An online hate speech survey in Pakistan has found that 92 percent
of respondents have come across such content online, and 51 percent
have been the target of it. Despite this, most were largely unaware
of hate speech laws in Pakistan.
The survey, the first of its kind in the country, was
commissioned by Bytes for
All (B4A), a P akistan human rights organisation, in an attempt to quantify
the growing instances of online abuse taking place in the country’s
The report, penned by journalist Jahanzaib Haque, editor of Dawn.com, highlights the growing
problem in context of booming internet penetration in the country,
with an estimated 20 million users and 3G and 4G launches occurring
“At the same time, this groundswell of online activity has seen
the emergence of a dangerous trend — that of unchecked hate
speech, sometimes in the form of organised campaigns.” The report
here points to the social media reaction to the killing of Punjab
Governor Samaan Taseer after he defended a Christian woman accused
of blasphemy. Facebook pages appeared celebrating his murder.
Much of the hate speech identified by the report is religiously
and culturally motivated, with 57 percent of respondents saying
they had come across hate speech directed at Jews; 51 percent
witnessing hate speech directed at Americans and 51 percent against
Indians; 38 percent against Pakistanis and 24 percent against
“other westerners” with Afghans close behind at 20 percent.
Religious minorities, those from the LGBT community, women,
politicians and members of the media were also in the firing line.
In particular, 56 percent of people had come across hate speech
directed at women, and 55 percent had come across hate speech
directed at the LGBT community. 70 percent saw Shias become targets
on social media, and 61 percent witnessed Ahmadis take the burnt.
Increasingly, journalists and human rights defenders have also been
the target of choice.
Of those who admitted to being targeted, 42 percent said it was
because of their religion, 23 percent because of their nationality,
22 percent because of their race and ethnicity and 16 percent
because of their sex/gender/sexual orientation.
Most of the damaging comments were made on Facebook, with 91
percent saying they’d witnessed it there. This, of course, could be
largely put down to the platform’s popularity — if they were going
to see it anywhere, chances are it would be on Facebook. But by way
of a break down, the report showed how 30 Facebook pages contained
10,329 counts of hate speech among them. This might not sound so
horrifying, until you realise the top ten Facebook pages for hate
speech are run by mainstream media organisations or even political
groups. A further break down shows Imran Khan’s Facebook page
featured 11 counts of hate speech per share and Zem TV (which
broadcasts Pakistani talk shows) had 25.5 counts of hate speech per
share. Of course, also in there was a page for Zaid Hamid, a
political commentator who blamed the 2008 Mumbai attacks on “Hindu
Zionists”. He has a TV show, on which he has claimed the attacks
were India’s version of America bombing itself on 9/11.
For this reason the report suggests: “The media in particular
would need to look at its role in the spread of online hate speech,
as many high impact, high reach areas of local cyberspace are
operated/administered by them. The administrators of social media
accounts, particularly Facebook, where hate speech is spread need
to be engaged and educated to follow codes of conduct and best
practice with regard to online community engagement and set up
word-block lists for common hate speech terms in English and Roman
Urdu where possible.”
For anyone that has been the administrator of a Facebook page
with any discernible degree of popularity, it will be clear how
tricky this is. Word-blocks, additionally, would have to be
installed by Facebook rather than an administrator of a page.
The report does call for closer ties with social networks and
other internet giants, so that they can “be educated on problems
specific to Pakistan”. Facebook already does this to a certain
degree. It will allow for tailored reporting tools — so in
Pakistan, it might have an option that says the user wants to
report an item for insulting a politician. This all relies on
public reporting and self-regulation though — Facebook will not
actively seek out this material, but wait for complaints and deal
with them as and when. If you’ve ever seen a popular political
message or photo go viral on Facebook, you’ll also be familiar with
the vitriol that tends to follow. A woman holding up a sign that
could vaguely be considered to be feminist will have posted in the
comments hundreds of vitriolic sexist, misogynistic and even
violent messages. They are bold and clear, but Facebook does not
take them down unless they are drawn to its attention.
Politicians (38 percent) and the media (10 percent) were
identified as the biggest targets by the report when looking at an
overview of hate speech on Facebook. Twitter also reflected these
numbers. “This high level of hate speech is especially worrying
given the context of the ongoing war against terrorism and the
real-life threats to life both politicians and those working in the
media face,” reads a release attached to the report, suggesting if
the hate speech continues uncontested, it could contribute further
to the country’s vulnerabilities identified here.
Looking at the backgrounds of respondents, a distinct
correlation occurred showing that those from high income
backgrounds had a better grasp of what hate speech is, than those
from low income. As such it’s also suggested education play a key
role in changing things.
“The need for such a study was paramount, given the real world
impact online hate speech is having in Pakistan, whether that be
the well-organised anti-Malala campaign online, how social media
fuelled sectarian divides during the Rawalpindi riots, the arrest
of a professor on grounds of alleged blasphemy for posts run on
Facebook, and even the most recent online campaign of hate against
media persons,” commented the writer behind the report, Haque.
“Clearly the issue needs to be addressed, but without regressive
action such as state-led censorship and bans.”
In an interview with Global Voices, Bytes For All’s director Shahzad
Ahmad admitted there is an element of the online world reflecting
the offline, thus some radical changes would need to be made to see
things improve. However, he suggests: “While conventional peace
building methods such as dissemination of online social etiquette
are extremely important, Pakistani cyberspace is in dire need of
pro-people cyber legislation to address the need of the day –
holistic accountability of all individuals.
“Pakistan has had cyber laws in the past, when the ordinance
lapsed, no one bothered to make sure that it remained a continuing
process. Sadly, the past laws were anti-people and largely flawed,
and the current proposed draft is also fairly problematic, although
it can be improve after a multi-stakeholder process, which the
government is always wary of.”
Pakistan’s proposed Cyber Crimes Act, 2014 has in the past been
criticised for having vague definitions of crimes and serious
punishments for minor offences. In an article
published in February shortly after the draft was revealed, the
founder and director of the Digital Rights Foundation Nighat Dad,
warned that the wording used could provide the authorities with the
power to intercept electronic communications without a warrant. She
also points out that parts were copied from the Information
Technology Act 2000 in India, an act that received widespread
criticism and ultimately had to be amended in 2008.
Ahmad called for urgent action, saying: “We at Bytes for All
hold Freedom of Expression very dear as an inviolable fundamental
human right, but often see it being fettered in false paradigms of
morality, security, national interest or even hate speech.
“For the reason that speech is regularly gagged in Pakistan
under these guises, and the fact that hate speech is the only real
threat to Freedom of Expression, we felt it important to study
online hate speech in Pakistan, to define it using the best
standards, and obtain some idea of its incidence in the country.
This is important to ensure hate speech becomes clearly defined,
and not confused with national security, religious sentiment,
morality or decency.”
Under current laws, according to the report, less than one
percent of the hate speech found would be termed a punishable
9 June 2014 | 8:30 pm – Source: wired.co.uk