On the evening of May 9th, 2023, social media giants Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram reportedly faced an outage in Pakistan. The users were unable to log in to their accounts, post or view anything, according to Downdetector.com. Many smartphone users also complained that WhatsApp was not working on their devices, both on desktop and mobile. Furthermore, internet speed was slow for many users throughout the country.
Protests in Pakistan
The social media outage came amid nationwide protests following the arrest of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan in the Al-Qadir Trust case. The PTI urged its supporters all across Pakistan to protest and “block all roads, close all shops,” after Rangers personnel arrested the former prime minister from the Islamabad High Court (IHC) premises, acting on a warrant issued by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). Protests were held in several cities, including Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore, Karachi, Gujranwala, Faisalabad, Multan, Peshawar, and Mardan. In Karachi, demonstrators clashed with the police near Nursery. They threw stones at and set fire to police vehicles, tore down street lights, and damaged a bus. There were reports that police fired teargas shells at the protesters. Protesters also caused damage to public property in other cities, including Rawalpindi and Lahore.
Social Media Outage
The social media outage in Pakistan highlighted the growing importance of these platforms as communication tools, especially in times of political turmoil. Social media is a vital source of information for protesters, journalists, and citizens alike. In Pakistan, where mainstream media is often censored or biassed, social media provides an alternative means of communication and information dissemination. The outage also raised concerns about internet freedom and censorship. It is not uncommon for governments to block social media during political protests, as seen in countries like Iran and China. Such moves are often criticised by human rights activists and civil society organisations as a violation of free speech and the right to access information.
Pakistan has a history of censoring the internet, especially social media. In 2020, the government approved the Citizens Protection Rules, which gave it sweeping powers to regulate online content. The rules allowed authorities to remove or block any online content deemed “against the glory of Islam,” “against the integrity, security, and defence of Pakistan,” or “likely to create hatred amongst the people or prejudicial to the maintenance of public order.” The rules also mandated social media platforms to set up offices in Pakistan and appoint a local representative to deal with government requests for content removal. Failure to comply with the rules could result in hefty fines and even the blocking of the platform in the country.
The social media outage in Pakistan shows just how unstable the current condition is, as these platforms are crucial in providing communication tools during times of political turmoil. It emphasises the need for governments to respect internet freedom and uphold free speech. It also underscores the need for social media companies to prioritise user privacy and security, especially in countries with a history of internet censorship. Citizens must be vigilant in protecting their rights to access information and express themselves online. They must hold governments accountable for any attempts to suppress their voices or limit access to information. Social media companies must also do their part in protecting the rights by providing secure and private platforms that respect freedoms and promote responsible digital citizenship.