April 24, 2015: Karachi. Renowned activist Sabeen Mahmud had just been murdered. As her friends, family and well-wishers tried to comprehend what had happened, some took to social media to vent their grief and anger. One such person was Aliya (name changed to protect identity), who posted a strong rebuke to the country for her friend’s death. Little did she know then that she was about to come under a coordinated online attack which would eventually force her to suspend her social media accounts for a while.
As Aliya and her friends were preparing for a protest against Sabeen’s death in Islamabad, her tweet on the night of Sabeen’s murder resurfaced. It had been tagged by an account with 10,000 users with a remarkably high engagement ratio. The conversation between this account and its followers revolved around targeting Aliya. Soon, other right-wing accounts also got involved. The conversation revolved around either directly threatening the lady in question with rape or murder, or trying to incite others to commit violence against her.
By this time, Aliya’s friends had also gotten involved, suggesting that she delete her tweet which had brewed such a storm. But by then, it was too late. Her comment had been copied, and the coordinated attack against her had moved to Facebook. One page, with over 350,000 likes was leading the charge, continuing to threaten and abuse the person in question. There were over a thousand comments in the said conversation.
With the attacks continuing to gather speed, Aliya’s friends suggested she go offline for a while. She deactivated her Twitter account, which lead to celebratory tweets from the accounts that had attacked her.
The nightmare wasn’t over yet. Even a year later, when she resumed her social media activity, she continued to get the occasional abuse and threat, either on Twitter or on Facebook.
Aliya is not alone. There are numerous other individuals and groups that have been targeted online, either for their religious beliefs (or lack thereof), their sexual orientation or their politics.
Who is behind all these coordinated attacks? Is it just a group of likeminded people or is something more sinister happening?
The answer is not immediately clear. Take, for example, political parties. All of them have well-funded social media wings, which operate on all popular platforms. Their agenda is multi-pronged. Not only do they spread the party’s mantra, they are always on the lookout to engage with the public in the hope of bringing them into their fold. Also, these groups do not miss any opportunity to bring their opponents down. At the same time, they monitor the local media looking for news they can highlight to their benefit, or play down/defend for their party.
The same is the case with religio-political groups such as the Jamaatud Dawa. Their aim, online at least, is to highlight the charity work being done by them, while highlighting the atrocities being done by the Indians in Kashmir. This makes sense, as the Kashmir cause is one of the main rallying cries for the group and remains one of their main sources of funding and recruitment.
From here things become murkier. There are numerous accounts, pages and groups, on Twitter and Facebook, which bring together a motley crew of people, both in Pakistan and abroad. The only thing bringing these people together is some kind of shared identity. It can be neo-nationalism, anti-liberalism, anti-secularism etc. In Aliya’s case, she was attacked by not one but at least two such groups. What Aliya said online ran counter to what these two groups stood for.
However, the most dangerous subject matter is religion, and by extension, ethics and morality. Pakistan’s current state of Islamisation is such that people are willing to take a person’s life on mere suspicion.
Where does the law stand on this? Freedom of expression and speech, both offline and online, is a fundamental human right. Pakistan is a signatory of numerous international accords which protect an individual’s rights to FoE and FoS both. The on-ground situation is clearly quite different, though.
Recently, the government has launched a crackdown on what it calls the ‘misuse of social media’. According to them, this misuse includes blasphemous content, and disrespecting the armed forces. While blasphemy is criminalised, there is no law whatsoever that protects any government institution or person from criticism. Yet, the government is busy silencing online dissent.
Why is this happening? Many people believe that a new national narrative is being forged. Social media was the last frontier for those that found it difficult to conform to the norm. Such people also include those who were mere free thinkers, asking questions of themselves and their beliefs. These conversations are dying down.
In this new Pakistan, there will be no room for any form of intellectual conversation, thought or critique. How a society can move forward in such an Orwellian environment is anybody’s guess.
The writer is a freelance journalist.