Pakistan High Resolution Social Media Concept Image: iStock
Harsh laws against abuse of social media could themselves be abused by government aiming to crush dissent. Image: iStock

Recently, Pakistani Twitter has been riddled with gender slurs in its “trending” section. The abuse was directed toward Prime Minister Imran Khan’s wife, Bushra Bibi, and Maryam Nawaz, vice-president of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s daughter.

It is no secret that both Imran Khan’s political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and the opposition consisting of primary political parties PML-N, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazal (JUI-F) along with smaller parties, which have formed a coalition against the ruling party known as the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), are not fans of one another. Criticism is one thing, but the hatred that the political parties have for one another is displayed through verbal abuses in social media.

It is a complicated matter who is responsible for the verbal abuse that occurs on social media. All political parties are equally to be blamed here for giving rise to a phenomenon of abuse that primarily targets women.

It is also understandable that while the actions of political party workers can be controlled by the party’s senior management, they have no authority over their supporters who mock one another on social-media platforms through slurs.

Even journalists. particularly women, have been abused on social media by supporters of political parties or even party workers. A Pakistani news platform made a public statement on its Facebook page that it would ban anyone posting abusive comments. The fact that a news organization had to make a public statement regarding trolling and abusive comments indicates that this has a become major issue.

This problem is not confined to Pakistan. It has been a global problem ever since social media became a primary source of both information and communication.

Twitter has been criticized for failing to protect female and minority users from abuse. Twitter and other social-media platforms can regulate how users ought to act on their platforms, but that raises questions too. There are other platforms on the Internet that are specifically for hate speech; how would one control that? Even if they get banned by certain governments, a hundred more could take their place, and is there a line between hate speech and freedom of speech?

Measures can certainly be taken against all of this, but every country and every organization has a different definition of what is classified as hate speech or even what is classified as “moral” or “decent.”

Article 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan states, “Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there shall be freedom of the press, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defense of Pakistan or any part thereof friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, [commission of] or incitement to an offense.”

There is nothing wrong with Article 19 here, but it has not defined what exactly is classified as moral or decent. Ruling governments or even common citizens have never offered a clear answer to this and everyone’s definition of what is decent or moral is different.

It becomes even more confusing when even if it is clearly understood that slurs cross the lines beyond morality and decency some defend them and say they come under freedom of expression. Ironically, such defenders would also have different interpretations of how Pakistan’s constitution defines what qualifies as freedom of expression and what does not.

When it comes to traditional media, there is a clear (although also not without its flaws) line imposed by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) about what should be broadcast. But when it comes to the Internet, it is hard to regulate such things, no matter how much the government tries to draft social-media laws.

A few arrests or warnings can be given but given the number of users, the government cannot go after everyone. If such laws had been present when social media were newly introduced in Pakistan, it would have been a different scenario, but people, especially young people, who are quite active on social media are not going to keep quiet. Even under the guise of regulation of social media, critics of either the current or even previous governments have been targeted.

Whether social media should be regulated is a topic that raises a lot of debate in Pakistan. The answer is often yes, but it also depends on who agrees to regulation of social media and who is concerned about it.

The question should be what exactly the government should take action against when it comes to the Internet. Strict action against child pornography, terrorism or any other serious offenses is all very well, but if the aim is to target dissidents through social-media regulation, it will enhance a vicious cycle that is already visible when it comes to Pakistan’s political landscape.

But what, then, should be done about the trolls who hurl abuse on social media? Organizations or social-media platforms can definitely take action against them within limitations, but any strict action according to the law would appear draconian, as unfortunate as it sounds, and could be abused by governments and law-enforcement agencies.

Turyal Azam Khan is a Pakistani writer, blogger, and journalist who mainly focuses on current affairs, social issues, lifestyle, and culture. He has written for Daily Times, Dunya Blogs, EACPE, The Nation, Naya Daur, Surkhiyan, The Times of Israel, Street Buzz, IBC English, Mashable Pakistan and The Diplomat.