Pakistan’s intolerant Social Media

Social media can be used to bridge polarisation, something mainstream media in Pakistan has failed to achieve .. But this is a society riddled with biases, intolerance, sarcasm, hatred and general abusive behaviour

Yasmeen Aftab Ali

By Yasmeen Aftab Ali

Intolerance is becoming a national hallmark. I am not talking of religious intolerance only, which is what springs to mind with this word. I speak of a general intolerance on political and personal views blatantly expressed on the social media. Social forums, more especially Twitter and Facebook, discussion groups, WhatsApp groups etc, are a living example of this.

More unfortunate is the tolerance of this intolerance.

“Social media is basically standing at a bucket filled with other people’s vomit and you suck the vomit through a straw, and gag and wince at the unbearable taste of other people’s vomit. Yet, strangely, we continue to suck through the straw as if we’ve never tasted such lovely vomit. And then before you know it you’re old and you’re grey. And that’s the end of you. A lonely death. Your gravestone is marked with the six saddest words:

“Social Media Drained My Soul Away”

Rupert Dreyfus, a UK writer, in ‘The Rebel Sketchbook’”

At this point, my focus is not on the accounts by political parties and others whose objective is to pursue an agenda of self-promotion and running down of others. The focus is the people not so affiliated, who nonetheless descend to a level one cannot associate with those hailing from backgrounds imbibing good breeding in their offspring. Differing with views is one thing, argument within parameters is another thing but using hate speech and slanderous words another thing altogether. The reason for such pathetic exchanges can be anything; views against a favoured political leader, views against a community or a personality clash. It can also be a personal problem, wrong timing to be on your laptop or a phone in your hand when an opinion or view comes that is opposed to yours — and it becomes a venting point and beginning of a match that can only shame the participants if they give themselves time to read what they write. This they do not do. Do such ignobles realise the public at large is reading the verbal diarrhea being unleashed and the impression it creates of the participants? Not only a ‘common man’ but also well-known public figures hailing from different fields in life are perpetuators of this ignoble conduct. This includes people from left, right, moderates et al.

Whereas these forums should be springboards of discussions, open exchange of views on issues and solution based, constructive way-forward dialogue, more and more they are regressing into an extension of the problem called intolerance afflicting the Pakistani society.

“Fifty percent of the users access the internet on their phones, and with over a hundred million mobile phone subscriptions in the country, the fifth highest in Asia, the number seems likely to keep up a rapid growth as cell phone companies offer more and more attractive net packages. A youthful population, the huge popularity of social media and the extraordinary pace at which it permits information to be disseminated makes it an immensely popular tool.” (PPF, December 17, 2015)

Social media can be used to bridge polarisation, something mainstream media in Pakistan has failed to achieve, generally speaking. It can help create a new social reality. Unfortunately, social media practitioners are not an island in themselves, they are members of the society. A society riddled with biases, intolerance, sarcasm, hatred and general abusive behaviour. Of course there are many who will not subscribe to this code of behaviour (or code of misbehaviour would be a more apt term) but the numbers of not indulging in verbal spats are dwindling slowly but surely. In their blocked frame of minds, they do not really read what is written by the other, their mind is more focused on how to respond in as caustic a manner and as quickly as possible.

This behaviour of intolerance is reflective of individual frustrations, but should this frustration be projected onto those one engages with on social forums? This is a question these perpetuators must ask themselves.

Social media has offered an alternate platform to the common man to interact with public figures, offer and solicit views, build social activism for a cause, support what they feel is good. Infecting social media with individual frustrations and failings is taking this forum down, with them.

Many indulging in such ignoble behaviour may not even realise how they expose themselves. Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, a Russian novelist, dramatist and historian, notes, “It’s a universal law — intolerance is the first sign of an inadequate education. An ill-educated person behaves with arrogant impatience, whereas truly profound education breeds humility.”

Human behaviour is also reflective of one’s background and upbringing. Let me offer an example to explain my point better. I come from a world where men are supposed to stand up if a woman enters a room, where they are supposed to open the door and step back to allow her to precede him from the room, where the man will open the door of the car for her and ensure she’s comfortably seated before he sits in the car, if accompanying her, where on the dining table he will never help himself before the ladies have helped themselves. Though this example may be gender related, it is used to state that men, who are gentlemen (not all are hence I differentiate between the two terms) will not allow themselves to indulge in verbal diarrohea, especially in the public eye. Neither will women if they are ladies.

A friend Raju Jameel sent me this which is relevant in the given context on ‘Shouting Words’:

“A saint who was visiting river Ganges to take a bath found a group of family members on the banks, shouting in anger at each other.

He turned to his disciples, smiled and asked,

‘Why do people shout at each other when they are angry?’

The followers thought for a while.

Then one of them said,

‘Because we lose our peacefulness, we shout.’

‘But, why should you shout when the other person is just next to you? You can as well tell him what you have to say in a soft manner,’ asked the saint.

Followers gave some other answers but none satisfied the other followers. Finally, the saint explained,

‘When two people are angry at each other,

their hearts distance a lot.

To cover that distance they must shout to be able to hear each other.

The angrier they are, the stronger they will have to shout to hear each other to cover that great distance.

What happens when two people fall in love?

They don’t shout at each other but talk softly,

Because their hearts are very close.

The distance between them is either non-existent or very small…’

The saint continued;

‘When they love each other even more, what happens?

They do not speak, they only whisper and they get even closer to each other in their love. Finally, they even need not whisper, they only look at each other and that’s all.

That is how close two people are when they love each other.’

He looked at his followers and said:

‘So, when you argue do not let your hearts get distant.

Do not say words that distance each other more,

Or else there will come a day when the distance is so great that you will not find the path to return.’

Whither Pakistan’s tolerant social media?

Yasmeen Aftab Ali  is a lawyer, academic and political analyst. She has authored a book titled ‘A Comparative Analysis of Media & Media Laws in Pakistan.’ She can be reached at: and @yasmeen_9

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