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Karachi

December 3, 2016

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‘Too much of social media bogs down actual activism’

The biggest gathering at Tahrir Square was seen on the day when Hosni Mubarak’s administration had blocked social media in Egypt. With no access to social media updates, people came out of their homes and flooded the streets culminating in a massive crowd at Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo.

While it is true that the driving force behind the participants was generated on social media platforms, the other side of the picture is that social media had itself become a hurdle in the way of launching street agitation and movements against oppression.

Most of the people who had gathered at Tahrir Square that day earlier used social media platforms to vent out their resentment rather than turning it into an organised struggle.

To drive his point home, political analyst and literary figure Ghazi Salahuddin, while speaking on the second day of the 9th International Urdu Conference at the Karachi Arts Council on Friday, said excessive use of social media was spreading passivity among the masses, barring them from participating in political activism.

Accompanying him, veteran journalist and columnist Wusatullah Khan noted that social media messages played an integral role in calling in participants at the Tahrir Square and informing them about the schedules for protests.

Quoting the example of Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi, whose body was photographed washed ashore face-down on a Turkish beach last year, he said the three-year-old boy’s picture had shaken the world but only a few European countries opened their gates for refugees, while the majority of the world, including Muslim-majority countries, did not assist them despite the outrage on social media.

Salahuddin and Khan were speaking at a session tiled “Effects of new media on society”. Khan also quoted the example of Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian vegetable seller who set himself on fire on December 17, 2010 after his stall was confiscated by a municipal officer.

“If the video of Bouazizi's self-immolation was not posted on social media, the incident could have been swept under the carpet,” he added.

Khan said the so-called social media activism had unfortunately become an alternative to real-life activism - a comment on which all other panellists unanimously agreed.

Noted journalist Mazhar Abbas recalled the incident of a man who fell down from a building at Zainab Market in Saddar. “Instead of helping him, people were filming the incident on their smartphones. This incident was enough to depict the stupidity of the age of smartphones and social media,” he added.

Threat to journalism

Abbas noted that mainstream media was fast developing a habit of picking up unverified news from social media websites.

“The emergence of social media has made access to information quite easy and quick, but the flood of unconfirmed news has brought new challenges for journalists.”

The new media, added Abbas, was a threat to the journalistic norms and values as news was being disseminated without any verification.

“We were told by our seniors that ‘if in doubt, leave it out’. But now, compromises are being made.”

Downfall of communication skills

Famous historian and scholar Dr Nauman Naqvi talked about how social media was causing the downfall of written and verbal communication.

“This problem is not just present in Pakistan. I have taught in some of the best American universities. Even there I came across students who were unable to translate their thoughts properly,” he said.

Citing a conversation between two students at one of the world’s best universities, Naqvi said he had heard one them saying, “You know! I was like wow, really.”

The professor said it had become a habit among the youth to speak incomplete, shortened sentences which will further affect the next generation.

Merits and demerits

Unlike the other panellists, senior journalist and broadcaster Raza Ali Abidi spoke more about the merits of the new media.

“Life will now revolve around wifi, we must prepare ourselves and embrace the change,” said Abidi, who has recently found his lost dear ones on social media.

“It [social media] helps us find our lost ones, share a little happiness; it’s like a knife - you can either use it either for cutting fruit or killing people.”

Playwright Noorul Huda Shah said people in Pakistan were subjected to suppression in previous eras and since the emergence of social media, they had found a platform to speak their hearts out.

“Voiceless people are speaking now. Let them speak. They will learn how to speak decently and intelligently only if they’ll not be stopped from speaking.”

Alienation

The speakers also talked about how social media was bringing people closer through a virtual reality but increasing distance among people living together.

“My son places his head on my lap and asks me to tell him stories but only during a power outage. As soon as the power is back, he runs towards the internet and I keep asking him to listen to the unfinished story,” said Khan while reading his paper, which received much appreciation from the audience.

The panellists also spoke about political alienation. For Salahuddin, banned Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat’s Masroor Nawaz Jhangvi winning the PP-78 could be described as the limitation of social media activism.

Naqvi said Donald Trump’s success too showed the limited role social media posts could play in changing ground realities.

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