It may sound hyperbolic to say this, but here goes: the battle for the soul of Pakistan’s political future will be won or lost just as much on Facebook and Twitter as it will on the streets.
It has by now become cliche for there to be social media outrage at the many everyday horrors that pass for routine life in Pakistan. It is equally cliche for people to use that same forum to express what they view as the uselessness of venting on social media while tragedies continue unabated offline. There is certainly merit to the thought that activism that spills over to the physical public space matters a great deal, but to minimise the importance of speaking out online is to severely underestimate its power.
Let us take a look at some numbers first. There are over 20 million internet users in Pakistan, 16 million users from Pakistan on Facebook, and over two million LinkedIn users, according to WeAreSocial, a Singapore-based consulting firm. Twitter statistics by country are difficult to find, but it is a safe assumption that there are probably more Pakistanis on Twitter than on LinkedIn. These numbers indicate that while internet usage in Pakistan is far from universal, it is not confined to the economic elite of the country either.
The average Pakistani spends about an hour online every day, according to Ansr.io, a mobile survey company, and a significant proportion of that is spent on social media. Think about that for a minute. Over 16 million Pakistanis interacting on a regular basis with each other on Facebook, millions of them doing so every single day for a significant proportion of the day. Facebook, in short, is the public square writ large.
I am not suggesting, of course, that Facebook activism has the power to change governments or the structure of the political system, at least not overnight. But it matters for the same reason that a protest on a street corner matters: it is a forum for letting people know where you stand. And for likeminded people who were afraid to speak out, it is thecomforting indication that they are not alone. It is that feeling of kinship among likeminded individuals that gives voice to ideas that are, for the moment, on the fringe of popular political opinion and brings them closer to the mainstream.
This process is just as influential in changing norms of acceptable behaviour, perhaps even more so, than face-to-face interactions, even among people who do not have the internet. Ideas have a tendency to spread beyond online spaces and into the political mainstream.
For example, a leading news channel’s apology for hate speech against Ahmadis was a reaction to protests that were entirely online, but news of it will likely spread far beyond the internet-using population of Pakistan. At first, it will have little effect. But then, the more polite sections of our society, who nonetheless give in to casual bigotry, will be reminded of it the next time they think they want to say something against a religious or ethnic minority. Perhaps, they will even go so far as to restrain themselves from making a bigoted comment. At the next Twitter outrage, they will be reminded again of their previous restraint and this time they may go one step further and discreetly move the conversation in a different direction. The third time it happens, perhaps they will even gently chide someone else for their bigotry. And thus the idea will be planted inside that particular social circle, from where it will spread to others.
The above example, of course, is an accelerated timeline of how social change happens. But this is how we will create space for freedom of thought in Pakistan. ‘Live and let live’ will become prevalent online before it comes onto the physical realm. This is not to say, of course, that protests on the streets will not be necessary. But the Facebook and Twitter outrage is how we got from a handful of people at candle-light vigils at Salmaan Taseer’s assassination to the hundreds protesting at Lal Masjid in Islamabad. That is how much we have progressed in just four years. Imagine how much further we can go if we keep pushing.