Introduction to university teaching

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This term I’m teaching an elective under our MA in media management program at the school of communication. It has been a tremendous experience so far engaging with young Chinese students from the other side of the class desk.

The course is titled Communication Technology & Media Organizations. I have developed an outline meant to brief students on some useful concepts communication researchers have to characterize new media impact on media organizations and society more generally. I’ve tailored it to match my own interests in information society, media studies, public relations and advertising.

My immediate challenge was to relate with students from a context dramatically different from how I was born and raised, live and work and to do so in an engaging manner. Understanding a students frame of reference is a key concern of paedagogy (or the method of teaching).

My teaching strategy thus incentivises class participation and collective learning. For instance by making it clear that there are no right or wrong answers; only useful and not so useful ones. I also bring examples to class that show similarities in media development in Mainland China, Hong Kong and rest of the world, including Pakistan.

This ultimately is in line with my own philosophy of finding meaning rather than ‘winning’ and rhetoric. The course is also a starting point for an online course I’m developing for students and young people living in Pakistan.

 

The overemphasis on the digital divide in Pakistan.

There is an on going debate in Pakistan echoing global concern about the extent to which social media is simply replicating moribund and traditional impulses of the society.

The young ones are optimistic. With some reason. Just take a sample of the rich tapestry of awareness and advocacy currently on social media; a campaign to push for peace between India and Pakistan on Change.org initiated by folks on both sides of the hostile border; a funny viral video by fans of an opposition party around the recent ouster of the Prime Minister on corruption charges; accusation of stifling a story on injuries from an incident during a TV program shot in Pakistan’s premier gated community by a popular blogger, an online furore over a television anchor who had verbally abused a female guest on ‘patriotism’ during a live transmission.

More senior journalists and informed observers are cautious at best. A report by Bytes for all, a local Internet advocacy group, last year highlighted the increase in arbitrary government blocks on websites. While this year marked the first reports in the press on state-suspected attacks on online activists.

But going beyond the human rights perspectives on a restricted public sphere commonly associated with closed societies, question remains whether a more connected Pakistan will be conducive to deliberative and representative discussions en masse to begin with.

I want to bring attention to the copious amount of abuses and barbs traded by partisans on social media. Be it the progressively inclined fans of opposition parties, the conservative activists of the government or some combination of both. These ‘echo chambers’, to borrow a term from political communication, are by far the most prominent aspects of political discussions online. The notable journalist, Najam Sethi, goes as far as to refer to a thriving ‘anti-social media’. Where discussions are rich on emotions and rhetoric, little on substance and reminiscent of crazy talking heads on television.

Consider Youtube.com.pk, an open online public space, in a similar vein, setting aside for a moment the government’s absolute authority to ban it. Even a cursory look at the weekly trending will reveal mostly sensational television news stories regurgitated online, South Asian television soaps and films, ‘item numbers’ (bawdy dances of women on a background of Indian songs) and a sprinkling of Islamic evangelical content.

It appears that the roughly 28 million strong Internet user base, which by the way is no trivial figure (the entire population of Hong Kong is roughly 7 million), of highly educated Pakistanis, according to a recent survey on her Internet User’s Perspectives, seem mostly concerned with entertainment values in all their variants we usually associate with the ‘old’ broadcast age.

And while there is hardly any research on the quality of discussions Sethi isn’t far off the mark either. They fit our understanding of authoritarian emerging media conditions where most online content is used for broadcast purposes, traditional media successfully co-opts online spaces and a civil society voice is further confined or lost in the cacophony of misinformation.

Evegny Morozov in his cynical, albeit astute analysis, cautioned against cyber-utopianism; “a naïve belief in the emancipatory nature of online communication that rests on a stubborn refusal to acknowledge its downside”; that instead of serving as a panacea in the market place of ideas there is a growing fear that Internet in Pakistan is becoming a game changer for established individuals, politicians, television personalities and (retired) generals who now find it even more convenient to build on their offline persona.

How far has Pakistan’s emerging online culture succumbed to Morozov’s worst fears? My on going research aims to answer this question partly by examining the logic of her social media for civic engagement.

Figures 1 shows a social network analysis (SNA) I conducted based on the Facebook Page ‘like’ networks for two major political parties – the Pakistan Muslim League Noon (PMLN) in the government, and its nemesis the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in the opposition. SNA uses mathematical tools to understand the relationship (‘like’) between nodes (Pages) and the overall structure (Network) they are embedded in. It is often used to understand online organisation. The analysis reveals that the PTI has five times the online presence, 319 Pages, of PMLN, 66 Pages. Although offline, the former commands a much larger share in the National Assembly. In fact the situation is reversed; PMLN has roughly five times the seats of PTI!

 

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Figure 1. PTI Facebook ‘like’ network (left) & its PMLN counterpart (right). The size of labels represents level of activity of pages. Thus overseas pages are most active on PTI network. Similar colours reveal pages that depict similar patterns of connectivity or community. For PTI; green = Azad Kashmir related, Black = Insaf Student & fans related, Purple = KPK related, Blue = Karachi related. The much smaller PMLN has been disproportionately enlarged for clarity’s sake. No clear communities are visible likely due to network mostly formed by techy savvy politicians as opposed to activist teams. Note: SNA visualised on Gephi using publicly available Facebook data. The latter is the most used social media platform in the country.

This shows the considerable disconnect between on-ground (offline) and online reality and could be of some consolation; notwithstanding the limited importance of online campaigning in Pakistan the gap means that there is some way to go before the ills of patronage and dynastic politics completely colonize online. An uncertain window that the marginalized exploit and the youth are optimistic about.

But for many it is primarily the digital divide that has limited marginalized voices to the fringe of public opinion proper. As if more Internet is just what is required to keep the window open or for more people to support progressive causes. Pick any recent report mapping media trends in Pakistan and you find a similar introduction emphasizing the poor state of Internet development.

The PTI case is illuminating here as well; its largest constituency lies in Khyber Pakthunkhawa (KPK). Those familiar with South Asian geography will recognize this rugged province, that shares a border with Afghanistan, as having very low Internet penetration compared to the rest of Pakistan. Clearly there are factors beyond simple voting considerations that seem to inform the party’s online strategy; reviving overseas Pakistanis, creating awareness among urban youth, supporting advocacy causes (see figure 1) and raising funds.

Similarly, the digital divide is but one factor, and not necessarily the most important one, Pakistani policy makers should bank on if they are serious about diversity in the online market place of ideas. Media literacy; critical thinking; the capacity of journalist and bloggers for investigative work, contribute equally, if not more, in this equation. It will be an uphill battle. These concerns require novel solutions that go beyond simply paving and clearing information highways.

Article under review: Comparative analysis of PPP Long March 1992 and PTI party’s Freedom March 2014.

Article under review in a peer-reviewed journal. Title and journal names and manuscript details have been left out.

Abstract

In the emerging field of media politics of dissent most studies concentrate on industrialized societies where protests usually target state institutions, where national media systems are mature and internet captures more attention. There are relatively few studies on the role of 24 hour news television which in some societies is the most game-changing ‘new media’. In many parts of the world, a commercial and plural television is not much older than public internet and more powerful. Movements born in such hybrid regime settings may also have implicit support of state actors. This paper aims to broaden the debate in the field by examining two political protests in Pakistan with specific regards to their organisation and division of labour related to national news media. It draws on 650 Daily Dawn news reports from the year 1992 and 2014, 17 in-depth interviews with key party campaign planners and a focus group conducted at the Karachi Press Club. It will show how a traditional protest form remains extremely relevant to protest elites but that it has been transformed by the arrival of electronic media. The study contributes to media and movement studies understanding of how protest activity in Southern contexts is shaped by media pluralisation.
Keywords: contentious collective action, movement and media interaction, hybrid regimes, 24-hour news television.

Hate Spin: the manufacture of religious offence and its threat to democracy by Cherian George. Book review: Ayaz A. Siddiqui

Originally published in The News on Sunday, August 13th 2017.

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Front cover taken from MIT Press site.

In their vehement critique of the media industry, Herman and Chomsky (1988) skilfully show how powerful corporate interests shape the news. It has been 30 years since then; democracies world over, including the US, have ostensibly experienced growing right-wing populism, radical campaigns and hate propaganda. Governance-wise these nations lie on an entire spectrum of democratic maturity, media concentration and diversity. Clearly, political economy is just one side of the powerful influences that shapes news content.

In Hate Spin: The Manufacture of Religious Offence and Its Threat to Democracy, Associate Professor Cherian George unravels how strategic religious hateful propaganda is being used as a tool by skilled political entrepreneurs in democracies the world over, for explicitly political goals. He draws particular attention to ‘offence-taking’, which is about playing the provoked victim with malicious intent, as opposed to the more commonly understood ‘offence-giving’ notion of hate speech. Together, the two form a double-edged sword he calls Hate Spin, which “exploits group identities to mobilise supporters and coarse opponents”.

George begins his inquiry by asking why there are strategic time lags between incidents involving violent indignation — protests, court petitions and such — and the moment of ‘offence giving’ activity — offensive cartoons, films — in the name of which they are ‘triggered’. Shrewd middlemen, usually elites, skilled at public relations, he argues, mobilise, often genuine, emotions of people where they see as an incentive. This contentious politics often fades away when there is no longer political advantage to gain.

To expand on these claims, a thick comparison of political campaigns of the Hindu-right in India, of Christian-right in the United States and of the Muslim-right in Indonesia is presented.

Hate Spin is a chilling reminder of the tangible link between material injustices in a society and restrictions in its market place of ideas. For instance, the escalation of the cultural homogenisation project of the Sang Parivar, dubbed Hindutva or ‘Hinduness’ (distinguishable from Hinduism), in Modi’s India is explained through the Gujrat pogroms in 2002, ghettoisation of Muslims and Muzaffarnagar riots in the run-up to 2014 Indian elections.

One can feel the reverberations of Pakistan’s own nasty experience with religious populism, especially in some recent times, throughout the reading. George’s deep theoretical insights will demystify everyday inciting news content we have grown accustomed to in Pakistan.

Such agents cause more abuse in closed societies where freedoms are already restricted. But in open societies this phenomenon presents a genuine dilemma for authorities. The unique case study of the US is telling. George shows how the ‘Islamophobia Network’ has taken advantage of the exceptional freedoms afforded by the First Amendment. However, its activities are necessarily restricted by the US Constitution’s equal importance to protection of minorities, including religions, against discrimination. In this context, the instigators of mosque-banning campaigns, for instance, might be losing the legal battle but they have succeeded in pushing hate propaganda in the middle of public discourse.

Generating national conversations thus is often the prime motivation behind Hate Spin. Which it does at the unreasonable expense of other point of views. This makes it anti-democratic.

The author also engages with various ways to curb the menace. He charts ethical responses that professional journalist can take; upstream approaches that deal with early warning signs of potential incitement and downstream approaches for troubleshooting the impact of hate campaigns. He emphasises the particular role that civil society and religious actors can play to ‘nudge hate speech out of public center’.

Not surprisingly, George believes that the overregulation of hate speech usually backfires for authorities. Insult laws such as those protecting blasphemy, for instance end up providing legal munitions to vested interests, which further harms minority groups and opinions. Citing the case of Shirin Dalvi, a Mumbai newspaper editor who was hounded by authorities when complaints were lodged against her after publishing a picture of the cover of Charlie Hebdo bearing the caricature of Prophet Muhammad. Or, the anti-pornography bill ratified in 2008 in Indonesia that gave a license to declare illegal anything certain uncompromising Muslim clerics deemed as indecent.

One shortcoming is that the analysis sometimes blurs the boundaries between populist politics in general and Hate Spin. For instance, when constitutional provisions to ensure a greater participation of out groups is suggested as a measure that can limit marginalisation of those in the crosshair of dominant groups. In contexts where politics of ‘otherness’ is a norm, hate speech thus could be inevitable. It would be useful to see how Hate Spin operates in hybrid democratic contexts, such as Turkey, Russia and Pakistan, to further crystallise the more dangerous repercussions of hateful propaganda from legitimate expressions of identity politics.

George is aware of this complexity as his cases draw strength not just from the novelty of analysis but by engagement with the most current debates at the intersection of free expression laws, human rights framework and religion. He believes that a plural and tolerant democracy doesn’t require religion to be forced out of the public sphere but that rule of law must be supreme.

One can feel the reverberations of Pakistan’s own nasty experience with religious populism, especially in some recent times, throughout the reading. George’s deep theoretical insights will demystify everyday insightful news content we have grown accustomed to in Pakistan. While specific analysis of international episodes like Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, and Jylland-Posten cartoon controversy will make one aware of something that is always at the tip of our tongues but somehow get lost amid the ruckus when such stories land.

This review should be taken as a trailer for it’s impossible to highlight many other original insights and facts that make it a compelling read. Relevant international organisations and actors at different sides of the misinformation battle for instance, will be a valuable resource for journalists, policy makers, academics, students and concerned citizens fighting this web of hate and creating a more inclusive Pakistani society.

Hatespin The Manufacture of Religious Offence and its Threat to Democracy
Author: Cherian George
Publisher: MIT Press
Year: 2016
Pages: 328
Price: USD18.95

How Buddhist practice revealed a fresh perspective on Islam for me

“Happiness is here and now

I have dropped my worries

Somewhere to go – something to do

But no longer in a hurry”

– A monastic song

Recently I attended several mindfulness camps with monastics in Hong Kong. Now beyond the awe a newbie might associate with Zen – not least a chance for something experiential. What struck me was the potency of guided meditative exercises that were practiced to, ‘center’ the participants, decompress, or simply put, relax the mind. My limited exposure to Buddhism can be summarized in the following key words (phrases):

  • A hour long 8th grade, opinionated history lesson about Ashoka, Nirvana, and Enlightenment.
  • A very popular religion.
  • A colleague who once said he is a Buddhist.
  • Militant Buddhists in Burma and plight of the Rohingya Muslims.
  • The Dalai Lama.
  • Jeff Bridges characters in Hollywood films.

The contrast between realizing the potential application of a philosophy new to me and my rudimentary knowledge of it was humbling. Moreover so as the communitarian, harmonious and meditative underpinnings can be only understood properly through experience and practice.

And more practice.

I also couldn’t help but wonder whether Islam, my religion of birth, operated in a similar fashion. Does increasing the frequency of practices and rituals prescribed in the Islamic school of thought lead to a greater understanding of Islam? I remember my childhood when I would make conscientious effort to pray and how on most occasions my mind would constantly drift around mundane everyday tasks. As I have reached 30, I barely practice. Reverence to God and death aside there is little actual relevance of the Holy in my life.

These are just some reflections. Muslim faith and understanding of life and Islam I suppose does increase as time passes. Perhaps the issue I’m really raising here is the practicality of theistic as opposed to non-theistic religions in present times. Or is it the virtue of practicing multiple religions?

Whatever debate I’ve stumbled upon today and however strong the potency of mindfulness exercises one thing is abundantly clear; practicing Buddhism showed me a fresh perspective on Islam. It compelled me to give new meaning to old Islamic practices I’m familiar with and that I usually find confounding. For someone who often questions the value of ‘being a Muslim’ this is important.

I’m not advocating Buddhist practice over Islam here. But of why fresh and comparative perspectives are necessary. Perhaps for you it would be some other religion, person, ideology or life choice. As long as effort is made to open up to others. Searching for similarities rather than differences with it or them.

For it gives us a chance to better understand our own selves and our role in this World.

What sets Logan apart from X-Men?

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Watching the film with some fusion spicy dumplings.

I’ve always enjoyed the thought the provoking stories of X-men franchise that brings it closer to science fiction novels than comic books. But Logan set’s itself apart from the usual plot; it’s not the exceptionally violent and gritty feel of the film, although that plays to the unsettling aura, rather a fresh take on the story of ‘good mutants’.

Set in the near future where mutants in their quest to live harmoniously alongside non-mutants have actually struggled to survive. As if the picture that Charles Xavier had imagined and the course his followers took ultimately backfired, after the events of ‘X3: The Last Stand’.

At first this alternative story line may not seem surprising. After all, this scenario is quite close to what Magneto had been fighting to prevent all along. Although, I imagine that in his version of the clash of species, there would have been a ‘battle of all battles’, where if mutants lost they would be exterminated.

But Logan hints of a fate far worse; new mutant babies are no longer born, those considered too dangerous are hunted down, and the remaining ones face every day struggles of ordinary living outside the usual comic book fantasy.

At the same time, mutant genes are harvested to enhance ordinary people, especially for military purpose. In this reality, mutation is merrily a tool, to be exploited by those in power. Although this theme of absolute power is a bit clichéd, the story keeps it fresh by demystifying superheroes and subjecting them to travails of life. No one is above the government and the corporations.

I suspect that in the future we might see ‘bad mutants’ working alongside government mercenaries to hunt down ‘good mutants’ and dissidents. Speaking of such new directions, the installment paves a very flexible way ahead for the franchise. A drama? A TV series? I won’t be surprised.

For now we can be assured that the series has complicated its usual good vs evil vision of reality, thereby also catering to a mature audience.

How has protesting changed in Pakistan since the 90’s?

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University of Hong Kong logo.

On 24th February, 2017 I presented some findings on the Changes in Political Protests in Pakistan since the 90’s, based on my field work last year. The presentation was made in a closed reading group organised by faculty members at the Hong Kong Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences (HKIHSS). In this post I summarize key findings of my presentation, some conclusions and finally a word on the reading group itself. I understand that use of certain terms will be unclear. I strongly encourage you to email so we can discuss.

Summary

I compared two major political protests, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Long March in 1992 and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf Azadi Dharna (PTI) in 2014. In the paper, my focus was on protesters organisation strategies and division of labour within the party. These two ‘variables’ (in a manner of speaking) are taken from Gamson and Wolfsfeld (1993) understanding of the relationship between movements and media. Worth to mention that even though focus is on protest strategies, specific focus is on those strategies that are most related to media. I will not present my research design here. Those who are interested can contact me via email. However, my data sources are Daily Dawn news archives from year 1992 and 2014 collected at Dawn library in Karachi. 17 in-depth interviews with various party media cell officers, campaign managers, journalists and civil society activists. I also conducted a focus group at the Karachi Press Club.

Key similarities and differences between PPP and PTI protest organisation:

  • Patronage networks were leveraged in both protests but not as much by the PTI.
  • Protest events for the PPP were rather diffused where as heavily concentrated for the PTI.
  • Both protests chose the capital city as the major choice of mobilisation however, the PTI took special interest in concentrating resources there.
  • PPP brick and mortar media presence remained mostly limited to its party headquarters in Karachi whereas PTI expanded such presence to major metropolis in the country.

Key similarities and difference between PPP and PTI division of labour:

  • Both protests relied on campaign officers to generate corner meetings and mobilise people to protest sites and to agitate.
  • Both protests relied on young volunteers however, PTI had a much more diverse cadre of youth activist specially in metropolis where traditionally vote banks don’t function as effectively.
  • Both parties have media campaign managed by professionals but PTI campaigns were managed by professionals with a unique skill set related to electronic campaigns that PPP did not have.
  • Other political parties, including PPP, have imitated PTI’s style of division of labour in its protests.

 

Some discussion

Bearing in mind the changes in media landscape since the 90’s, in particular the heavy presence of 24 hour news television in Pakistani politics we can see why PTI protests chose to concentrate in one location over a prolong period. It firstly facilitates television news crews that, unlike print reporters need heavy and expensive equipment for reporting. It is difficult for such crews to report on scattered events. Secondly, prolong stay in certain locations facilitates continuous and therefore live coverage of events. Unlike in the past, where such news crews (state television) were barely present or only supported the incumbent government. This certainly shows protesters changing tactics to get better media standing. Certainly the new forms of expertise required to capture, retain and facilitate this kind of news coverage was also present among the party’s media cell. Such new forms of organisation in other metropolis certainly helps in liaison with various TV news organisations. In contrast, PPP protesters had to find different ways to capture the news attention of a media landscape dominated by a print medium. It fits our understanding of news bureaus and correspondents located in different cities reporting the latest in their area. For after a while, news editors in major cities ignore the protest-as-usual to make room for other events.

About the reading group

This is a brief word on the purpose of the reading group and the format of presentations so that I may illuminate how academic communities are built. It is a learning process for me as well. So a major purpose, as I understand, is to bring together budding scholars studying diverse topics, in fairly diverse university departments within and outside Hong Kong, but with a common interest in anthropological methods. Such methods are distinguishable for presenting in ‘thick descriptions’ the phenomenon/process that are being explored. Journalism writing, if one can call it that, often employs such methods and I find that they are helpful when writing my reports which are indeed qualitative.

Each session has two parts, an hour devoted to a presentation followed by an hour on Q&A. Each presenter has to submit a paper in advance so that participants understand in detail the context of the presentation. For me, the core utility of this exercise is to use my arguments to engage with people who don’t know much about my area. And in the process make the arguments sharper.

Reference

Gamson, W. A., & Wolfsfeld, G. (1993). Movements and media as interacting systems. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 528(1), 114-125.