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The Digital Dilemma: Does Pakistan need Social Media to Remain Relevant in the Global Economy?

In this era of globalization, social media plays an important role as it is used to spread information. The author explores in detail the influencing aspect of social media and how it can be used in the political domain.

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“Do not quote Wikipedia whilst doing research” were the words of my professor at Cambridge who taught us an essential course on Strategy. He was of the opinion that the social media website was not reliable enough to be quoted for rigorous research and that it did not represent facts.

The same rule applied to other sources of online information which were meant to create a narrative that affected the way thought, actions and national ideologies could be shaped or influenced.

Social media has become a source of dissemination of information that may or may not be true. This influences masses and political parties alike and this creates misinformation which causes chaos and confusion in the larger realms of our society especially the youth.

Read more: Are we really our true selves on social media?

The political uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011 have further intensified discussions on the political potential of social media which, since the very beginning, have been closely tied to the worldwide expansion of the medium: the new information and communication technologies (ICT) are generally seen as facilitating more open information exchange, the formation of alternative political opinions, and the mobilization of social actors previously excluded from political participation.

Role of media according to ITU

The flip side of this is the negativity which social media or ICT can bring with it. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) which is an internationally recognized authority makes sure that worldwide telecommunications are managed globally while keeping all factions of society interconnected clearly delineates the role of social media in the following manner:

Goal 1 – Growth: Enable and foster access to and increased use of telecommunications/ICT in support of the digital economy and society.

Goal 2 – Inclusiveness: Bridge the digital divide and provide broadband access for all.

Goal 3 – Sustainability: Manage emerging risks, challenges and opportunities resulting from the rapid growth of telecommunications/ICT.

Goal 4 – Innovation: Enable innovation in telecommunications/ICT in support of the digital transformation of society.

Goal 5 – Partnership: Strengthen cooperation among the ITU membership and all other stakeholders in support of all ITU strategic goals.

The abovementioned goal 3 which mentions emerging risks, challenges and opportunities resulting from the rapid expansion of telecommunication platforms has caused Pakistan to promulgate laws that are in line with defending the sovereignty of the country.

Pakistan is facing the challenge that has been imposed on it in the form of the fifth-generation or hybrid war via social media platforms that need regulation. Its purpose is to discredit the country and its armed forces and spread divisiveness.

Read more: Pakistan re-elected to International Telecommunication Union (ITU)

The political potential of social media

Other countries which allow freedom of speech have zero tolerance towards such anti-state and anti-army hate speech on any platform. The recent removal of President Donald Trump’s Tweet is one such example. This underlines the fact that the internet as such does not necessarily function along with democratic norms.

As a consequence of these restricting factors, the internet’s use for the spreading of political information and debate in developing and transitioning countries remains generally limited to the educated and urban layers of society.

Nevertheless, this information elites, by and large, originate in the middle classes and can be considered as upwardly mobile social groups who, in an authoritarian setting, are often affected by the political exclusion.

In many transformation processes, educated professionals such as journalists, academics, lawyers, and engineers have formed the core of movements that have challenged established regimes.

In civil society, these actors are often committed to social development and change. By creating awareness of existing grievances and formulating demands for change, they influence public opinion.

With regards to democratization processes, it is, therefore, necessary to evaluate the capability and inclination of internet-active social actors to challenge the status quo. Subsequently, it can be examined whether and how the internet is supporting the activities of these actors and what should be the rules for channelizing information that can serve in the uplift of the economy and not the other way around.

Read more: Importance of social media usage by government officials

Does the media create transparency?

For this purpose, several potential effects of the internet on the communication and activities of civil society and political challengers, online media thus act as forums for voices not necessarily represented in the mass media and take on the form of a subaltern public sphere.

By disseminating suppressed information and political critique, they bring more transparency into the acts and decisions of the political elite and facilitate the formation of alternative political opinions.

Read more: Social media blasts hypocrisy as PPP denies permission for protest at Bhutto mausoleum

In moments of crises or intensified political conflict, these alternative public spheres can be expanded temporarily through various forms of citizen journalism, i.e. the gathering and distributing of news and information by ordinary citizens, as opposed to professional journalists.

This tendency could be observed during the protests in Iran in 2009 and in Burma in 2007. Although the authoritarian rulers had blocked the national and foreign news media’s coverage, the demonstrators recorded photos and videos on their mobile phones in order to publish them online, thereby documenting the unfolding events and the violence of the security forces.

In Egypt and Tunisia 2011, where both regimes relied on financial and political support from the West, the exposure of repression through online media resulted in the regimes’ reluctance to squash the protests in order to avoid alienating international public opinion and political allies.

However, in Iran and Syria, more internationally isolated countries, such a response to the exposure did not occur and both regimes showed less restraint in their use of violence against the opposition.

In addition to the disseminating of information, the alternative public spheres on the internet also work as a platform for debate.

Blogs encourage debate and discussions

Weblogs or Blogs especially produce discussions that, although restricted in their outreach, can achieve a high intensity and quality of deliberation. While it is rare for blogs to succeed in transmitting their topics to the mass media and function as “agenda-setters”, they elaborate on the content of other media acting as an “echo-chamber”.

Through journalists and other opinion leaders participating in these debates, blogs can nevertheless exert a certain influence on the process of opinion formation. Popular bloggers/activists with links to mainstream journalism, act as “central nodes” transmitting claims from the grassroots level to communication channels with larger audiences.

In the struggle for the recognition of their rights as a religious minority, bloggers from the Egyptian Baha’i community, for instance, succeeded in further publicizing their claims by connecting to influential journalistic bloggers who then debated these issues in the national press.

Finally, the alternative online media can also contribute to the internal democratization of the media landscape itself which, as already mentioned, is considered as a significant element within the overall process of democratic transition.

Younger journalists find an open training ground in weblogs and smaller online publications to improve their skills in reporting and analysis. Up to a certain degree, online media can also act as a counterweight to the established media by criticizing and commenting on their content.

Often mass media respond to the trends of blogging and social media by integrating these formats into their own websites. If taken seriously, this convergence with online appliances can open up the established media towards emerging opinions and uncovered developments in society.

Does social media enable democratic change?

Another important aspect that needs to be considered when examining the role of the internet for democratic change is the impact that online media has on the internal communication of civil society.

Social movements have to develop a shared perception of their goals and how to achieve them before they can target larger audiences and the political sphere or initiate collective action.

A strong collective identity sustains the commitment of followers who are connected by common ideas rather than organizational structures.

Within civil society, these social actors practice the communicative aspects of a democratic political culture such as rational deliberation and tolerance towards other opinions by constantly negotiating identities, reinterpreting norms and values, and developing different forms of solidarity.

Read more: Social media in government is a game changer

The internet can support and intensify this process, especially if other channels of communication are blocked.

Under severe pressure from the Ahmadinejad government, the Iranian women’s movement, for example, had to retreat more and more to the internet in order to continue its activities. When public meetings became impossible and organizations were dismantled, online communication helped activists to keep in contact, debate future activities and the reorientation of the movement, as well as to express solidarity with fellow activists in prison.

Social movements not only need to sustain communication among their immediate followers but also to reach out for the support of bystanders and other resources in order to be able to influence political decision making.

Even though its impact on larger audiences in authoritarian or transitioning countries is restricted by the factors mentioned above, the internet has been proven very efficient as a means of transnational communication.

Social media mobilizes the population

The role that the internet and social media might play in the mobilization of people for collective action is not only the most debated effect of the new media but also the one which is hardest to demonstrate empirically.

With the initial enthusiasm about the Iranian “Twitter Revolution” ebbing away, it became clear that Twitter actually played a minor role in the organization of the protests on the ground: Iranians were already highly mobilized by a polarizing election campaign so that frustration about the manipulated results quickly turned into public anger.

Twitter rather served for transmitting information about the events on a global level and thereby attracted the attention of international audiences. At the same time, the mass media themselves had to embark on a process of internal reform to gain distance from the former ruling elite and integrate professional journalistic ethics.

During the consolidation phase of democracy, mass media gains even more importance as forums for information and debate.

By discussing the decisions of the government and highlighting underrepresented issues the media plays a significant role in strengthening the values of a democratic political culture.

Read more: Facebook and Twitter silence Trump: Nothing done to curb violence and lies in South Asia?

Freed from central state control, however, the media landscape is hereafter governed by the laws of a liberalized market. Therefore, the typical escalation in the number of press publications during the initial period of regime change generally gives way to a re-concentration of media ownership that follows economic criteria.

The increasing influence of the affluent elite on the media market and an orientation towards consumer-culture represent risks to the democratic functioning of the media.

Independent financing and the education of qualified media personnel can counter these tendencies, which is one of the reasons why external media assistance appears essential during this transition phase.

Also, the persistence of an alternative media sector closely linked to civil society can provide critical corrections to the contents of mass media. Evolution of professional journalism: ethical standards and professionalism of journalists determine the media’s proper functioning within the emerging democracy.

Existence of private/independent capital: private investments in the media sector diminish central state control and pluralize the media landscape. Wealthy elites, however, are often tied to the established political class and therefore show little interest in significant changes.

Given the role that small and flexible media are able to play in the initial phase of political transformation, it is not surprising that the internet has raised high expectations regarding its possible effects on authoritarian regimes and the advancement of worldwide democratization.

Internet as a medium of communication

The internet allows for a quasi-instantaneous transmission of the information at low cost and free from the typical barriers that confine access to the traditional media. The evolution of the new media during the last decade has made it easy to transmit messages in different formats (text, sound, and image).

Furthermore, online communication transcends geographical borders permitting the formation of transnational communities based on shared language, culture, or interests. Due to its network-like and non-hierarchical structure, the internet has been considered as the ideal means of communication for social movements and subaltern groups challenging established power structures.

In Western democracies, it was expected to eradicate the democratic deficits of corporate-dominated media systems, influenced by consumer-culture and intertwined with powerful elites.

As for authoritarian systems, the World Wide Web promised not only to undermine the state’s control on information circulation but also to open up new communication channels for suppressed opposition groups and dissidents.

Why is internet restrained?

It has become evident that the internet’s potential for fostering democratic change is restrained by several factors.

First of all, the different aspects of the so-called “digital divide” shape, size, and composition of online public groups as well as possible forms of usage: not only infrastructural development and access quality but also education, media literacy and socio-economic stratification create unequal conditions within the population for accessing and using the Internet.

Secondly, the characteristics of online communication influence its political outreach. The internet is considered a “pull-medium”; i.e. users have to actively search for the content and applications they are interested in. Consequently, political information and debate enter an uneven rivalry with entertainment – as it is the case in other media too.

In addition, users tend to visit the websites of well-established traditional media, like newspapers or TV-stations that generally have significant resources at their disposal to compete with independent online publications or weblogs.

These various forms of pro-active internet use ultimately contribute to strengthening the legitimacy of non-democratic rulers.

Read more: Worldwide implications of Cyber-warfare?

Finally, aside from authoritarian regimes, other non-democratic actors benefit from the internet too: extremist groups of various orientations discovered long ago the advantages of online communication, underlining the fact that the internet as such does not necessarily function along with democratic norms.

As a consequence of these restricting factors, the internet’s use for the spreading of political information and debate in developing and transitioning countries remains generally limited to the educated and urban layers of society.

Nevertheless, this information elites, by and large, originate in the middle classes and can be considered as upwardly mobile social groups who, in an authoritarian setting, are often affected by the political exclusion.

The important role of social actors

In many transformation processes, educated professionals such as journalists, academics, lawyers, and engineers have formed the core of movements that have challenged established regimes.

With regards to democratization processes, it is, therefore, necessary to evaluate the capability and inclination of internet-active social actors to challenge the status quo. Subsequently, it can be examined whether and how the internet is supporting the activities of these actors.

Despite the restricting factors mentioned above, the emergence of news websites and weblogs has resulted in a diversification of the information landscape in countries under an authoritarian rule or transitioning towards democracy.

Finally, the alternative online media can also contribute to the internal democratization of the media landscape itself which, as already mentioned, is considered as a significant element within the overall process of democratic transition. Younger journalists find an open training ground in weblogs and smaller online platforms.

Read more: Pakistan media: is it destroying youth potential?

Media in Pakistan

For developing countries like Pakistan, the voting behaviours and overall mass sentiment can be controlled through social media platforms which can alternatively be used for creating economic platforms.

It should be kept in mind that the laws promulgated in the country need to be conducive to creating easy payment systems for startups and small businesses which can circumvent issues related to geographical hurdles.

Having worked for the Universal Service Fund (USF) and gone through swathes of information shared through ITU, one can safely assume that there is a large misunderstanding in the media policy and the media laws promulgated are not streamlined towards gearing the economy towards digitization of its content that can contribute to the national exchequer.

Digital media cannot be controlled unless the regulatory bodies come together to formulate rules and regulations to work out means to create a strategy for improving education, health, and the economy. The media airtime should not be wasted on fake news and workout meant to improve our economy via digital technology.

Mahvesh Mahmud is a Shell-Chevening-DFID-Noon (2007-2008) scholar to the Judge Business School, the University of Cambridge UK where she was awarded the Lucy Cavendish College’s Kate Bertram Prize for distinction in Management Studies, specifically in the areas of Innovation, Strategy and Organizations. She also has an MBA from NUST Business School, Islamabad.

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