I participated in a panel on ‘journalism practice in a post-truth era’ at Karachi University

 

ON February 16th I presented a paper on Pakistan’s Dual Media System in a panel on journalism practice comprising of the Ex-advisor to the President of Pakistan, Chair media school University of Peshawar, and other distinguished speakers at the International Media Conference 2022 convened by Karachi University in collaboration with Greenwich University Pakistan.

My talk was based on a chapter of my thesis that attempts to conceptualise changes in commercial, political and professional imperatives of Pakistan’s media system since 1988. The thesis is available Open Access at HKBU thesis repository on this link.

I have grown up listening to such scholars so when it was my turn to present I told the audience how I’m used to sitting on the other side of this table and that it was a honour to dialogue with more experienced scholars. 

As the focal person from Greenwich University for this conference I led my team to, among other tasks, successfully host ALL online panels for scholars who couldn’t make it to Karachi. Our collaboration with Karachi University media school, the conference convener, helped turned this two day academic conference into a truly hybrid event. 

Yes, last few months have been crazy busy as I entered into my first full-time academic appointment while juggling married life. More on that later.

But do stay tune for conference proceedings that we are preparing with the Institute of Policy Studies, Islamabad which is a conservative think tank in Pakistan. I will upload them when they are ready in a months time. Meanwhile, check out our media team’s event coverage on the Facebook handle @IMCKUGU and social media in general on #IMCKUGU. 

 

I was invited to speak on ‘misinformation’ at Art Concepts

I was invited for an hour long Zoom talk on dealing with misinformation on 10th December, 10pm PST. It was organised by Art Concepts which is a unique artisanal space based in Bahrain. 

Key points I addressed:
– What are some global challenges posed by misinformation?
– What is a functional perspective on media?
– When is media content functional and dysfunctional? 
– How can citizens consume everyday media and communication messages more critically? 

Part 1 of the talk has been embedded in this post. Kindly visit Art Concept’s Youtube Page for the complete talk.

Art Concepts can be reached on #instagram @jehansaleh_studio . 

My Aurat March 2020 poster was picked by Diva Magazine Pakistan

View this post on Instagram

#DivaExclusive: #auratmarch2020 #karachi

A post shared by DIVA Magazine Pakistan (@divamagazinepakistan) on

Women & men from all strata of Pakistani life gathered to commemorate International Women’s Day with the much-awaited Aurat March, holding placards with important messages, sharing poetry with deep meaning & celebrating the blessing of womanhood. Aurat means woman, & March means rallying, translated from Urdu. 

I’m researching on campaign messages of mainstream opposition groups in Pakistan as part of my thesis. This ‘evangelical’ placard was an outcome of what I have learned. It has two elements; the text, which in English roughly means, ‘shame & honour isn’t determined by your clothes, it’s in the way you think’. In Roman Urdu, ‘sharam aur haya kapron mein nahi, soch mein soch mein’. Such framing irks mainstream sensibilities of morality by highlighting the double standards for men & women in Muslim Pakistan; the costume, a prayer cap & a garment, popularly associated with Muslim men attire in Asia, counters the assumption that Marchers are ‘immoral women’. 

The unprecedented success of Aurat March is in effectively translating universal values of equality & human rights in Pakistan’s cultural lexicon. It moves these conversations from Parliament to the Kitchen. Much like the global #metoo movement. 

Pakistan has a glorious history of women activism. Women have challenged military dictators & discriminatory laws through street demonstrations.

Learn more about the Aurat March 2020 here. Also, see it through my eyes here.

To cite the Instagram post APA style: [@divamagazinepakistan]. (March 8, 2020). #DivaExclusive: #auratmarch2020 #Karachi. [Instagram photograph]. Retrieved from https://www.instagram.com/p/B9eNEOnppYC/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

(Mis)information in the Coronavirus Crisis – A Roundtable Discussion at the HKBU School of Communication

The coronavirus storm has hit many parts of the world and generated tremendous impacts on people’s lives. In crises like this, people seek information to assess the situation and to protect themselves and their loved ones. However, there are concerns about the credibility and neutrality of information circulated in the virtual space. The Center for Media & Communication Research at the Hong Kong Baptist University invited three speakers to share their observation with participants in a virtual format on April 3, 2020. Here I share excerpts and resources from the discussion useful for journalists, health professionals, fact checkers, educators, organisations engaged in civil/information literacy and interested public at large.

Moderator:

Leanne Chang, Director of the Centre for Media and Communication Research, Hong Kong Baptist University

Speakers:

Summer Chen, Chief Editor of Taiwan FactCheck Center

Masato Kajimoto, Director of Annie Lab; Assistant Professor of Practice, Journalism and Media Studies Centre, University of Hong Kong

Rose Luqiu, Assistant Professor, Department of Journalism, Hong Kong Baptist University

Summer’s talk:

We are certified with the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) for the second year now.

After covering the Taiwan Presidential Elections we are fighting against Coronavirus misinformation.

Last December we became an independent foundation. We cooperate with popular social media in Taiwan which includes, Facebook, Google Claim Review, Line, Yahoo.

We have a large database of fact checks on COVID 19. We have already debunked 110 myths.

Battleline in Taiwan:

1- interview experts, scientists & doctors, 2- support from Science Media Center Taiwan (Academic support is important to build our own knowledge gap on the virus), 3- fact-checking Central Epidemic Command Center (since we are independent from government we do not just report Taiwan government suggestions). 

Battleline around the globe:

1- The IFCN comprises of 65 fact-checking organisations from 45 countries. They have collected more than 1500 fact checks under the umbrella of CoronaVirusAlliance. See their Poynter database below: 

Misinformation timeline in Taiwan (what we have debunked so far):

Jan (first case in Taiwan) – Remedies, Cures, Measures, Virus character.

Feb: Mostly news stories, conspiracies mixed with science papers.

March: Taiwan government is losing control (debunked almost 10 ‘facts’ about this topic). We did digital literacy campaign for the public to help identify this kind of information.

March – now: Virus is from US, or Italy not Wuhan (probably China propaganda). 

March middle: Italy thanks China (also propaganda by China). 

March middle-end: Lockdown policies. US is losing control (misinformation regarding this subject, 9 fact checks).

Current misinformation: #Malicious message “go stock pile supplies”, #Remedies #Cures.

Interesting academic ideas/topics she recommends for research/stories:

  1. There are now two database, IFCN, TFC. Any database can be used for research how one piece of misinformation spreads around the world. For instance, Garlic Soup can cure COVID-19 or Windy data proves there are 40,000 corpses burning in Wuhan. You can see that many other countries reported similar false information. https://www.poynter.org/ifcn-covid-19-misinformation/?search_terms=corpses. https://tfc-taiwan.org.tw/articles/2366.
  2. Study on health misinformation about COVID-19. Specially, reports claiming to quote celebrities, relatives, other influencers. 
  3. China’s propaganda; corona virus is not from Wuhan but US or Italy. Italians appreciate China; research on how these misinformation networks are built, how they spread etc. 
  4. If we compare misinformation about Hong Kong protest and COVID-19 we can find similar patterns of misinformation, conducted by China. One pattern: Spokesman + state-backed media + other materials spread on social media.
  5. Comparison of misinformation on COVID 19, specially on social media, to examine how some is debunked while other is not.
  6. Researching on misinformation about COVID 19 being spread also from other political actors such as Falun Gong (a movement banned in China).

Masato’s talk:

I have some observations based on my experience but not based on specific research:

  1. Knowledge gap amoung us (ordinary citizens, the news media, media experts). We all have some knowledge but the gap means misinformation spreads rapidly.
  2. Relatedly, “legit” traditional media not just “bad media organisations” that are amplifying fears and misleading claims. Something not discussed enough. 
  3. Misinformation is a problem, fact-checking helps but this is as much a public health communication problem where we must address the larger information ecosystem on COVID 19.

Knowledge gap

– Experts and journalist often ignore misinformation. They do not see news value in digging through it, since they are able to see through it quickly dismiss it. In other words, experts that are normally critical thinkers, may not see how the ordinary audience is reacting and sharing misinformation. 

For instance; warm water can kill coronavirus. Has become a huge international phenomenon. A popular remedy being reported on social media in Canada, Philippines, India, Cambodia, Japan, Brazil, Indonesia, Spain, Venezuela. 

A small claim that has universal appeal with potentially dangerous consequences for management of COVID 19. 

Journalist think this misinformation is harmless. But if you are in fact-checking field, you realize how many people actually believe in it do not take other precautions. They don’t wash hands. They go out freely. Then they are telling their friends on social media how things are all ok. 

– I run the database Annie Lab. http://annielab.org.

We are in talks with Google as well to take into account our database. Hopefully you would not have to visit our database and can identify information organically. 

Role of journalists

This map was going strong in many parts of the world. It came from a university in the UK. I forgot the name. It was used along with a research paper to illustrate how people travel around the world by airplane.

But many people interpreted it as how people have travelled the world from Wuhan before the city got shut down in January. News organizations in many countries carried the story.

– There are five types of COVID-19 misinformation in my view. I think many fact-checkers would agree:

  1. Origin
  2. Symptoms
  3. Miracle treatment/cure
  4. Reactions (panic, abandoned bodies, violence, etc.)
  5. Government responses (stats manipulation, lockdown, etc.)

– Fact-checking ‘future’ is not possible; example, a story on how China will close down its factories that make toilet paper. 

– If you are a journalist reporting a story, not fact-checking, but reporting, an instance of people panic buying toilet paper is now a story.

We detected early on Annie Lab that this rumour on toilet paper is going viral in Hong Kong. I work from home now with my students since university is closed so when my students initially pointed this out, I ignored them thinking who will believe such a rumour. But people were posting videos of empty shelf, people queing, etc. These were reshared online and covered by traditional media. 

As one result, news organisations report on toilet paper shortage actually pushed people into panic buying since they believed in the shortage. The huge spike in demand obviously effected the supply side in Hong Kong. The story that was rather groundless became true. News organisations are partly to blame. 

COVID 19 episode tells us that news presentation style is important. It operates at a psychological level. 

Misinformation

What to do about it?

Time to think about responsible pandemic news coverage. We have an industry guideline for suicide reporting in many countries already. Why not a similar guidline for health communication/pandemic reporting? Currently, this is a wild west. 

Finally, reporting, fact-checking on epidemic is not easy when even experts sometimes disagree on subjects. For example, should we encourage or discourage aircon use? Fact checking can be misleading too.

I recommend these must read articles for journalists:

Useful comments during Q&A:

Masato says that’s there is no way to fight misinformation through fact-checking. Purpose of fact-checking is not to correct everyone who has read misinformation. People move on from one rumor to another. Many rumors are created all the time. 

Fact checking does help to straighten the historical record. 

But it is better understood as a digital literacy program. By fact-checking we are showing the public how to handle information. If news consumers are doing fact-checks on the demand side, then this problem can be improved. 

While it’s news media’s responsibility it’s the public’s responsibility also. 

Summer says that many of the claims that are received at the Taiwan Fact-Check Center are by the general public. So it’s important to bring the public into confidence. When we fact check, we are not focused on conclusion. Our articles are detailed with interviews, counterclaims etc. We want to show the public the process of reading our articles and the content itself. This will also help ordinary people to learn fact-checking.

We want people to see fact checking as a social program. A social movement.

How can we separate fact from opinion?

Masato says I give my students statements to verify. For instance, Japanese Food is better than Chinese Food – is it an opinion or fact? If this is a fact than based on what data? Is it the medical literature, scientific literature, what is the definition of Japanese Food? Is fried rice Chinese or Japanese. I give my students such exercises.

Summer says fact checking can also backfire when people upon learning about a false information may still choose to believe it. They may think for instance a fact checked story is against values of Taiwan.  

Summer also says that news reports on the pandemic may also make more sense in one context compared to another. Such as the limited use of face mask in Texas, United States. Perhaps open spaces mean people are not wearing masks. But in Taiwan such advise would be nonsense. These reports have more to do with field of journalism rather than fact-checking. 

Other resources:

Recommended article on mask debate: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/04/coronavirus-pandemic-airborne-go-outside-masks/609235/

Resource on information literacy by Prof. Masato: https://medium.com/@MasatoKJ

This six-week course developed by the University of Hong Kong and State University of New York will help learners develop their critical thinking skills to enable them to better identify reliable information in news reports: https://www.coursera.org/learn/news-literacy

Links to the cloud files on the original discussion:

https://hkbu.zoom.us/rec/share/wu5yd52pzWBOT4Hn02HAUL8ILL-9T6a80SkZqfAKzR0CG4Jd20UHA7PCHY0Qt16F?startTime=1585893985000

https://hkbu.zoom.us/rec/share/wu5yd52pzWBOT4Hn02HAUL8ILL-9T6a80SkZqfAKzR0CG4Jd20UHA7PCHY0Qt16F?startTime=1585899129000

Extremist religious protests highlight the dearth of civic education

Khadim Hussain Rizvi founder of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). Photo – Wikimedia Commons.

A religiously fuelled violent protest that brought the nation to a standstill has subsided. For now.

Once again ordinary Pakistanis are left scratching their heads.

We understand something rotten has happened. However, the symbols of ‘Islamic oppression’ and religion inspired vocabulary used by the protesters appealed to our emotions in ways that confounded who or what is to be blamed.

The Prime Minister deserves credit for speaking out against the protesters threatening the writ of the state. The prohibition on news channel to provide coverage was another commendable response to fear traders hell bent on pushing divisive voices into the mainstream. The response of the government shows that while intentions were sincere, it lacks the capacity to deal with this menace. It needs our support.

The menace of hate speech is a growing problem the world over. It is slowly corroding democratic life in both industrialised and emerging countries; be it through the activities of the Islamophobia network in countering a perceived threat from Shariah in a secular America; the uproar over ‘killing of cows’ created by the Sang Parivar in a Hindu India; or, the threat from minorities in a Muslim majority Pakistan.

Hate speech can be defined as the vilification of a group’s identity in order to oppress its members and deny them equal rights.

But here is where the similarity between Pakistan and other countries (irrespective of economic status) ends. A poor understanding of civic life and humanism (Haqooq Ul Ibad), lack of public etiquettes and persistence of tribal values, has meant that Pakistanis are particularly vulnerable to the kind of politics that social scientists refer as the ‘dark side’ of democracy.

It is imperative that Pakistanis of all income, ‘nationalities’, class, education and sect understand that hate speech is a cancer. Similar to the cancer of corruption, if left unchecked, it eats away the social contract between the state and the citizens by extorting unfair advantage in public life for select groups.

Worse still, if not eradicated, it has the macabre potential to dehumanize entire segments of population. Recently, the world watched in horror at the genocide of Rohingya Muslims. What the state (and public opinion) did to the Rohingya in Myanmar could one day happen to minorities in Pakistan. And it won’t stop there. Right now, our ‘fight’ is against Christians and Ahmedis, soon it will be between Sunnis and Shias (oh I forgot, it is already there), between various Sunni sects, between various ethnicities.

In addition, there is now ample evidence to suggest a causality between hateful propaganda in the name of identity, and genocide. Researchon the genocide of the Tutsi sect in Rwanda in 1994 found that radio was a critical tool used by the Hutu led majority government. For days, local stations fanned the flames of hate urging the Hutu’s to “weed out the cockroaches”, meaning kill the Tutsis. In 100 days, some 800,000 Rwandans were slaughtered by ethnic Hutu extremists, BBC reports.

We might mistakenly assume that such a catastrophe is only possible in a poverty riddled weak African state. But let’s not forget the holocaust during World War II keeping aside for a moment our traditional animosity with the Jews. The rich and powerful Nazi war machine used hateful propaganda to justify the genocide of not only Jews, but also minorities, the disabled and political opponents it deemed inferior to an Aryan race.

Mounting research on social movements has shown that violent protests in the name of religion appear to address a profound moral wrong. But observe closely and we find skilled middleman – politicians, elites, etc. – managing these protests, often using genuine emotions of the people, for their own short-term gains. In his recent book Hate Spin: The Manufacture of Religious Offense and its Threat to Democracy, Professor of Journalism Cherian George explains this using case studies of the Islamophobia network in the United States, the Sang Parivar in India and the Islamic public sphere in Indonesia.

Critical for this understanding is to accept as a fact that hate speech is a crime. There should be no alternative opinion on this. Same as the fact that the sun rises from the east and sets in the west.

George urges us to observe political actors that benefit through fear mongering instead of wasting our efforts dissecting the psychology of protesters out on the streets. The real hate traders in Pakistan are not those stealing bananas or smashing cars but resourceful rational actors skilled at harnessing hate to achieve their political ends.

The illegal actions of those like Khadim Hussain Rizvi and Mumtaz Qadri, have a foothold in our society partly because many Pakistanis, irrespective of income and education, either believe in their cleverly crafted messages uncritically or prefer to stay silent out of sheer confusion.

The gravity of this challenge shouldn’t be underestimated for a nation born partly out of religious fervor. If our religious leaders stoke the flames of hate, we are also partly to blame. The crisis of morality is in our DNA. However, while the abstract question of Pakistani ideology is too complex to resolve yet, it’s easier to wrap our heads around the menace posed by hate speech.

Consensus about this issue has finally emerged in the shape of the National Action Plan but recent events highlight the tremendous collective effort that is required. Civic education from the grassroot all the way to the top is imperative. Measuring progress through number of erected schools though commendable on its own, is not enough. Civic education is a special kind of literacy that is desperately lacking in private, state and madrassah school systems across the board.

Also read: 5 ways to counter hate speech in the media through ethics and self-regulation

To this list I’d also add our everyday conversations with friends, family, neighbors and staff that cater our homes and businesses. We must encourage conversations on humanism at a personal level to chip away the audience for hate mongers.

It is critical for us to understand hate speech not only as a crime but also as a menace that prevents us from co-existing with mutual respect and harmony in practice.

Journalism education in Pakistan must break out of the liberal mould that shaped it

Media liberalisation in Pakistan was ushered during the presidency of Gen. (rt) Pervez Musharraf in early 2000s. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Recently scholars at the opening meeting of the premier International Communication Association conference, cautioned against the role of ‘fake news’ in elections around the world.

The menace can be observed in democracies from the most to the least mature. It highlights the changing paradigm in journalism dominated by liberal principals to one where context specific factors form the basis for journalism practice and development.

However, many journalists in Pakistan continue to benchmark dated Western ideals about the profession. Perhaps because of a bout of arguably unfettered liberalisation of the media economy that took place after state policies in 2002.

The overt reliance on liberal ideals

They speak out against any curbs on press freedom by seeking refuge in the liberal market place of ideas. The argument goes that truth reigns supreme in an environment of unrestrained and free flow of information. Their opponents are quick to point out how the press in even the most liberal media markets, such as the United States, ‘tow-the-line’ during national crisis.

In the Asian context we have seen that a rampant growth of the media industry in the absence of civic norms flooded the market place with partisan voices. The liberalized media in the Philippines after the overthrow of dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos in 1986 is a notable case in point. Rather than enlightenment that facilitates a much needed national consensus a rambunctious media further disoriented the public.

Closer to home commercialization is also strongly associated with the erosion of editorial integrity by marketing departments or owner’s private agendas, as is documented on the Indian press.

The overt reliance on liberal ideals may ultimately polarize the debate in emerging media contexts where there is limited public space for fact based informed opinion, such as in Pakistan. Worse still, it allows societal elites that are contemptuous of public scrutiny to justify curbs on truth on grounds of a press perceived ill equipped to report it.

We must break out of the liberal-authoritarian binary in our public discourse where anything that goes against the state perspective is labelled ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ by the media. Just as any critique of religious extremism is seen as a past time of a ‘civil society crowd’

The problem with an unwavering faith in liberalism was starkly visible in the polarization of the American press during the election of President Trump. A large segment of the liberal media that had historically supported and preached impartiality and fairness in news reporting, more so than the conservative press, deemed it in the public interest to do away with an important journalism ideal.

Else where: why is liberalism failing to ignite imagination?

Implications for journalism education in Pakistan

Reality is a complex interplay of myriad factors. Not a zero-sum game. Consequently, journalism students must be taught to appreciate nuances of reporting in relation to factors such as institutional configuration, commercial and political imperatives.

To be sure, journalism is a profession, practiced and learned through participation in the routine activities of a news room. Journalism schools therefore re-create that environment in their training studios and production labs.

However this technical training is based on a strong theoretical foundation. Top journalism schools around the world are also very active in academic research. Professors offer special topics designed to arm students with a capacity to adapt context specific differences in practice with the democratic ideals upon which the discipline stands.

Comparative media research, for instance, shows that sustainable professional journalism can exist in pockets even in the harshest political environments. Just as democracies can exist in sustainable hybrid forms rather than an ideal (read Western) type on a continuum from low to high quality.

I was involved in one such study, at the Hong Kong Baptist University, that investigates ethical best practices among media organisations in five Asian territories; China, India, Indonesia, Philippines and Taiwan. We found that reputable organisations here are usually run by journalist-publishers with a strong ethos. Management policies facilitate a democratic culture in the newsroom itself. They understand branding but set their professional ethos as the value proposition.

The project published in the well-regarded journal Journalism shows the importance for Pakistani media to observe journalism in contexts beyond the American and British benchmarks. Media practices in regions with whom we share commonalities in socio-cultural and economic development are more useful to understand and improve our own.

Why does this matter?

This won’t be easy. It requires updating curricula in our media schools and the particularly difficult task of designing pedagogy that can operationalize such knowledge to the unique requirement of the news industry in Pakistan.

This doesn’t mean that liberalism is inherently bad. On the contrary, liberal education is desperately needed for young Pakistanis to understand their role in society and learn to co-exist in harmony. Only that a liberal press is not necessarily professional and certainly not the most effective.

Else where: what is a libertarian press?

If we do not arm our journalists with the state of play in the field they will struggle to stay relevant in democratising Pakistan. A key function of the press. Media students will face a disconnect between classroom learning and the work place upon graduation. Non-democratic forces will continue to encroach upon the vacuum left by our media institutions.

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!

 

 PTI PMLN
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.

Hate Spin: the manufacture of religious offence and its threat to democracy by Cherian George – my book review for TNS

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

9780262534406_0
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 has protesting changed in Pakistan since the 90’s? My seminar at HKU

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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.

Knowing your biases

A lesson in critical thinking that I am taught as a potential PhD candidate is to always make an opinion knowing my unique biases. Now this may seem a matter of fact notion but its unbelievable how people take things for granted, at least I have and probably will continue to do so. For instance, its common for me to greet someone by saying ‘Hi’ followed by the conventional ‘How are you’. Now this rather dull sometimes even annoying salutation is very widely used among the people of various  nationalities I’ve had the pleasure to chat with, but among many Hong Kong locals it is not customary. In fact, Hong Kongers find this a personal question to be answered frankly only after the preliminary small talk is over. Can you imagine thinking of how-are-you’s like that?

It gets funnier, in Hong Kong people greet you by asking if you have eaten yet. Yes, there are some combinations for instance they will add lunch or dinner depending on the time of the day but the emphasis is always on food. If you are doubtful about the strangeness of this, imagine yourself in an elevator with a scrawny looking old guy at night as you leave the office. The guy gives you a grin and asks ‘Hello, have you had dinner yet?’ – excuse me? Did you just ask me out for dinner!? I don’t know you man! Alright I may be exaggerating for effect but living in Karachi or even London, nobody ever asked me if I had eaten right of the bat unless they really meant it. Although I must say it’s a different affair if the hot receptionist in the building is asking – it’s an elating feeling until you realise she neither cares if you have eaten nor is interested in dating you. Hong Kongers feel equally perplexed if you ask them ‘How-are-you’ although its strangeness is some what diluted, after all this is a former British colony in East Asia.

It is important to appreciate our differences and the nuances since that gives us a wider perspective and helps us make better choices. For me, knowing that I was brought up in a traditional muslim family in Karachi makes me appreciate the subtleties of a community living in a sometimes violent and mismanaged society. So I am always careful how I phrase ‘patronage’ or ‘connections’ or baradari, which in the West is looked upon unanimously as undermining meritocracy. Not all baradari is bad right? After all in the US people have replaced the term with the ubiquitous ‘references’ and in China they give it an entirely new meaning, Guanxi. But being self-aware of this bias also makes me realise its potential for abuse which otherwise I would have overlooked in the name of ‘getting-business-done-in-Pakistan’; it is no coincidence that developed countries have significantly less corruption than developing ones.

I am in no way implying that any one paradigm or school of thought is correct but the point here is simply to remember your eccentricities. To know why you believe in what you do, to know why you are likely to say something and to know why you recommend a certain course of action. This ontological bearing is not just about having a genuine conversation with others but also about being truthful to your self. As Stuart Hall writes – common sense is the biggest ideology of all.

Biases are great, they gives us character. But know that you have them and always admit them. Always.