With increased internet penetration in Pakistan, the youth of the country has taken enthusiastically to connecting and socializing via social media networks. It has allowed expression and surfacing of youth voices like never before. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Thumblr, Blogsphere etc. have offered convenient public forums for a large number of people to interact, to share their stories, information, personal experiences or views etc. Of the different networks, Facebook remains the most popular here. Sixty two percent of Pakistan’s population consists of the youth, classified as those in the 18 – 24 age range. Of these, 8 million are users of Facebook.
Social media is proving itself as a powerful tool, with the power to change people’s minds, to become an agent for positive social change. It has great potential to sensitize people about issues that were not talked about before or considered taboo. Unfortunately, however, we observe that in Pakistan too, social media and networking platforms are heavily used for hate speech, misogyny and harassing women online. Hence, there is a dire need to turn the tables and take control of technology, to make digital spaces secure for women, and to empower women for their socio-economic well being without threats to their safety. We believe that social media can be used to spread awareness of the harms caused to women with unthoughtful use, to encourage social responsibility and sensitivity, and thus to help prevent violence against women and girls.
Given that Facebook is the most popular of social media networks in Pakistan, its facilitation of hate speech, misogyny, homophobia, sexism and racism is a cause for alarm, with videos and photos of domestic violence, beheadings and rapes posted online regularly. Many Facebook pages have images of women bleeding, bruised, tied up, tortured or being beaten up. These pages are termed comical or humorous and people, including women themselves, share these for fun. This has caused desensitization toward rape, assault and even murder of women, encouraging popularity and growth of such pages.
The Pakistani Facebook page ‘Comics by Arsalan’ is one such example, with more than 199, 000 likes. The page often hosts images and comics homophobic and sexist in nature. What is alarming is that people read such comics, enjoy, share and re-share them without realizing the consequences of doing so. Children growing up around pictures insulting or injuring women, around jokes about rape and assault, will be conditioned to think these acts are fine; that these acts are normal and part of society. Imagine the state of a society that grows up with such attitudes.
Another worrying Facebook trend in Pakistan is that of confessions pages. These pages, run by teenagers from various schools, expose offline activities of others with the intent of harm to reputation. These pages contain sexist content, compromised pictures, rumors, bullying and personal remarks based on appearances. Many contain compromised and extremely private pictures of girls, who are mostly college and university students. The content is then often posted on different forums under objectionable captions. Many girls have suffered acute depression, with some having attempted suicide due to severe bullying on these pages.
Recently, Facebook was used to display offensive advertisements containing fake videos and pictures of a local celebrity, harming her reputation. Others took to using these pictures and videos to advertise their brand and increase traffic on their websites.
In addition to the harmful and violent posts targeting women on Facebook, there is the issue of abusive comments on these posts targeting the victim, at times tagging other women. Resistance or expressions of concern by others also invites abuse.
Hence, in its efforts to turn tables, the Pakistan think-tank Bytes for All, Pakistan is campaigning to encourage people to use social media responsibly. Toward this end, it has recently launched a publication on the subject titled, ‘Social Media Ethics and Etiquette’. This guide was launched as a part of its Take Back The Tech (TBTT) campaign, which aims at empowering women via the use of technology to put an end to violence against them, to use technology to their benefit, and to surface their voices.
Bytes for All, Pakistan believes in absolute freedom of speech and expression, which is entirely different to causing violence or harm to others. We urge responsible use of social media for a Pakistan that is tolerant, respectful of privacy, dignity and safety of others.