in the Arab world who were unwilling to grant the people equal rights and some share in governance. The changed usage of social media took an unusual turn and it soon became a very strong basis for airing candid views and denouncing unacceptable behaviour. Very soon its impact was felt far and wide and its approach spread out into all spheres of existence.
In Pakistan the growing impact of social media was recognised rather late and the experienced segments dealing with public matters tried to keep it under wraps but could not hold it for long. Successive Pakistani regimes brought about a plethora of regulations aimed at controlling the proliferation of social media platforms. They also started blocking social media sites and employed such tactics that blocked and later removed many portals. The shortsighted regulators of public opinion and Pakistan panicked at the relative freedom as the hallmark of social media platforms and considered their blogs dangerous for the strict censor process they followed. Some social media bloggers operating from abroad came under stress but the ensuing pressure resulted in getting them free. The controlling authorities in Pakistan declared that many bloggers carried with them nefarious agenda that aimed at creating social chaos and disorder. They blamed such bloggers were pursuing goals that they generally feared to harm national perceptions therefore they favoured taking punitive action taken against them and went to great lengths to render their efforts ineffective.
Despite their tough punitive action, the overpowering reach of social media could not be contained in respect of conditions prevailing in the country. The very recent impact of social media was strongly felt by the state apparatus who were used to pursuing arbitrary policies suiting their brand of national interest. The process also started to negatively affect the politicos going out to canvass in their constituencies which they treated no more than their fiefs but had to back-off after their constituents started treating them shabbily. Instances emerged when well-entrenched political elements were grilled by their constituents when they ventured to visit there and subjected them to abuse and derision. The ironical part of the exchange was that it was recorded and soon became viral completely hollowing out the so-called awe they were supposed to possess in relation to their electorate.
Soon the practice became a norm as ineffective political leadership was amply exposed in their electoral remits and the bubbling anger did not spare anyone including extremely experienced public figures who became the butt of people’s anger. The whole process reveals how social media has not only raised awareness among the people but has also made the people question their own leaders. The social media combine of internet-Smartphone has transformed things to an extent that they are barely recognisable in their original shape. The growing power of social media has brought power to people in the real sense of the word. That they could no more be shackled is very obvious as people can keep an eye on every movement and minor detail regarding their political leaders. They can also keep a strong watch on objectionable social behaviour and can develop a widespread consensus on important issues.
The global reach of social media has enabled people to observe their powerful political figures running helter-skelter on the streets of London and bargaining with a taxi driver there, completely taking the wind out of the grandeur surrounding him in Pakistan. The biggest beneficiaries of social media were the PTI who pioneered using it as an effective tool, particularly in the political arena of Pakistan, but they were also to taste the bitter reality of social media whereby the actions of their supremo while visiting a Sufi shrine created quite a mixed impression in the minds of the people. PTI however took the usage of social media to quite a destructive level changing the very matrix of Pakistani society. The rush of unconfirmed propaganda material posted on social media platforms badly polluted the political discourse unnerving controlling authorities.
The vast portal of social media encompassing large number of websites and plenty of applications is playing a very credible role in political, social and commercial arenas. It has become well-nigh impossible for the manipulating segments of the country to convince people that they are doing what they claim to do. It is the growing power of the social media that frustrated the designs of powerful elements supporting the status-quo and clearly brought to fore the claim of general public that they are the ultimate accountability forum in their own right and no segment of the polity is entitled to trifle with it. The social media has enabled common people to share photos, opinions and events in real-time and this ability has added a decisive angle to public perceptions. It is no more a communication tool but has been transformed into a very strong platform for gauging public opinion. The range of social media is increasing by the day and so is its influence. Social media has already changed the socio-political landscape of Pakistan as its 150 million subscribers to cell phones, with 58 million having an access to broadband internet, are gradually making a difference in it.
The problematic aspect of the social media in Pakistan is that it is a weapon given in the hands of common man who is not very well-versed in matters of governance. He is rated to be gullible falling for any propaganda gimmick that comes his way. As was expressed by many skeptics, social media has been given access to the people who are not used to differentiate between right and wrong and usually get carried away by popular slogans. The recent turmoil generated in the country is the obvious result of the misuse of social media by trained groups having expertise in putting people on the wrong track. It is therefore imperative that corrective measures are devised and implemented soon to tackle this problem. TW