Social media minefields

Social media minefields

In recent years the number of people engaged with social media has skyrocketed in Pakistan, but there are no institutions that offer advanced courses in the subject

People with interest in the dynamics of society can’t afford to ignore the worth and effects of social media in the contemporary world. But in a country like Pakistan where unpredictable events unfold every other day, the social media have twofold impact on the society. However, the social media is an undervalued area for research in Pakistani academics. It requires a lot of thought, but we are not even talking about it.

Social media has become the sharpest medium of mass media. Earlier, radio was considered to be the fastest medium to disseminate information because of its portability, but now new media has surpassed all traditional mediums. Because it gives control to its users to get whatever information interests them and whenever they want it.

In recent years the number of people engaged with social media has skyrocketed in Pakistan, and spinning everyday life at 360 degrees.

There is demand for media professionals and individuals in Pakistan who should study social media as a specialised academic and practical field of study to deal with the challenges coming forth along with this innovation.

Facebook is the leading social media platform with over 2 billion active users globally. In Pakistan, it has outdone all other applications with more than 30 million subscribers, and growing with every passing day. WhatsApp, FB Messenger, Youtube, Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat and Instagram etc are also very popular apps. Facebook Inc-owned WhatsApp is the second most used app for messages, pictures and videos sharing, whereas the #hashtag culture on Twitter has forced political parties to create a separate social media cell.

As of August 2017, Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) recorded nearly 140 million mobile phone users (71 per cent) out of total 207 million population. Whereas, the number of social media users on mobile phones has crossed 44 million. It has taken a long leap from once mere 1.4 million in 2013-14 to 44 million till 2017. The 46 million Broadband (DSL) internet subscribers make another plus, as still there are many people who use social media only on desktops/laptops.

The stats show that social media is now entrenched in most crucial parts of our lives. It has emerged as an effective platform for people to stay in touch with family and friends, and also for getting news, taking part in socio-political and socio-religious debates and activism, e-commerce and for so many other purposes. From political parties and state-run institutions to private business enterprises, all are dependent on social media to reach heterogeneous masses across all social strata.

On the other hand, as the number of social media subscribers is increasing in the current dynamic media environment, at the same time challenges are arising too.

To meet these challenges, the universities in the developed countries, fore-seeing the importance of social media, are offering research and masters degree programmes leading to PhD in new media or digital media to study the impact of new media on the society as well as to enhance new media production skills.

However, there are no institutions in Pakistan to study any form of new media at an advanced level.

The reason for in-depth study is that those new media applications sometime have major implications for its users and sometime have the power to shock us or surprise us, especially in Pakistan which has a vast collection of people from various ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds.

A recent incident can translate how powerful social media platforms can be and how dangerous things can turn out to be. Look at how a bunch of people paralysed almost the whole country including the Capital Islamabad by blocking major roads, and forced people to stay home. Social media played a vital role in mobilising the group members.

The group, led by a wheelchair-bound religious cleric Allama Khadim Hussain Rizvi, was taking so much advantage of social media that the government had to block the social media during the events of a so-called failed operation against this group in Islamabad. Rizvi has been using Facebook for two or three years to upload his video sermons given in rural areas of Punjab, and then his newly-formed far right political party Tahreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYRA) surprised many in NA-120 by polls in Lahore.

While the police were conducting operation to disperse the mob that had made the Capital hostage for 21 days, one of his Facebook pages was broadcasting live videos in which the page admin was also the commander of a group which was resisting the police by pelting stones and throwing tear gas shells back onto the police. He was not only inciting his live viewers against the authorities but also giving instructions. This video was being viewed by thousands of people and hundreds of them were sharing it live.

When the operation intensified, the cleric himself took to the Facebook and appealed to his supporters to come out in huge numbers and make things difficult for the law enforcers. The government, which was confused about what to do, finally halted the internet services in the whole country.

From Pakistan’s perspective, a country which has become victim of terrorism in the process of being the frontline state in fight against terrorism, the impact of social media is huge.

According to media reports, the terrorists who recently attacked Peshawar Agriculture University were using WhatsApp to get assistance from their handlers and sending them videos of the attack. Another instance is terrorist group Islamic State which is using Twitter and FB not only for recruitment but also to broadcast their messages before or after a suicide attacks. There are many other extreme examples in which terrorists were using social media.

Former army chief General Raheel Sharif, during a panel discussion on “Terrorism in the Digital Age” at the 47th World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, said that social media gives terrorists a big advantage. “I personally feel that these terrorists have the ability to mutate, morph and they can do it very quickly. Recruitment is one thing which is done on that (social media) and I think the financier, abettors, facilitators and the sympathisers all of them are involved in this,” he had said.

Another challenge is misuse of social media. Social media in Pakistan is growing rapidly, but users lack the ability to use it effectively. It has become a kind of ‘Hide Park’ where people are free to use whatever language they want to use and whatever content they wish to post. Because of no clear policy or law for the internet and lack of education and training, graphic content, hate speech, harassment of women and children, lack of basic broadcast ethics, fake news and other cyber crimes have become a routine. It is resulting in dangerous real world consequences, and needed to be pondered on at war footings. All those challenges can only be met with a scientific research in universities in the long run, and more effective initiatives taken by the state institutions.

The country, since 9/11 and even beyond, is battling with the utmost corrupt, insensitive and incapable leadership and bureaucracy. The result is lack of proper health and education, unemployment, lawlessness and eventually, poverty. But social media is breaking those barriers by offering a platform to the public to challenge the wrong policies of the ruling elite. Unless the challenges social media is posing are addressed, the immense gains of social media will likely be lost.

The youth is 60 per cent of Pakistan’s total population. According to a research conducted by daily Dawn, the youth from age group 15 to 34 covers 90 per cent of the total social media users. Given that the large number of social media audience consists of the youth, there is a great potential for educational institutes, private or public, to start offering new media programmes at certificate, diploma, masters and PhD level. Social media will not only help them in generating revenues but it can also help in institutional functions such as student recruitment, learning and marketing.

There is demand for media professionals and individuals in Pakistan who should study social media as a specialised academic and practical field of study to deal with the challenges coming forth along with this innovation. There is need to investigate the impact of new media on the society and culture, especially on youth. Also, there is need to gauge usage potential and effectiveness of social media to support democracy and economy.

By: Ahmad Noor

Source: http://tns.thenews.com.pk

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