Political Astroturf | Najam Sethi

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Imran Khan has accused the government of abusing the new cyber crime law by “harassing his party’s social media political activists”. This, he claims, is “unacceptable in a democracy”.

This is rich. The PTI’s “social media cells” are the most aggressive and abusive “political astroturf” campaigners in the country whose idea of democracy and freedom is to use such notions of civil society to trample on the rights and freedoms of others.

The PTI’s political astroturfing refers to micro-blogging platforms of politically-motivated party loyalists who use multiple centrally controlled accounts to impersonate users and post falsehoods to create widespread negativity for opposing opinions, individuals and parties via “trends” and “twitter bombs” that harass opponents into silence or submission.

But the PTI is not alone in exploiting this strategy. The PMLN and the intelligence agencies have also gotten wise to the use and abuse of such platforms. But there is a difference between the two. The former is mostly defensive while the latter is patently aggressive. The former tends to focus on exaggerating its successes and denying its failures while the latter is concentrated on portraying its opponents and critics as “traitors” or national security risks. This is particularly destabilising for institutions of governance and can even be life threatening for individuals when it provokes complaints of treason or blasphemy by motivated parties. A case in point is the temporary disappearance of a number of “bloggers” recently who were accused of “unpatriotic” behaviour and taught a lesson.

The use of social media, especially Twitter with its 140-character limit, to convey political meaning has also acquired another dimension in mediating conflict, especially as regards civil-military relations in this country. In the best of circumstances, this subject is a minefield of distrust and uncertainty borne of the historical burden of irresistible institutions and immovable politicians. Therefore its use to address the balance of power in a delicate political transition can be misplaced. This has been all too evident in the last few years. Indeed, a recent tweet in which the military establishment publicly “rejected” a government notification trembled on the edge of confrontation and constitutional disaster, confirming that social media is not the best medium for airing and resolving civil-military issues.

There is an ongoing debate in the West on whether or not social media is anti-social in the sense that it detracts from or replaces personal interactions and relationships. But in countries like Pakistan which evidence a high level of intolerance for diversity, the anti-social dimension of social media is more problematic. The more a society is steeped in the passionate values of religious singularity and cultural intolerance, the greater the potential of social media for negativity to thwart freedom of expression. Instead of being a vehicle for disseminating well-informed truth with facts, social media has become the instrument of hate, bigotry, prejudice and false pride.

It may be noted that the notion of individual freedom of expression in tolerant constitutional democracies is rooted in notions of social and corporate responsibility. My freedom ends where yours begins. Transgressions are accountable in the courts through laws that define and penalize defamation. But no such recourse is available in Pakistan because the courts are notoriously loath to implement the defamation law. So there is a free-for-all hatred syndrome on social media. A minuscule minority exploits the political astroturf to silence the majority into submission. Facilitation is provided by the relative anonymity and even falsehood of the platform. The more illiterate, ill-informed or politically motivated such platforms, the more social media tends to acquire a distinctly anti-social, anti-civil society personality.

But social media isn’t only Twitter and Facebook. It is a host of social apps for communication, the most popular being Whatsapp because it claims to protect your identity and communication. Its potency can be gauged from the proliferating Whatsapp groups of likeminded people who form a bandwidth for disseminating outrage and passion. In the recent case of Dawnleaks, according to one research analyst, such Whatsapp groups of retired army officers have forged a formidable pressure point on the serving army leadership that recently led it to a confrontation with the elected government. The fact that most such groups comprise upright, confident and patriotic officers makes their organized vocal presence all the more ominous. Much the same can be said of illiberal and sectarian middle class intellectuals, tv anchors, hosts and journalists who use social media to dominate the “national” discourse.

Social media was designed to meet the challenge of a new age of nation building. In the Middle East it helped disintegrate the mean structures of autocracy and dictatorship. But it then became a vehicle to promote even more dictatorial and radical ideologies that led to civil war and disintegration instead of democracy and stability. The challenge in Pakistan is not to allow social media to become such anti-social astroturf as to rupture the fragile and beleaguered structures of civil institutions and civil society that we have built up so painfully and haltingly.