Social media was for long considered as secondary to mainstream media (electronic, print); however there has been a change in recent months. Mainstream media (particularly electronic media) is increasingly picking up topics and issues that are raised on social media. The importance of social media was first highlighted way back in 2011 when the US forces conducted a raid in Abbotabad that resulted in the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Sohaib Ather, a computer programmer based in Abbotabad without knowledge live tweeted the raid of the United States forces. This was considered as one of the first instances when a social media user (though inadvertently) left behind mainstream media in breaking a new story. Six years later in 2017, social media has established itself as a serious contender to mainstream media. However in Pakistan social media users have a lot to learn a fact made clear by the recent case of rumour mongering against state institutions. Another related development was Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf accusing the government of taking action against its political opponents and curbing social media freedom by arresting users for ‘maligning the judiciary’.
PTI’s spokesman Fawad Chaudhry alleged that by using the judiciary’s name, the government had started harassing those demanding accountability of the rulers in the Panama Papers case.
Commenting on recent arrests of social media users, the PTI leader said the government was making ‘freedom of expression on social media a crime’. He asked Chief Justice Saqib Nisar to take notice of the government’s action, adding that the PTI would not let the rulers control social media.
Previously digital rights activists also raised concern after the National Assembly (NA) passed the controversial Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill. At the time of passage of bill Pakistan Peoples Party lawmaker Naveed Qamar had claimed that the bill will be misused by authorities and government departments.
New technology i.e. social media has to some extent democratised politics by lending a voice and power to those who had neither. It has breathed life into movements such as the Indignados in Spain and Black Lives Matter in the US. But it has also been used by xenophobes and extremists. This is something that needs to be looked at. The increasing power of social media can also be gauged by the recent case of torture of a child house maid. The issue was first raised on social media and was later picked up mainstream media, the issue got so much traction the Islamabad High Court (IHC) launched an inquiry into it. The father the child maid allegedly tortured by an additional district and sessions judge ‘forgave’ the suspect and his wife but Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar took suo moto notice of the alleged torture. The notice was taken after media reported the news that the father of the 10-year-old ‘forgave’ her alleged tormentors. The registrar at Islamabad High Court has been asked to submit a detailed report within 24 hours on the matter. It is probably the first instance that a story that was first highlighted by social media users and eventually picked by mainstream media resulted in a suo motu notice. The importance of social media platforms can no longer be neglected, social media users should also be careful in spreading unfounded rumours that may harm the reputation of state institutions. At the same time the government also needs to ensure that it doesn’t use the cyber crime bill to stifle criticism on its performance.