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Democracy, Dissent And Social Media

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The relentless course of history has brought us a map and a light in the form of internet and social media today, and it is just the kind of thing that makes autocratic rulers and traditional power bearers tremble. It is unfortunate that a benevolent state should also feel the need to fear such a democratising tool. After all, democracy is the most legitimising instrument of a regime and its administrative functions.

Social media has pervaded virtually all aspects of modern life. There are 3.8 billion people, or roughly half of world population, who use social media globally. According to some estimates, another billion users will be added to this number within a few years.

Pakistan saw the advent of internet in 1992, and there has been no looking back for Pakistanis to make their place firmly in the digital landscape ever since.

As one of the countries with the youngest population in the world, this can well mean that a truly revolutionising and democratising tool has found its way into the Pakistani population’s hands. As many as two-thirds of Pakistani population are below the age of thirty, and the country’s population is projected to rise at the 4th largest rate in the world. Youth may finally be on their way to grasping the reins of their fortune in this country.

According to statistics, Facebook sees the addition of one new Pakistani user every 12 seconds. Twitter already has a bustling community of over 3 million users. About 28% of social media users make use of more than one platform simultaneously.

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These statistics suggest that social media can potentially serve as a great harbinger of social change and a launchpad for positive initiatives. However, the other side of the coin is equally important. The same tools that can serve to strengthen democracy in a population can also be exploited to produce consensus and support for the very forces that seek to destroy democracy.

Therefore, it is imperative not only to understand the dynamics of the digital era, but also to devise a systematic and organised approach for its use. It is upon the users of social media to make it a space that enables democracy, diversity and freedom of expression rather than one where ubiquitous detractors constantly prey upon people’s fears, anxieties and innocence.

To clamp and control democracy is tantamount to violating the laws of nature itself. Those who commit this crime choke whole societies’ social, psychological and physical development. To silence someone is the same as refusing to acknowledge their right to better living conditions, and to keep them submerged in their present situation, however humiliating it may be.

There are ample examples of such silencing from our own culture.

Women of Pakistan try to weather debilitating onslaughts from every side: they suffer harassment and abuse online, and at home they face hindrances to expressing themselves freely. Anachronistic cultural norms continue to encroach upon women’s rights, and have now found their way into online spaces. An astoundingly large number of Pakistani men either prohibit women of their families from using social media or censor them heavily.

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Naturally, in a society that eagerly stamps out dissent, the more marginalised a group, the greater censorship it faces. This is true for women, minority ethnic and religious groups as well as the downtrodden and poor classes.

For people to truly reap the benefits of the digital age, social media and greater access to information, they must recognise the potential hazards also brought about by the technology. One of the most important things for people to develop is the ability to distinguish fact from fiction. Unfortunately, this is not an easy task and demands a lot of patience and hard work. Ideally, efforts should be made to educate the masses on methods to verify information as well as to identify “trolls”.

The onus to provide access to tools that empower a people lies first and foremost on the state and governments. The government should enable people living in far-flung areas to use digital technology. At the same time, civic society also can be immensely enterprising in achieving this.

The people of Pakistan, and the global community at large, are provided with more means to establish a harmonious, cordial, and mutually beneficial cosmopolitan society in the digital age than ever before. We must not let this opportunity slide by us. Human history is replete with instances where we wish things had been different. Let’s make our milieu stand out. Let’s stand democracy.

 

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Naya Daur