Gilgit-Baltistan: Social Media has Great Potential to Instigate Political Activism and Debate in GB

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Karachi (DT):The number of Pakistanis using social media remains a tiny percentage of the total population. It is due to several reasons including low connectivity rates in Pakistan and unavailability of platforms using local languages. As per statistics, most of the Pakistani Internet users – around 30 million – are based in urban centres, of which only 4 percent are active on social media.

As per the Internet Service Provider Association of Pakistan (ISPAK), there were only 133,900 users in 2000, which jumped to 29,128,970 in 2012. Only in the year 2012, a 50 percent increase was recorded during the ending months. At least 7,984,880 people use Facebook of the total 190,291,129 population, and around 30 percent access Internet via a mobile device.

It seems that people are spending more and more time online, especially since the socio-political conditions are not very conducive for much healthy offline interactions. Daily Times in this regard talked to a couple of Pakistani activists, working among grassroots. They all had varying views, depending on their area of expertise and outreach.

National Students Federation organiser Khurram Ali, based in Karachi, is not very hopeful of social media playing any major role in bringing about change in Pakistani society, as in his opinion, it is restricted to urban – middle and upper classes of Pakistan. “We have worked with students in Pak Colony and Frontier Colony, where they rarely have Internet facilities. Similar is the case with Siddique Goth. Though, you can still find activists, especially focal persons even from those areas on social media, which means it is an important tool. You may not find masses, but you can find focal persons,” he revealed.

Talking about Baloch and Hazara community, Ali said that they are very active on social media, because they want to communicate with the international community. In his opinion, communities most neglected by the State utilise social media the most to be heard.

Experts in this regard also claim that social media might not be as powerful a medium to create something similar to the Arab Spring, at least not any time soon. As per data collected by marketing and research companies like Alexa, Wearesocial, Nielsen Online, Miniwatts, etc, Pakistan currently has 11 to 17 percent total internet penetration, a rate exceeding that of its South Asian neighbours, yet lagging well behind those of Arab Spring nations such as Tunisia (36 percent) and Egypt (26 percent).

While Ali’s comments cannot be considered decisive in terms of the impacts of social media, Dr Zaeem Zia, a social media and human rights activist from Gilgit-Baltistan said that the medium has great potential to instigate political activism and debate among youth.

Talking about his friend Shireen Jan alias Muskurahat, around 40 years old, who has never been to school, Dr Zia said, “Muskurahat has recently asked me to sign him up on Facebook, and also post his pictures.” Most people are all for utilising social media in positive ways to increase interaction and awareness regarding local as well as global matters in Gilgit-Baltistan.

Dr Zia seems hopeful and is currently working on several projects via social media, including tourism in Gilgit-Baltistan region.

Sohail Abid, founder of Folk Punjab Foundation and a Punjabi language activist, said that there is a need to work towards localising technology.

On a question he said, “The shehri babus (urban professionals) like to think that everyone should learn English and that putting efforts in localizing the services available online is futile, but that’s their bias. Social media penetration would definitely increase if people had access to the tools in their language.” However, another big issue is that many people haven’t even studied their local language in schools or had access to newspapers, etc in their language, while the State seems disinterested in fixing this problem.

It is worth mentioning here that compared to India, Pakistan has a higher rate of internet penetration with 15 – 17 percent against 11 percent in India, but a low one when it comes to social media penetration, that is a notch higher at 5 percent. Nonetheless, India has a few supported languages on Facebook – including Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali, Malyalam, Telgu and Tamil.

At this point, one must not forget that even several jihadi outfits have decided to use social media for their own propaganda. Often liberal and secular groups online are targeted and threatened by extremists, but luckily, things can be a little bit safer within the virtual world – an aspect forcing experts to consider increased radicalisation as one of the manifestations of a rise in social media usage.

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