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Striking a balance: Freedom of expression vs hate speech

Social media is a relatively new concept in the world of politics. Earlier political party candidates went door to door to distribute pamphlets, held corner meetings and used loudspeakers to spread their message in the time leading up to the elections. As times have changed, so have the methods of disseminating their message.

There is nothing more important on social media these days than the Elections 2018. Online battles have no limits nor are people concerned about the kind of language being used. In online spaces, hate speech is being practiced in the name of freedom of speech for election campaigns.

Hate speech and freedom of expression is a relatively new term in Pakistan when compared to the West. Researchers and digital media experts here are studying these terms in the current scenario and in the light of our own culture and language. A report ‘Youth Action for Peaceful Elections’ published by Bargad Organization for Youth Development highlights how social media is used to spread hate speech and malign political leaders, parties and candidates during these elections.

The Bargad Researchers collected material from pages on Facebook and Twitter to identify the kind of material, both videos and pictures, being shared. The material ranged from sexist and racist comments to religiously intolerant remarks. Along with pictures and videos, hashtags were also used to spread hate sentiments on social media.

It is often seen that if someone wants to hit their opponent, they use derogatory words for female contenders to make their stance strong, irrespective of age or relationship. In this context, a picture of Nawaz Sharif’s mother was circulating on social media with foul language against her which was widely shared. We should also not forget the malicious campaign run against Jibran Nasir.  

In this debate of freedom of speech versus hate speech we have to understand how Urdu and Punjabi have hate words deep-rooted in them which are used against one another casually in our daily conversations. This casual behavior has resulted in destroying the basic fabric of a civilized society.

Recently Imran Khan, chairman of Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf, used foul language in a meeting saying anyone who goes to receive Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz leader Nawaz Sharif at the airport in Lahore would be a donkey. This triggered an online debate. Some people went to the extreme of torturing a number of donkeys calling these ‘Noonias’.  One of the donkeys sadly died notwithstanding the torture. While the Election Commission took notice of Imran Khan’s statement and warned him to restrain himself, many people say that knowing Imran Khan he will mess up somehow again.

Apart from political leadership stooping low and targeting each other with derogatory remarks, Salman Ahmed a singer could not be any different and shared a picture that targeted Maryam Nawaz and Imran Khan. He faced a lot of criticism online and that picture was taken down.

Journalists were also not spared in the battle of words; Asma Shirazi a female journalist working with Aaj News Channel was recently targeted for speaking to Nawaz Sharif on the phone in Abu Dhabi. Targeting female journalists has become a trend on social media. Misogynist comments are passed and even threats are hurled at them and some go to the extent of photoshopping their pictures for character assassination. People need to understand a journalist have job constraints before starting a malicious campaign against them.

Fake news has played a big role in these elections. Fake posters of candidates were often circulated online and people actually believed these. Terror threat alert messages supposedly from ISPR were making rounds on WhatsApp and the cyber world, to which a rebuttal was needed denying that such message was sent. Some people even shared a video of Imran Khan falling from the stage during a public meeting in 2013 saying how protestors had beat up Imran Khan who for against him for not giving tickets to their candidate.

The real question now is, with all the hate comments, fake news and threats online, how is the Federal Investigation Agency and Pakistan Telecommunication Authority dealing with this; and if they should be keeping a check on what is circulated on social media especially when elections are taking place, to avoid unnecessary confusion?

With so much negativity online there was some good news too! A number of food chains and Careem the transportation company used social media to announce that they would be providing discount on food and traveling cost to those who vote on the Election 2018 day.

Author: Umaima Ahmed. She tweets at @umaimablogger

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