With the advent of the digital age and a technological revolution that has accompanied it, the space enjoyed by traditional media for the flow of information is increasingly being replaced by social media. This brings with it immense challenges for countries where policy frameworks and bureaucratic structures have been designed solely to regulate and manage the flow of information emanating from traditional media outlets.
For developing countries such as Pakistan, with lack of economic and administrative resources and weak bureaucratic institutions, where even regulation of traditional media has been difficult, the fast-paced invasion of social media in terms of information dissemination is proving to be an overwhelming challenge.
This places Pakistani regulators, policymakers as well as state institutions in a tough spot, with a minimal number of options to protect the digital rights of the people of Pakistan, regulate the use of social media in order to provide a healthy, business-friendly, and cybercrime free environment and prevent targeted disinformation campaigns emanating from foreign social media users, organization and governments, all at the same time.
Events of the last few weeks have established without a doubt that, social media space in Pakistan has been facing a consistent onslaught of misinformation and disinformation, not only emanating from India but also from Indian sponsored as well as Indian linked individuals, groups, organizations and governments in Asia, the Middle East, North America and Europe. Indian media has been identified by media organizations around the world as an active collaborator in these unprofessional, unethical and borderline illegal campaigns.
To top it all off social media platforms that are being used to carry out these campaigns, have been found suppressing the digital rights of Pakistani social media users instead of taking action against the disinformation and its sources.
The latest example is the flood of social media posts describing a civil war in Karachi, not only did verified Twitter handles belonging to Indian politicians and influencers, Indian journalists and Indian news channels took part in a shameless display of disinformation and propaganda dissemination.
Despite complaints, reports and extensive correspondence by authorities and social media users from Pakistan, very little action is taken against these sources of disinformation from India. On the other hand, social media accounts from Pakistan are routinely reprimanded, blocked, and suspended for legitimate and rightful freedom of expression.
For years, Pakistani social media users have been complaining about such restrictions by international social platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, upon a mere mention of Kashmir or Indian human rights violations in Kashmir.
Even Twitter and Youtube have been known to suspend sizable accounts in Pakistan, built with years of efforts and investments of time and finances, upon complaints from Indian entities, often based on the ludicrous reasoning of violation of Indian laws.
Yet, when Pakistani social media users organized to report a violation of rules by Indian social media users, 453 Facebook accounts, 103 Pages, 78 Groups & 107 Instagram accounts operating from Pakistan were suspended for “coordinated inauthentic behavior” as a result of a report by students at Stanford University.
The unfortunate fact is that few of the Pakistani digital rights activists such as Nighat Dad of Digital Rights Foundation and other social media activists working for western sponsored NGOs are mostly focused on violations of rules by Pakistani users, infringements of digital rights within the domestic social media space and providing a critique of Pakistani users purported association or support for government information related institutions such as the PID, PEMRA or ISPR, instead of defending social media space in Pakistan against disinformation from other countries.
What is often overlooked is that even US military operates numerous social media accounts such as Pakistan Forward sponsored by US Military’s Central Command headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa Florida, to influence the flow of information in Pakistan.
For regulators and government’s information departments in Pakistan, it is plausible to take steps to regulate social media content posted domestically, but the challenge arises when it comes to the regulation of social media content flowing into Pakistan. But this issue is not limited to Pakistan, governments around the world have found it a challenge to regulate their domestic social media space from hostile, unethical and illegal content flowing from overseas.
Indian governments are known for using massive amounts of funds to lobby public opinion in western countries to complement their social media propaganda efforts (Rashmee Kumar, 2020). If we look at how some other countries regulate social media, it may help us in determining solutions to our challenges (Reality Check team, 2020).
Despite assertions by Youtube claiming employment of 10,000 people for monitoring and content removal, and Facebook claiming that 35,000 people around the world work on content removal for Facebook and Instagram, governments around the world have devised their own solutions.
Germany devised NetzDG laws in 2018 that apply to any social media platform with more than two million users, and individuals and companies may be fined up to €5 million and €50 million respectively for violations. The German government issued its first fine under these laws to Facebook in July 2019 to pay €2 million.
European Union also introduced General Data Protection Regulation GDPR with EU member states having until 2021 to implement these regulations into their domestic law. Australia passed the Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material Act in 2019 with criminal penalties for social media firms, jail sentences and three-year prison sentences for social media company executives.
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Russia and China have adopted more stringent solutions with outright blocking of western social media companies as a way to provide online space for domestic social media platforms. Qatar has also adopted specific laws to provide guidelines for social media rules and stipulates fines up to half a million riyals and three years imprisonment for social media posts containing false news, pornographic materials, violating social values and online harassment (QATAR OFW, n.d.). UAE has enacted a comprehensive set of legislation that provides responses to disinformation on social media platforms (Sadek, 2019).
Digital Warfare: Pakistan’s Options
Now let’s analyze the issues faced by a country such as Pakistan in terms of social media regulation, and let’s look at some of the options that may be available to us.
There are four critical aspects to looking at solutions to social media challenges for Pakistan; the first one is the technological aspect, the second is the economic aspect, the third is the administrative or regulatory aspect, and the last one is the policy aspect. When it comes to the first three, we are placed at a disadvantage, leaving Pakistan only with the fourth option to seek achievable solutions to our social media challenges using policy tools. Let’s discuss each of them briefly.
Firstly, Pakistan’s limited technological infrastructure, technology institutes, digital-friendly policies and technology scene including the limited number of tech startups, venture capital networks and government’s tech-related institutions, place us at a disadvantage when it comes to interacting with western social media giants such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, and Snapchat to ensure fair play.
This has resulted in a negligible number of Pakistanis or Pakistan origin tech professionals joining the workforce at these social media companies and a negligible amount of investments by these social media giants in Pakistani tech firms. Pakistan is viewed by them as a technology backwater location with few advantages to warrant market research, local presence and fair implementation of local laws and regulations.
Secondly, Pakistan’s low economic growth provides few incentives for these social media conglomerates to invest in Pakistan. These social media companies are business concerns worth hundreds of billions of dollars with some of them soon to reach trillion-dollar valuations, and for them, Pakistan’s technology scene provides limited attraction in terms of market access or market share.
This adds to the lack of interest for these social media companies to provide an environment of fair play on their platforms for social media users from Pakistan, to protect digital rights of Pakistani users or prevent exploitation and abuse directed towards Pakistani social media users.
Thirdly, Pakistan’s weakness in terms of the above aspects makes it challenging to ensure implementation of Pakistani laws and regulations. Another critical issue is the lack of a policy-based administrative and regulatory framework, which results in arbitrary decisions such as full-fledged bans of entire social media platforms.
Such drastic steps make it difficult to provide a conducive and stable environment for tech giants that plan investments and set targets for market access or predict growth for potential investments in the long term. This not only prevents Pakistan from meeting challenges that social media brings to us but also disincentivizes social media giants from offering solutions to Pakistan’s regulatory needs.
For example, the ban on TikTok lacked a detailed description of reasons, clarity of violations that were being committed and prospects for rehabilitation once issues are resolved.
Such administrative & regulatory steps prove futile when such measures are not supported by a policy-based effort. It was precisely for these reasons that when the government began a discussion on Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020, Facebook, Twitter, and Google threatened to leave Pakistan (Masood, 2020).
Such a departure may have been a good option for Pakistan had we been a market the size of China, with matching technological base, economic prowess and strong national institutions to produce such social media platforms locally, and have our local market sustain them.
Unfortunately, that is not the case, and a mass departure of internationally popular social media platforms from Pakistan would deprive not only Pakistani users of the advantages of becoming a part of a multi-trillion dollar commercial space but also allow anti-Pakistan propagandists to dominate the flow of information about Pakistan for the benefit of the worldwide social media audience.
This brings us to the fourth point that seems to be the only viable way to find a solution. What Pakistan needs is, to treat social media regulation with a policy perspective, with extensive in-depth studies examining the extent of challenges that need to be met, to develop a detailed, specific, clear and precise definition of regulations that our regulatory institutions hold social media platforms accountable for when operating in Pakistan, and to provide a robust mechanism of due process when handing out fines and penalties with the right to review to make the process credible.
Then these policies need to be pursued in a consistent, deliberate and coordinated manner by various arms of the governments, be it the regulators, PR departments, foreign office officials, Pakistani tech leaders and technology forums and tech-related interest groups.
This entire effort also needs to be backed up by a considerable amount of government financing. Even an amount of $100 million would go a long way in streamlining the effort and approach to the regulation of social media content in Pakistan, and to be able to counter the massive challenge we face against disinformation campaigns emanating from India and financed with a 6000 crore ($900 million) publicity budget setup by BJP RSS propagandists .
Pakistan should also make use of lobbying to influence western tech giants for fair implementation of their own rules when it comes to users from Pakistan and India and to prevent the application of Indian laws or regulatory actions on Pakistani social media users.
Components of Potentially Successful Effort
- Establishment of direct communication channels between regulators and social media company officeholders responsible for content removal as per platform rules.
- Use of Pakistani tech industry leaders to establish communications channels with social media giants in the west.
- Use of private sector corporate leaders who can be given tax breaks for investing in the setup of digital rights organizations and forums in Pakistan as well as in the west to further the interests of Pakistani social media users.
- Coordination with Pakistani civil society activists in order to maintain communications with digital rights networks at the domestic as well as international level.
- Pro-active participation at international digital rights forums, conferences and groups to keep policies consistent with trends and practices at the international level .
- Robust networking with Pakistan origin as well as Indian Muslim, and Sikh diaspora among western technology investors and tech leaders and shareholders of social media companies.
- Hiring of lobbying firms in western countries to help lobby social media companies as well as western governments to ensure fair play from social media platform corporations.
- To seek cooperation from like-minded nations such as Turkey, Malaysia, China, etc. in the establishment of regional and international groups and alliances to be able to use collective resources for lobbying and negotiations with social media giants.
Khurram Malik is a tech-entrepreneur based in Sweden, with a background in history, geopolitics, economy, counter-terrorism and media.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.