Unbridled Social Media
Great power involves great responsibility
“British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has died,” this 7-word piece of news from a Twitter handle went viral on 7th of April. PM Johnson was, at that time, under treatment for coronavirus disease (Covid-19) in an ICU of St Thomas’ Hospital, in London. The news of his death was broken from an account @BBCbreaki which turned out fake as official Twitter handle of BBC was @BBCBreaking. This post was re-tweeted hundreds of times before being deleted. Since this was posted through an account that looked almost similar to BBC’s official handle, a number of people got this news item as true. This is but one manifestation of the fact that social media, with all its pros and cons, has achieved an overwhelming influence on our lives.
Online platforms like Facebook and Twitter and Web 2.0 applications like Google and Blogs have given an altogether new direction to the business of news. Reporting, too, has undergone a paradigm shift. Entering the field of journalism has become very easy nowadays. You just need a PC, a smartphone to become a reporter, an editor, a designer, a distributor, a publisher, a broadcaster, a producer, and what not! One can use Facebook, YouTube, Twitter or a blog site to post text, pictures, audio and video at any time, from anywhere. The reason why social media is extraordinarily effective is the power it has gained by giving currency to the culture of ‘braking news’. Today, terms like ‘citizen journalism’ and ‘mobile journalism’ have gained wider acceptance in the societies around the world. Owing to limited opportunities for participation in radio and television content, people are increasingly turning to platforms where they can read the content of their choice, comment on that and express their views freely and even create the content by themselves. People have effectively become producers as well as consumers of information and knowledge. It has happened because we are a part of an information society where most people are leading dual lives, i.e. real and virtual (embedded in information systems). That is why William Dutton of the Oxford Internet Institute has termed social media as the fifth pillar of state. He opines, “We are witnessing the emergence of powerful new voices and networks which can act independently of the traditional media.” This statement seems absolutely correct when seen in the context of growing emergence, use and popularity of new platforms alongside the traditional ones in the domain of social media. The crux of the point is: it is the freedom of expression that not only attracted a lot of public attention but also resulted in its wider use. At present, almost 49 percent of the world’s total population is attached with social media as active users. According to a report titled as ‘Digital 2020: Global Digital Overview’, ‘at the start of 2020 … social media users have passed the 3.8 billion mark.’
Social media, basically, are the internet- and mobile phone-based platforms that allow for asynchronous and multi-dimensional information sharing, communication, and participation in activities. It is an amalgamation telecommunication and social interaction to provide a platform where people may have two-way communication through text, pictures, audio and video content. A salient feature of this is the facility one has in creating and sharing the content.
Social media tools offer an online networking service whereby users can for a virtual network with likeminded individuals. They offer services like chatting, instant messaging, photo- and video-sharing and updates. Most popular of these platforms are Facebook and LinkedIn. Then there are blogs that an individual, known as blogger, creates and posts. These may contain text, images, videos and links to other websites. A striking feature of a blog is its being interactive. It means that readers can post their comments that anyone can see and read. In addition, microblogs, which have a word limit of up to 140 words, whereby users can write and share their thoughts with others. Twitter is an example of such a site as users can post a message and read those posted by others. Vlogs are sites where the content consists of videos with supporting text. YouTube is the world’s biggest video-sharing site that provides also the live-streaming facility. On this site, users can not only watch videos of their choice but also are able to post their own and can also comment on and share them.
Social media has gained immense public acceptance in the modern-day world mainly due to the power of the internet and the growing use of smartphones. Almost 4.57 billion people were active internet users as of April 2020, encompassing 59 percent of the global population while 3.5 billion people are active users of smartphones. According to Global Digital Overview 2020, the average internet user now spends 6 hours and 43 minutes online each day with the use of that on mobile phone accounts for 3 hours 22 minutes while internet users spend an average of 2 hours and 24 minutes per person, per day using social media. Pakistan, too, is among the countries where the use of social media is fast gaining ground. As per the above-cited report, Pakistan is the fourth biggest country in terms of largest absolute growth in the number of internet users between January 2019 and January 2020—the country stands at 20th place in percentage terms. However, it is also true that when it comes to the greatest number of people not connected to the internet, Pakistan is at third place. Similarly, Pakistan is at 17th place when it comes to the largest change in the absolute number of social media users. At present, 37 million Pakistanis—17% of the country’s total population—are active social media users. Moreover, 76.38 million people—35% of Pakistan’s population—are the users of the internet out of which a big chunk of 48.4%—almost half the total number—are active social media users. Moreover, almost 99% of active social media users do so on mobile devices—in 2018-19, 759% of the country’s total internet traffic was routed on mobile phones.
According to Newzoo Global Games Market Report 2019, Pakistan was the 19th largest country in terms of the number of smartphone-users with their number reaching 32.5 million. However, when it comes to the number of people who own smartphone, Pakistan, with a figure of 15.9%, is at 49th place among 50 countries for which data were made available. An overview of basic requirements of using social media, i.e. internet, mobile phone and computer, can be had from the data reported in Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey which says that 97.5% of country’s households own mobile sets with this ratio 93.9% in urban areas and 9136% in rural ones. Similarly, 26.4% of houses have computers (15.1% urban households and 8.1% rural ones) and 22.9% houses have an internet connection (11.8% in urban areas and 4.9% in rural ones).
Although Pakistan lags far behind many countries in the contemporary world in terms of access to internet, use of smartphones and internet costs, yet these are being overcome fast. This assertion is corroborated by the fact that during the past one year, a growth of 17% in mobile phone users, 6.2% in mobile phone connections and 7% in active social media users has been witnessed. This vividly depicts the current scenario of social media use in Pakistan. Amidst this exponential growth, it is heartening that the government, too, is making strenuous efforts to regulate social media. In continuation of its efforts to regulate all social media platforms, the federal cabinet approved, on January 28, 2020, the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020. To have broad-based consultations to improve these laws, the government also formed a special committee, named as “Consultation Committee on Citizen Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020,” to initiate a broad-based, open consultation process with all stakeholders including civil society, human and digital rights groups, social media platforms (technology companies) and media etc. to solicit constructive input to address the concerns expressed by different forums.
However, here rise some pertinent questions: when we have a strong penchant for freedom of opinion and of expression, then do we really need such rules? If yes, why? Is there any other way to regulate the social media content without compromising on personal freedoms? Dr Sobia Abdi, head of the Department of Mass Communication at University of Okara, answers these questions in the following words:
“Freedom of expression can be considered the foundation of the provision of basic human rights as article 19 of the Constitution of Pakistan, 1973, guarantees freedom of speech and of expression to all the citizens of Pakistan. Although other types of media were very important, yet the present era is of social media as everyone can express his or her opinion on these digital platforms. One thing that needs particular mention here is that before the advent of social media, it was not possible for media users to express their opinions instantly on a piece of news or information—in our jargon, it is called feedback—as no reader of a newspaper or a listener of radio or even a viewer of a television was able to give his instant feedback to the concerned media organization. On the contrary, social media provides everyone with an opportunity to give his or her feedback instantly in the comment box or through his own post. It has both positive and negative effects simultaneously. As a teacher, I take it as our collective responsibility to apprise people of the fact that with freedom comes responsibility whereby one must follow some rules and observe some limitations related to community, society, traditions, culture and religion. Social media organizations have their own rules whereby they can block the publication of any material that flouts those. For instance, any post which contains some obscene material, violates copyrights, promotes extremism and terrorism are deleted from Facebook and YouTube. And, if these organizations are sensitive to certain things and they reserve the right to decide about the publication of that through their platforms; the states must also have the authority to be sensitive towards some ideological foundations and social values and norms, and enact regulations and laws to thwart the dissemination of anything that goes against them. I believe that freedom of expression must also be complemented by responsibility in using that freedom. The state must legislate on these issues so that no one is stopped from expressing his or her opinion. It is especially important because if the enforcement of correct rules would also guarantee people’s freedom to express their opinions. When no one will be prosecuted or persecuted on any other pretext than these laws, a sense of protection and responsibility will definitely develop among the social media users. Moreover, these rules must also be able to adapt to the latest innovations in this field as digital media is fasting adopting new technologies and the laws and rules must also be altered accordingly, especially in matters related to cybersecurity and economy as during these times of coronavirus-caused lockdown, the number of social media users and the use of data has grown exponentially fast.”
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” So, freedom of media and freedom of expression are two universal rights that are applicable to all types of media, whether it is online or offline, professional journalism or citizen journalism, print or social media. Nowadays, social media platforms have become an important tool of mass communication and people are increasingly using them to express their opinions and even to vent their anger. During the past few years, we have seen a number of movements, who have been raising voice for change, justice, equality, accountability of the powerful and supporting human rights, originating from social media. It means that these platforms are playing a significant role in making people connect instantly and exchange their views, as well as in developing a sense of unity. However, if the social media, on the one hand, creates awareness on civic rights, promotes democratic practices, causes communication revolution, fostering educational capabilities and bringing about societal change, it also is used to spread fake news, promote terrorism and extremism, fan religious and sectarian hatred, encourage online harassment, blackmailing, hate speech and data theft, on the other.
Freedom of expression is a right that is complex in nature; it is not absolute in any sense and comes with some exclusive responsibilities and obligations. It does not give one a carte blanche to say what one wills. Under its article 19(3), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966, imposes following curbs in unbridled freedom of expression:
(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others;
(b) For the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals.
Do the obligations and responsibilities related to freedom of expression apply to social media and how these responsibilities can be ascertained and applied on a mass level? These are the two questions the above discussion gives birth to. To answer these, Dr Babrak Niaz of Balochistan University’s Mass Communications department opines: “Social responsibilities should be looked at from two angles. First, irrespective of the nature of media, whether it is social or traditional, their contents must contain such subjects that expedite the socio-economic wellbeing of the masses. They should not only fulfil needs of human development, but also play the role of a guardian when it comes to the protection of public interest. It should be seen from the lens of public broadcasting. Second, how to present, or more rightly how to treat, these contents? In communication terminology, we call it priming and framing. When we see social media from these perspectives, we find a plethora of subjects that, by one way or another, are related to human development. Today, it is the power of social media as a guardian of people’s rights that mainstream media have to include such subjects in their contents. Due to this role of social media, even courts take suo moto notices and governments start taking action.”
Owing to the latest innovations in the field of social media and digital; platforms, there is a more pressing need for a responsible journalism that free journalism because in many cases the unbridled freedom of social media compromises on social and national responsibilities and using the umbrella of freedom of expression the content presented on social media not only violates journalistic norms but also jeopardize national interest. Ascertainment of such responsibilities should be for all three stakeholders, i.e. state, society and the citizen. It means the formulation of regulations, their consultative reviews and improvement thereupon, as well as effective implementation will ensure a strong, progressive and democratic Pakistan.