Musings on Pakistani social media – Twitter edition

Caveats: I want to highlight four facts before you read this unstructured rant.

1. My political views are what are termed as “political islamist” or just “islamist”. So my observations and inferences that I have derived from them may be colored by those views.

2. The period I am covering here is from pre-May 2013 election till now.

3. I follow around 250 people on twitter and in addition say they Retweet (RT) 50 other people regularly so in effect my observations are based on tweets of total of 300 people

and most importantly, as brought to attention by one commentator,

4. I am generalizing here i.e., brushing with broad strokes. Its just a high level view of my observations.

Pre-election period

PTI by appealing to educated and plugged-into-social-media youth had really taken off and had become a formidable foe by engaging the disengaged youth. Other parties also took to twitter and facebook but one has to admit that PTI had the strongest presence on social media before the election. How they abused this position and how it ultimately fooled them into believing that being a majority on social media means being a majority in the parliament is covered by others extensively so I will not dwell on that.

All parties in Pakistan have an element of cult in them. Most people follow these parties not for the values or manifestos they have presented but because of their leaders. Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) has always been a cult of Bhutto on a national level, but under Zardari it has become a Sind regional party.

Supporters of PML-N mainly follow it for the Mian Nawaz Sharif and Mian Shahbaz Sharif but its more of a personality following rather than a cult. The only party that is not a cult is probably Jamat-e-Islami but its too small a party. We also have Awami National Party (ANP) leadership of which remains in the ahl-e-bait of its founder Baacha Khan. But in relative terms, these parties are open to or at least tolerant of criticism of their actions as well their leaders.

On the other extreme, we have Muttahida Quomi Movement (MQM) a party of urban Sind headed by self-exiled leader Altaf Hussain. The cult eader status bestowed to him is extra-ordinary. They are highly intolerant of criticism and no newspaper which has offices or circulation in Karachi will dare to criticize them.

However, they failed to understand the impact of social media mainly twitter. MQM didn’t appreciate the fact that twitter allows people to express their frustrations and criticisms anonymously something which the general public couldn’t do on print and electronic media without fear of reprisal from MQM. So in of absence any criticism in public sphere, MQM fooled themselves into believing that people of Karachi will vote for them out of fear or will remain at home. However, quite a large number of people in Karachi were fed up with MQM and wanted to vote PTI (as no other party reached out to them or even talked to them) but when the voters reached polling stations, in some cases they weren’t allowed to vote, their vote had already been cast, or in some places MQM workers were filling ballot boxes with fake votes and at some places they strong armed the polling station staff to not reach the polling station on the allocated time_a fact which came to light in voting of national assembly seat from Karachi NA-250. MQM presumed that like earlier times people will take this silently. Surprisingly, people refused to be cowed down and in certain cases took to streets (which would never have happened earlier).

For MQM this was a first i.e., ordinary people protesting against them openly. They were at a loss as to how to counter this onslaught and it led to a few faux pas speeches by their leader Quaid-e-Tatheer Pir Altaf Hussain Bhai. (I have covered these  here “MQM’s reign of terror post elections 2013″ and “Why and How MQM Rabita Committee was beaten”). On the social media front, MQM was totally ill prepared for the criticism and abuses that started against them. People who would normally be discrete in their criticism of MQM even privately as they live and work in areas surrounded by MQM supporters took to criticizing MQM openly on Facebook where you are not anonymous. On twitter, frustrated Karachiites tagged MQM representative and became abusive towards them, towards MQM but most importantly towards Quaid-e-Tatheer Pir Altaf Hussain Bhai. MQM was not at all prepared for this barrage of criticism. This post “Social Media Strategy of MQM” makes it pretty clear how MQM deals with criticism generally and how trying the same tactics on social media actually backfired. Later they created a lot of fake accounts to tweet favorable news and occasionally create and tweet a lot of hashtags to get MQM related topics to trend such as #united4Altaf #onlyAltaf yesterday but its safe to say that MQM is still not able find its bearings on twitter. (For some twitter humor -> “Altaf Hussain and Titanic”)

The party that made the most use of social media pre-election was PTI led by former cricketer and philanthropist Imran Khan. The cult leader status that the supporters bestowed to Imran Khan was comparable to cult status of Quaid-e-Tatheer Pir Altaf Hussain Bhai amongst MQM supporters. PTI supporters would not tolerate any criticism of PTI much less Imran Khan and would stoop down to hurtling abuses to anyone daring to criticize or even trying to give suggestions to change their policies/manifestos etc. They earned the name “PTI trolls” as they would come down together on any journalist or analyst on twitter. They also created fake accounts of journalists/analysts and tweeted positive propaganda with respect to PTI and with respect to opponents, they spread malicious propaganda. This is what a fake account of, Jang/TheNews journalist and anchor of GEO TV program Jirga, Saleem Safi tweeted most probably operated by a PTI troll on election day. Tweets have since been deleted but I took a screenshot of them.

This and similar other tweets from other fake accounts upset Saleem Safi so much that he wrote a whole column in Urdu about it

I am having fun with it

Post Election Period

Once the elections were held, it was hard for PTI supporters to fathom that despite having such a huge presence on social media, how come the outcome was not what they desired. They went into denial mode claiming mass scale rigging. Absence of Imran Khan from the scene due to his fall from the lifter two days before the election also meant that there was no leadership to guide them. PTI was a major force in urban centres but failed to make any headway in suburbs and rural areas. As such, when the results showed that masses didn’t vote overwhelmingly for PTI, PTI supporters stooped to calling general public Jaahil (ignorant). You have to understand that these voters of PTI were mainly first time voters and educated elite of Pakistan who had never bothered to vote earlier and credit goes to Imran Khan for engaging them. They were teachers, professionals, businessmen, corporate CEOs and consultants educated from best Pakistani and western universities but they couldn’t take the loss at ballot box and still could not come to grips with the fact that a vote of someone living in rural area or not as highly educated as them or as successful as them is equivalent to their vote. There is a wonderful website which collected unquotable gems from these Harvard, Wharton, IBA, LUMS etc educated youth on social media. Do visit it Public shaming #Pakvotes as it will give you some insight into their mindset. A wonderful essay in this regard that I cannot recommend enough is The Disadvantages of Elite Education by William Deresiewicz, which is a must read.

Now that PTI has its government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province, focus of PTI trolls has shifted to actions of their own government and there is significant reduction in their social media trolling. Probably they too have realized that this trolling is actually destroying the little goodwill that they have left, if any.

Lets move to the other intelligentsia we have on social media. These are the so called English speaking journalists and analysts on twitter and can be described as left-of-centre in their leanings and probably hate PTI for its rightist leanings. They also despise the general public of Pakistan as when it comes to issues such as terrorism etc, general public leans right. They are best described in the following tweet

Pakistan especially KPK is facing a lot of terrorism. One such day was yesterday wherein a Terrorists strike in Quetta, Peshawar, NWA

As many as 49 persons, including security personnel, lost their lives and over 100 others sustained injuries in separate incidents of terrorism in Quetta, Peshawar and North Waziristan on Sunday.

Now if one followed the intelligentsia tweets yesterday, it was all outrage. There was empathy for victims but that was also a tool to express outrage. Outrage against terrorists? No. Outrage against PTI (as they rule in KPK) as well as common man as he is not fully behind the army in this War on Terror or because the common man opposes the Drone strategy

The above are a sample most read journalists/writers in English press of Pakistan and all they have to offer is to blame the common man or blame Punjab. The above is just a sample. Yesterday, my timeline was filled with such useless outrage from morning till night. It is not as if we are not fighting this war. We have been fighting this war for last 10 years. Here is a good piece of research Numbers of Terror on the myths propagated by these journalists in terms of number of people killed and as if our army is not fighting this war.

Twitter has widened the schisms in our society. These journalists consider the rest of the population as illiterate or unenlightened, it has actually polarized the society with the result that if these journalists/analysts/”though leaders” decide to bandy behind a particular issue, the rest of population believes there is a hidden agenda. Like PTI trolls and supporters, by just promoting their own causes and belittling the causes that the rest of the population wants to stand behind, they polarize the society. What they think is satire is actually read as affront by common man.  They don’t try to listen to other viewpoint or convince him of their arguments rather shove their views down common man’s throat. As such, common man refuses to listen to them and runs in opposite direction. As such, we all have our pet projects and causes which are mutually exclusive rather opposites. They are pro-drone, common man is anti-drone. The people who the common man have voted in want to use negotiation with Taliban as part of overall strategy because fighting them for last 10 years hasn’t resulted in any gains as far as common man knows so these people make fun of common man, his thinking, leave no opportunity to snark at it and consequently want nothing to do with negotiations. This polarization manifested itself clearly in case of Malala attack. The innocent minor girl faced a barbaric attack by Taliban. However, the vehemence with which the aforementioned journalists/analysts/thinks took up her cause and displayed their outrage actually distanced the common man from her. Whereas she needed the whole nation to stand behind her, the constant point scoring by our “intelligentsia” made sure that common man believe that she is part of some larger conspiracy or hidden agenda.

The intelligentsia continues to blame Zia ul Haq for creating this confused nation but they have only themselves to blame. Zia has been dead for more than 25 years. A whole generation has been born and grown up during this time. What have they to show for this 25 years to correct Zia’s wrongs? A few columns blaming Zia. 25 years down the line they will still be blaming Zia and all they will have to show for their efforts will be their satirical and hate filled columns, blogs and tweets. Lot of good they are doing.

Below is one of my sunni bias manifesting itself

Getting 100 people killed in a fortnight is a genocide of Karachiites. But we take it in a passing. 12 people were killed in Karachi day before yesterday. But a lot of people only feel outraged when its someone from minority because it allows them to push their agenda whatever that is.

This is till 1155am today: Karachi: Six killed in violent incidents, police encounter today. Only half a day has passed. Assuming pattern continues, around 12 will be killed today, which is a number equivalent to people killed in a bomb blast. But bomb blasts happen once a week or twice. However, this many people keep on dying on streets of Karachi everyday yet there is no outrage in any quarter.

A brilliant, thoughtful and well-structured read on selective outrage that we as a society show is Death of a Nation. Its a must read.

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4 thoughts on “Musings on Pakistani social media – Twitter edition

  1. There is far too much generalization in your post regarding both PTI and MQM. There is some truth to the cult phenomenon (far more prevalent in MQM, imho) but there are tons of honest, educated followers of both PTI and MQM, who DO NOT abuse others. The trolls are a small, extremely vocal sliver of the overall supporter base of PTI. But I do agree with your observations regarding liberal journalists and columnists.

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