Lessons From Quetta: Is Social Media Outrage Leading To More Harm Than Good?

Lessons From Quetta: Is Social Media Outrage Leading To More Harm Than Good?
Pakistan’s social media revolution is only 10 to 15 years old and yet it can claim to have ushered in a number of radical changes in the country’s political culture. Drowning successive governments in the avalanche of negative publicity has become so easy that anybody—even those who have never succeeded in registering themselves as successful journalists in the mainstream media—can do it with a few clicks on their computers or smartphones.

Remaining visible is an art in our society and those with little success to their credit in mainstream journalism have acquired mastery over this art with the help of social media tools. The already vocal and visible have become yet more visible and more vocal during the past 15 years. For this they don’t have to create a masterpiece—simple and poorly constructed tweets or Facebook messages would do. Social media campaigns with political content hardly ever contain any serious message. They are usually about naming and shaming with antagonistic content. More precisely it is usually meant to defame, malign and express raw emotions about any personality, issue or group that has said or done something which is not “politically correct.”

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s latest assertion related to the Quetta Dharna, in which he seemingly declared the Hazara protestors to be “blackmailers,” created a very tense situation in the country, across a wide range of the social and ideological spectrum. People from every walk of life are already grief-stricken over the Hazara killing – expressions of sympathy poured in from across the country in support of the community. Apart from a lunatic fringe, society generally wanted Hazara concerns addressed by the government and the state.

But then social media warriors jumped in and took Prime Minister Khan to task for his less-than-socially-savvy remarks about Quetta protest. It appeared that there was a concerted effort underway to malign the Prime Minister and the government. The Prime Minister labeled the Quetta protestors as “blackmailers” and demanded that they should bury the dead Hazara coal miners before he could visit them. The protestors, on the other hand, said that they would bury the dead only after Prime Minister Khan would visit them in Quetta. It was heartening to see this utterly unnecessary controversy put to rest by the efforts of some political leaders in Balochistan.

Two lessons could be learned from this brief controversy—first that social media warriors who are habitual rabble-rousers should not be considered commentators who can produce any serious political content. Secondly and most importantly, the situation that the Hazara community is facing could not be properly understood through a merely sectarian perspective.

The class of social media warriors comprises of hardcore political activists of opposition political parties, former working journalists turned armchair analysts and public intellectuals. And they have an axe to grind in this situation—they want to defame the Prime Minister (trust me there will be umpteen opportunities to prove Imran Khan wrong, but this particular situation requires a different response).

For the past two years there have been ample warnings from Pakistan’s security apparatus that ISIS has established itself in southern and south-eastern Afghanistan. The latest of this warning came in a press release of the Cabinet’s national security committee. It is now common knowledge that that a splinter sectarian group of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi(LeJ) has started to act as a local proxy of ISIS. This happened after the latter escaped from Syria in the wake of the shattering defeat of ISIS at the hands of US forces and started to settle in southern and south-eastern Afghanistan.

ISIS is an organization which is an outcome of the industrial, secular and modern ethos of Sunni minorities in Iraq—with influence from Arab nationalist armies of Saddam Hussein— and the Sunni majority in Syria. The equipment, organizational skills and ferocity that they have displayed in their terrorism is a function of their tryst with modern urban and industrial life in these two societies. Their anti-Shia animus is more the function of peculiar sectarian situations in Iraq and Syria. That is why I said earlier that the sectarian lens will be a poor tool to understand the situation that the Hazara community is facing. These remnants of ISIS who have now reached Afghanistan and Pakistan have not entered into an alliance with a group comprising any village mullahs: the sectarian group that they hired as proxy reportedly comprises tech-savvy and university graduates.

Now a last word for the social media warriors: the Hazara community might prove to be a test case for the Pakistani security apparatus. They are vulnerable and come from a downtrodden segment of society. Social media warriors, on the other hand, are from well-to-do families and hardly confront the situation of facing the terrorists’ bullets or bombs. Their strategy of pitting the Hazara community against the government is a dangerous game, and at the end of the day, will prove very harmful for that community.

In this situation of dire threat, the Hazaras' only hope is strong government protection: perhaps some special arrangement for them by the military and the government. After all, they—strictly legally speaking—are first citizens of Pakistan and only at the secondary level do they belong to this or that sect. Social media warriors should realize that they will have other, better opportunities for defaming the government.

Umer Farooq is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. He writes on security, foreign policy and domestic political issues.