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.

On conferences and dharnas

Happy new year everyone! There have been many firsts in 2015 – the first time I traveled the most; to amazing new places in Dubai, Thailand, Denmark, Germany and Netherlands – the first time I got a visa three hours before the flight – the first time I went to an academic conference – and a few others not agreeable with the topic of this post. I hope 2016 will bring many more exciting firsts  to all of us. Needless to say my life has moved forward at a pace so breathtaking that I often struggle to hold on to all those intricate details and make sense of them. But as with all issues in life its useful to break them down to manageable parts.

This post will be on my journey to Denmark particularly attending the Communication & Democracy section 2015 at the European Communication Research and Education (ECREA) conference.

A bit on the journey itself first. I have been working on a paper that aims to explore the role of Dharnas (‘curated sit-ins’ as I like to call them) in citizen mobilisations in Pakistan. So I was very excited when it got accepted at ECREA.  Coincidentally, the visa process to visit Copenhagen Business School, where the conference was to be held, clashed with myriad other administrative and academic duties. As a result I cut the deadlines to travel rather close. In fact, I wasn’t sure if I’d even go until five hours before the flight! Thankfully, the 14 hour flight was just enough to prepare a presentation, shave and look presentable. Although I wouldn’t recommend working under dim lights of the economy class for writing anything important.

Any way, I landed in Copenhagen at first light and went straight to the conference with my luggage where I presented with a 10% battery left on the Mac. I did ok for a first, received some comments but the real reward however was showing this to a very ‘non-Pakistani’ audience:

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The format for this intimate conference over the next two days was typical. Plenary sessions, usually taken over by superstar scholars in the field followed by refreshments before the 200-300 modest gathering breaks down in to a number of themes. These themes formed the meat of the proceedings. The subject matters varied widely – some of the papers I will mention shortly – although conforming to the general theme and loosely bound to European events. For me a fascinating aspect was the program, based on which one could switch between halls to listen to any topic or presenter they fancied. So there was a constant shuffling of people taking notes between presentations. But the two topics I enjoyed listening the most were:

Activism: an ambiguous word for an ambivalent age 

A keynote speech by Prof. Goubin Yang based on his upcoming book. He talked about how the definition of the word activism has increasingly shed its more revolutionary color and how that corresponds to activism increasingly being practiced as passive resistance in contemporary times. Which also means that activism has become rather institutionalised where, no one is ever pro-government or pro-corporation any more.

Commercial Nationalism, Advertising and the Crisis: Political Agency and Resistance 

A paper by Dr. Eleftheria Lekakis on how advertising attempts to mobilise political agency through the platform of a brand and the reception, in terms of acceptance or resistance, that this holds. She took the case study of Johnnie Walker Whiskey’s global campaign to demonstrate how commercial enterprises frame national identity.

My interest in them stemmed from the wave of activism and vigour leading up to May 2013 and the opposition marches later on. And of course the brand Pakistan in local advertising has been ‘done to death’ but never seems to die.

There were also ample opportunities to network in between presentations, refreshment and lunch breaks, a cocktail reception for participants and also one could simply go out for dinner later. On one such moments I chanced upon a Professor from CityU, someone who I have been meaning to speak to. He had done a Twitter Analysis of May 2013 General Elections with findings I was keen to debate. (If you guys can’t access it let me know).

In all it was a refreshing affair. To present your ideas, meet scholars with similar interests, get a feel for the latest trends and explore a new city. Coming from Hong Kong, Copenhagen seemed to me rather quite. You could be walking around the city centre and run in to the parliament building without realising. Very peaceful and scenic. Nightlife is great in that it made me wonder whether the wild drunk hoards I usually encountered in England are an English phenomenon. Europe is certainly different as my time in Berlin and an evening in Amsterdam showed. But lets save that for another time.

Media as a Catalyst for Structural Change in Pakistan – Thesis Abstract

I quite literally stumbled upon the prospects of doing a PhD when halfway through my official editorial internship at the Eastern Eye newspaper I was informed by my MA coordinator that I will still have to write a dissertation as partial fulfillment of my MA program as well. Normally a student is given a choice to do either of the two but as it turned out I ended up with a lot of extra work. However, what started of as a mere accident turned out to be a blessing as the learning, networking, contact building and field experience I acquired in the process made my masters experience truly grand besides opening a whole new career opportunity in academia.

I secured a first class on my dissertation supervised by the very able Dr. Brilliant Mhlanga who is a mentor and a great friend. Here is an abstract of my dissertation. Please feel free to post a critique in the comments section. Cheers!

Thesis title: MEDIA AS A CATALYST FOR STRUCTURAL CHANGE IN PAKISTAN

ABSTRACT

This study is an investigation of the rise of the public sphere in Pakistan after the liberalization of media at the end of the Kargil conflict 1999, its implication for public participation in policy making and the potential for structural change of Pakistani institutions as a result. The basic notion of media theory is that politics and ideology of a country have direct consequences on the media power models in a society. If that is the case then does it logically follows that the reverse may also hold true? This is the premise of this investigation. To this effect problems of a colonial past unique to Pakistan and indeed South Asia are juxtaposed with the nature and development of Journalism in Pakistan before and after Independence in 1947 with particular emphasis on the political economy of newspaper and television media after promulgation of PEMRA Ordinance 2002. The study follows a qualitative research paradigm with an interpretive and constructivist epistemology by utilizing a combination of stakeholder mapping technique with a case study paradigm. The findings indicate that the paradigm shift in the mobilization of public opinion after 2001 has caused a significant amplification of public voices, that there is no doubt that private media has emerged as a vanguard for the publics especially under the lens of the Lawyers Movement in 2007 and that there is strong evidence to suggest that public policy is not as ambiguous and arbitrary as Pakistanis are led to believe. The assertions surmise that sorting the right balance in the nexus of power between a socially responsible and authoritative media can theoretically effect a similar healthy change in other institutions of the Pakistani State.

I will upload the link to the entire thesis very soon but if you have any specific queries you can email me directly at siddiqui.aayaz@gmail.com.

2012 and Gone

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So the New Year is here in all its splendid glory. “The year 2012”. It has has come with much promise and change regarding our fate as the Human species, the World, us Pakistanis and individuals there is something in it for everyone.

The importance of 2012 is emphasized by the amazing events that have happened in the preceding year 2011. Incredible events, revolutionary events.. mind boggling events so much so that I have been left in a state of utter bedazzlement and quandary under the shadows of times yet to come.

So let us begin: In 2011 the Kepler Space Telescope, which is arguably the most significant scientific experiment ever conducted in line with the Hubble Space Telescope, discovered several planets outside our solar system. Now although discovering planets outside our suns gravity is not a new feat, even though the technology to discover planets itself is a relatively new phenomenon with only a decade since the first exoplanet was discovered and since then close to 2000 of them have been identified, what makes the discoveries so vital is that the newly discovered exoplanets are just the right distance from the sun, with just right size for the conditions hospitable for life to exist.

The Implications therefor are staggering. In our quest to discover life outside our solar system 2011 have been the most productive so far. Scientist are quite optimistic here since in a very short span of time we have discovered Earth like planets and by rational will discover life soon. Alien life! Yes it is no longer a myth we might not be the Asrhaf-ul- Maklookat after all, although the religious community will argue it was already given in the

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Quran and bla bla bla. I am sure when the first life forms are discovered the zealots will claim it as a further glory to God, I really do not understand what they mean by this since they were the ones declaring the superiority of the Human Species. Any way the study of Earth like planets will further verify or improve on the Theory of Evolution and put an end once and for all on the ‘teleportation’ of Adam and Eve from ‘Heaven’ to Earth.

In our friendly neighborhood Earth things haven’t been quite serene. 2011 was a tumultuous year of Natural and man made environmental disasters. Who can forget the Chilean miners, the Japanese Tsunami and nuclear disaster, Hurricanes in United States, Earth Quakes and oil spills in Christchurch New Zealand, more earthquakes in Spain the disastrous flooding in Pakistan, wild winter all across Europe and much much more.

Politically we all know about the wave of protest and revolutions all over the globe no continent has been spared this time. The epicenter of protest was astonishingly the Middle East and the civilized West (who would have thought ey). The Occupy Wallstreet Campaign which started in New York and spread all across Europe. Greece, Spain and United Kingdom. UK saw a week of the most fucked up violent protest in its history I daresay some of my own friends and family were at risk that week.

Middle East came out as a big shock for everyone but its rulers. The melting pot spilled over in a wave of anguish and anger over the status quo. The status quo is the key word for 2012. Rulers everywhere must be pissing in their pants now in dread of changing times and if they are not they should be.

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My theory on the fall of ruling regimes in Egypt, Tunis, Libya and agitation in Bahrain, Saudia Arabia, Yemen and Syria following their lead is that the rulers haven’t done so bad for the people: they have developed good infrastructure, open their markets to free trade and provided free education to the masses. The people I believe in the Middle East however have evolved beyond the basic necessities of life that we in the subcontinent are still striving hard to get. They have moved up the ladder in the Maslow’s Hierarchy lets call it that and want a better more autonomous life and living standards which is why the oldies need to go.

PAKISTAN.. Pakistan hahah one word that can be substituted for all the ironies of this

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world. Well, Imran Khan is the man of the moment in 2011 and hopefully will continue till the elections at least. The challenge to the Pakistani status quo which includes all Waderas and pseudo-feudal culture, the Ulema and the false prophets, the Generation X and their obsolete ideals. We have grown up with Imran Khan as our hero in ‘sports’ pun intended and although some might argue that Shoukat Khanam Hospital was a very humanitarian struggle so was the strive of Abdul Sattar Edhi, big hats off to you old man but not everyone is a public administrator or a progressive politician. I will still be skeptical and the reason I will vote for the PTI is for lack of a better option.

..For me personally, this year has been one of soul searching and epiphanies. I got a wonderful job with my own office, a very lavish office if I may add! That was a good learning experience meeting the Governor of State Bank of Pakistan, the President of National Bank, President of HBL and many other whos who of Pakistan. See the thing with my ex-boss is he only speaks to the ‘Man in Charge’ someone who can understand where he is coming from. I was always awed by his influence since the first day I joined when he showed me his pictures with Quaid-e-Azam sahib.

Moving on, 2011 was also the year I finally concluded my two years of research and locked on the programs I need to apply for post-graduate studies. It has taken every ounce of

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patience and intellect to do this. It was very frustrating and the last few months were critical as I locked on respective colleges and started preparing my applications. But thankfully most of the thinking part has been done and I will hopefully get out of this place this year which, by the way is my number 1 new year resolution.

Something else happened in 2011 which has affected a profound impact on me and perhaps changed me as a person. One day I will get in to the nitty grittys of the whole affair I am still trying to understand some of the things that happened and that will take time.

In a few words.. I went to Turkey to meet someone, someone who I have been in touch with for the past 8 years but only as online buddies. She was an Eastern European (I do not want to name the exact country at the moment) a beautiful, free spirited , crazy person who shared my ideals. We had a strange time, much too strange. I don’t know how to classify this, I felt so many different things in a span of few days that I was with her.Things I have never felt before. It was incredible, it was exciting, it was tumultuous… This also happened to be my first time outside Pakistan… Wow, what an experience it was. I want to say alot more and a few lines is not giving this justice at all. Maybe I will write a book about this, I have a structure in mind but not the time or the wisdom yet. But soon. Will definitely let you guys know when I do.

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In all 2011 was spectacular for me personally, I have never been aware of myself so completely and feel that I am ready for anything. We are, I mean my friends and I in our 20s; This is the time people live up to their dreams, this is the time we are in our prime, this is the time we are following our passions, facing immense challenges and making our mark in this world before slowly and gradually becoming more stable and settling down after 30s.

All I have to say now is, I have no regrets what so ever about the choices I have made in life and neither should you for it is our very choices so far that have shaped our personality and made us who we are. Do not apologize and do not be harsh on yourself if you are in your 20s. If there was ever a time to experiment, this is it :-)… Happy New Year and God bless you all!