The ongoing unrest in the Muslim world has sparked increased discussion not only of the possibility of revolt in various places (though such talk has become more subdued of late, with the surge in violence in Libya and Yemen), but also the role social media and technology are playing in political movements in the developing world. Pakistan exhibits many of the traits noted in the countries currently experiencing upheaval; rising unemployment, pent up frustration and a teeming population of young people, trapped in a seemingly endless spiral of inflation. Indigenous factors such as growing religious extremism and ever-present paranoia about foreign interference further increase the likelihood of such an upheaval. In the wake of events in Egypt and Tunisia, Pakistani political parties are already starting to predict an imminent uprising. The question that needs to be answered is what role, if any, does the Internet and social media play in contemporary Pakistani politics.
Pakistan is estimated to have a population of 177 million of whom 18.5 million (10.4 percent) are connected to the Internet, though government officials quote a slightly higher figure of 20 million. These penetration percentages are less than those in Tunisia (33.4 percent) and Egypt (21.1 percent). However, Internet use in Pakistan is growing at a rapid rate, particularly in urban centers, which are also home to populations who often form the backbone of mass-scale uprisings. Mobile Internet use shot up 161 percent in 2010 alone. While it is hard to objectively judge just what role the Internet plays in the fabric of Pakistani society, a recent survey by the BBC of 27,000 Pakistanis concluded that the Internet has yet to mature as a powerful tool for social change, with four out of five users believing the Internet to not be at all essential to such transformation.
Still, while the Internet was in the 1990s only available in large urban centers of Pakistan, coverage has been increasing rapidly ever since. Even in relatively smaller cities such as my hometown of Sargodha, in Punjab province, broadband Internet is now freely available. The cost of Internet use, which started out at astronomical rates, has also been steadily dropping ever since. However, high speed broadband and wireless Internet still remain beyond the reach of the average Pakistani. Coupled with widespread illiteracy, Internet use remains skewed towards Pakistan’s urban elites.
This is not to say that the Internet is irrelevant. On the contrary, websites such as Facebook have become increasingly prominent tools for social communication. In the last six months, the number of Facebook users in Pakistan has doubled from 1.8 to 3.6 million, of whom 52 percent are between 18 and 24-years old. And far from being a private world of virtual social connectivity, it is constantly under the microscope of the religious right in Pakistan. It was thus no wonder that a judge in a court in Punjab province decided to ban Facebook, YouTube, Google and Twitter, amongst several other sites, after a Facebook page invited users to participate in an "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day" contest. Further controversy was generated from the "Burn a Quran day" fiasco, which sparked violent riots throughout the country. Beyond the usual American-Israeli flag burning frenzies, the response included the creation of a "Muslim Facebook" called Millatfacebook.com, which not only provides a sanitized environment for religious Pakistanis to find their soul mate, but also allows for live shots from Mecca to be viewed from the homepage.
Additionally, the January of Punjab’s liberal governor Salman Taseer transformed Facebook into a veritable battleground between liberals and conservatives. While supporters of Taseer’s assassin Mumtaz Qadri were quick to set up several Facebook pages in honor of their hero, liberals set up rival pages in favor of Taseer that outnumber those of their rivals in "fans." Meanwhile, Millatfacebook.com prominently "Salutes the Hero of Islam," Qadri, on its homepage.
Facebook has also provides solace to media-savvy politicians with minimal real influence, such as ousted military ruler Pervez Musharraf (378,049 "likes") and former cricket star-turned politician Imran Khan (168,095 "likes"). These numbers are in sharp contrast to those of established mainstream political parties such as the current ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, neither of which have more than 2,000 "likes." However, these figures are not entirely surprising, when considering that much of the voter pool for the major political parties resides in rural areas, where Internet penetration is very limited.
Twitter has even lesser penetration in Pakistani cyberspace. Of the few public figures that use Twitter, Salman Taseer was the most prominent (with another notable user being Pakistan’s current Ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani). Before his murder, Taseer used his account to pick on the Saudi royalty and other topics in addition to "tweeting" about Pakistan. He is however, now most vividly remembered by his prescient last message, "I was under huge pressure sure 2 cow down b4 rightest (sic) pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I’m the last man standing."
Twitter played a very limited role in the movement to restore Pakistan’s Chief Justice to the court during the Musharraf era, but it would be fictitious to state it had any concrete effort of any consequence. Bloggers also have a limited following ; Café Pyala, a blog that primarily deals with Pakistan’s fiery broadcast media, is possibly the most prominent one, recently blowing the lid on falsely planted "Wikileaks" cables in Pakistani newspapers. However, television remains the singular most powerful medium that sets the political tone and landscape.
The influence of the Internet and social media is currently restricted mostly to the urban populations of Pakistan. Further increase in users will continue to be limited by low literacy rates and poor socioeconomic conditions in rural areas, conditions that will not change without major social reform. Nevertheless, the educated urbanites who represent much of the "ruling class" in Pakistan have taken to social media enthusiastically, meaning that changes in communication can still have a transcendent impact on Pakistani society through the millions of educated Pakistanis who are already using it regularly. However, it is difficult to foresee how this increasing connectivity between people of similar and differing ideologies will affect the educated Pakistani Internet user. The answer to this question, nevertheless however, will have enormous regional and global implications.
Haider Warraich, MD, is a research fellow at Harvard Medical School. He is a graduate of the Aga Khan University in Karachi, Pakistan, and the author of the forthcoming novel, Auras of the Jinn.