In Focus

Religious Harmony, Sectarian Cleavages and the World of Social Media

Dissemination of hate content on the social media has remained a lingering challenge for Pakistan. But in recent weeks and months, there has been a sharp surge in the availability of such material on various social media platforms. 
Short video clips, ridiculing and attacking religious beliefs, sacred personalities and customs of one or the other sect are being widely and systematically circulated on social media in an attempt to stoke sectarian hate and violence in the country. At times, video clips from the speeches of prominent religious scholars and clerics are edited in such a way that they appear to convey totally the opposite of what was actually said. Again the aim is to widen fissures among Muslim sects and pitch their zealots against one another. 
Just ahead of Muharram – the first month of the Muslim calendar – ‘hate trends’ were created on Twitter condemning and calling for action against a particular sect. Similar counter trends and provocative defiant messages were hurled from the other side too. 
Some clerics added fuel to the fire through their insensitive, controversial and hateful remarks, which were disseminated by their friends and foes alike on the social media. 
The communication revolution and social media platforms indeed serve as a blessing for a vast majority of people, who use them to communicate with their loved ones, build groups of like-minded individuals for different causes, share information, to educate, to learn and build and expand their businesses. But the biggest downside of these platforms remains the free-flow of hate material that threatens the very fabric of many of the ethnically and religiously heterogeneous societies, including that of Pakistan. 
Hate content, which can never, ever pass the stringent filters of the traditional media even today, spreads like wildfire on the social media. And the irony is that authorities and regulators can do little to curb it in a timely manner.  
Indeed, the challenge of curbing hate-material is a complicated one. It is like a double-edged sword which can cut both ways. For those who hold freedom of expression close to their heart, any attempt to regulate social media platforms means a direct assault on their fundamental rights. The small, but organized and influential minority of activists remain skeptical of any legislation aimed at regulating the new media platforms and say that the government will ‘exploit’ it to stifle what they call the legitimate voice of dissent in the country.
But even a bigger challenge than these activists are the giant global social media platforms. They operate from abroad and have little regard for Pakistani laws and cultural and religious sensitivities. They may cooperate with Pakistan’s request on blocking a certain post or they may choose to sleep over it for a while or ignore it altogether. The decision and the power to act is in their hands. 
The huge quantum of hate-material churned out on an hourly and daily basis also makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the authorities to identify each and every such post and raise red-flag with the concerned social media company in a prompt manner. By the time authorities move against any hate-post, the damage in most cases has already been done. 
Then, there are many other “ifs” and “buts” in dealing with global social media giants, some of whom now operate regional offices from India – a traditional foe. Obviously, when Indians are working for these social media platforms, they are the ones who call the shots in certain cases or at least are responsible for the execution of decisions, especially regarding the blocking of hate and religiously sensitive material and anti-Pakistan content. Yet, at the same time, they are fast in suppressing any voices, which highlight the legitimate freedom struggle in the occupied Kashmir, and the plight and targeting of Muslims living in India by the extremist Hindu nationalists. 
The huge clout of these companies, which operate under the umbrella of Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), has made framing and implementation of effective social media rules difficult. Facebook, Twitter, Google, Airbnb, Amazon, Apple, Expedia, LinkedIn, LINE and Rakuten – the member companies of the AIC – have so far ignored Pakistan’s requests that they open their regional offices here. At the same time, these companies have by-and-large showed an insensitivity towards Pakistani concerns regarding the use of their platforms by the extremist elements. 
According to Maulana Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi, chief of the All Pakistan Ulema Council and special representative to the prime minister on religious harmony, the “misuse of social media poses a greater threat to the state compared to enemy tanks, missiles and other sophisticated weapons.”
“The irresponsible use of the social media is putting relations among the followers of various sects at stake,” he said.
And Maulana Ashrafi’s concerns have solid grounds. 
For instance, during last Muharram Pakistani authorities identified a sectarian hate trend, which was promoted by more than 5,000 users. On investigating, it was found out that only 70 of the 5,000 users fanning this trend were operating from Pakistan, while the rest were from abroad, especially India. But the target users of this trend were Pakistanis and the aim was to trigger a conflict among followers of different sects. 
This is what is being defined by the security experts as the hybrid war, which has been imposed on Pakistan by its enemies with an aim to sow confusion and division among Pakistanis in a way that it results in violence, chaos, anarchy and instability within the country. And many Pakistanis facilitate the enemy objectives by design or default. Their words become their actions. 
For example, the All Pakistan Ulema Council forwarded to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority a list of 100 or so YouTube channels which were involved in fanning hate on sectarian and religious ground. But, according to Maulana Ashrafi, the PTA expressed its limitations in dealing with such material effectively as it remains the prerogative of the YouTube if and when they remove such content. 
“Freedom of speech is important… but it does not mean attacking and ridiculing other peoples’ beliefs, customs and sacred personalities,” Maulana Ashrafi said.
In the same spirit, Prime Minister Imran Khan on October 25 wrote a letter to Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, to ban Islamophobia just as it banned questioning or criticizing of the holocaust. “Given the rampant abuse and vilification of Muslims on social media platforms, I would ask you to place a similar ban on Islamophobia and hate against Islam for Facebook that you have put in place for the Holocaust. The message of hate must be banned in total…”, Prime Minister Khan wrote. 
While there is a broader issue of Islamophobia and hate material against Muslims, which has a potential of leading to active hostilities and violence, Pakistan’s immediate challenge is also to curb the use of social media which is being used to incite sectarian hate and violence. 
How to meet the challenge of unsocial, extremist and criminal attitudes and activities on the social media? Finding an answer to this question is easier said than done. 
To begin with, the government must expedite framing of the social media rules, which remain pending since February this year when Prime Minister Khan directed the Information Technology Ministry to initiate this process. 
The government would have to adopt a multi-pronged strategy to streamline the social media that must include incentives for the global companies to open shop in Pakistan as well as bringing their income under the tax net. At the same time, the government should ensure swift and efficient punitive action against those found involved in using social media platforms for fanning hate material. Right now even if laws are there against the hate-speech and misuse of social media, they are not being implemented.
If there is a need to further strengthen these laws it must be done on a war footing. Pakistan can borrow a page from Turkey on how it manages the social media, which if left unregulated, results in intensifying polarization and discord in the developing countries.   
Engaging stakeholders is important, but this engagement should be done with a firm deadline and in no way mean that the state and its institutions surrender before the organized, and in some cases, west-sponsored rights’ groups, which advocate and demand unregulated freedom on both the social and traditional media. 
The government also needs to explore the possibility of making licenses, NOCs or declaration mandatory for setting up YouTube channels and websites operating from Pakistan. Setting up a news channel or bringing out a news publication remains a lengthy and cumbersome business in Pakistan, but opening up media platforms on social media and creating websites and YouTube channels remain only a click away. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the government should make establishing the later platforms as difficult as that of traditional media, but the social media platforms need to be streamlined and regulated. At the same time, government should ensure easier processes for setting up new traditional media outlets which need to be encouraged and boosted to stand against the tide of fake news, propaganda, outright lies and hate content spread through the new media.
Freedom of expression is important, but it must come with responsibility. No one should be allowed the freedom to wreck the harmony of our society or damage the state and its institutions.

The writer is an eminent journalist who regularly contributes for print and electronic media. 
E-mail: [email protected], Twitter: @AmirZia1

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