May 19

Political Astroturf

Posted on Friday, May 19, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Political Astroturf

Imran Khan has accused the government of abusing the new cyber crime law by “harassing his party’s social media political activists”.  This, he claims, is “unacceptable in a democracy”.

This is rich. The PTI’s “social media cells” are the most aggressive and abusive “political astroturf” campaigners in the country whose idea of democracy and freedom is to use such notions of civil society to trample on the rights and freedoms of others.

The PTI’s political astroturfing refers to micro-blogging platforms of politically-motivated party loyalists who use multiple centrally controlled accounts to impersonate users and post falsehoods to create widespread negativity for opposing opinions, individuals and parties via “trends” and “twitter bombs” that harass opponents into silence or submission.

But the PTI is not alone in exploiting this strategy. The PMLN and the intelligence agencies have also gotten wise to the use and abuse of such platforms. But there is a difference between the two. The former is mostly defensive while the latter is patently aggressive. The former tends to focus on exaggerating its successes and denying its failures while the latter is concentrated on portraying its opponents and critics as “traitors” or national security risks. This is particularly destabilising for institutions of governance and can even be life threatening for individuals when it provokes complaints of treason or blasphemy by motivated parties. A case in point is the temporary disappearance of a number of “bloggers” recently who were accused of “unpatriotic” behaviour and taught a lesson.

The use of social media, especially Twitter with its 140-character limit, to convey political meaning has also acquired another dimension in mediating conflict, especially as regards civil-military relations in this country. In the best of circumstances, this subject is a minefield of distrust and uncertainty borne of the historical burden of irresistible institutions and immovable politicians. Therefore its use to address the balance of power in a delicate political transition can be misplaced. This has been all too evident in the last few years. Indeed, a recent tweet in which the military establishment publicly “rejected” a government notification trembled on the edge of confrontation and constitutional disaster, confirming that social media is not the best medium for airing and resolving civil-military issues.

There is an ongoing debate in the West on whether or not social media is anti-social in the sense that it detracts from or replaces personal interactions and relationships. But in countries like Pakistan which evidence a high level of intolerance for diversity, the anti-social dimension of social media is more problematic. The more a society is steeped in the passionate values of religious singularity and cultural intolerance, the greater the potential of social media for negativity to thwart freedom of expression. Instead of being a vehicle for disseminating well-informed truth with facts, social media has become the instrument of hate, bigotry, prejudice and false pride.

It may be noted that the notion of individual freedom of expression in tolerant constitutional democracies is rooted in notions of social and corporate responsibility. My freedom ends where yours begins. Transgressions are accountable in the courts through laws that define and penalize defamation. But no such recourse is available in Pakistan because the courts are notoriously loath to implement the defamation law. So there is a free-for-all hatred syndrome on social media. A minuscule minority exploits the political astroturf to silence the majority into submission. Facilitation is provided by the relative anonymity and even falsehood of the platform. The more illiterate, ill-informed or politically motivated such platforms, the more social media tends to acquire a distinctly anti-social, anti-civil society personality.

But social media isn’t only Twitter and Facebook. It is a host of social apps for communication, the most popular being Whatsapp because it claims to protect your identity and communication. Its potency can be gauged from the proliferating Whatsapp groups of likeminded people who form a bandwidth for disseminating outrage and passion. In the recent case of Dawnleaks, according to one research analyst, such Whatsapp groups of retired army officers have forged a formidable pressure point on the serving army leadership that recently led it to a confrontation with the elected government. The fact that most such groups comprise upright, confident and patriotic officers makes their organized vocal presence all the more ominous. Much the same can be said of illiberal and sectarian middle class intellectuals, tv anchors, hosts and journalists who use social media to dominate the “national” discourse.

Social media was designed to meet the challenge of a new age of nation building. In the Middle East it helped disintegrate the mean structures of autocracy and dictatorship. But it then became a vehicle to promote even more dictatorial and radical ideologies that led to civil war and disintegration instead of democracy and stability. The challenge in Pakistan is not to allow social media to become such anti-social astroturf as to rupture the fragile and beleaguered structures of civil institutions and civil society that we have built up so painfully and haltingly.

May 17

Aapas Ki Baat – 17 May 2017

Posted on Wednesday, May 17, 2017 in Aapas ki baat with Najam Sethi on Geo


May 16

Aapas Ki Baat – 16 May 2017

Posted on Tuesday, May 16, 2017 in Aapas ki baat with Najam Sethi on Geo

May 15

Aapas Ki Baat – 15 May 2017

Posted on Monday, May 15, 2017 in Aapas ki baat with Najam Sethi on Geo

May 12

All’s not well

Posted on Friday, May 12, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

All’s not well

The standoff between the military establishment and the elected civilian government over a purported “national security” leak, which began at the fag end of General Raheel Sharif’s tenure in 2016, has finally ended. It took a heavy toll of the civilians – the prime minister lost three loyal aides – but the military also had to climb down at crunch time. The conflict is significant for the lessons we should draw from it.

First, the distinction between being in power and being in office is critical to understanding the nature of tension in civil-military relations. For a variety of historical reasons, the military remains the most powerful entity in the realm and jealously guards its domains whence spring its fountains of power – deeply embedded notions of “national security and ideology of Pakistan”, quite apart from a pervasive contempt for civilian rule which is perceived to be corrupt and inept. The threat of martial law has been successfully used to keep the civilians in line when they are in office. But this threat has progressively lost its potency as the country has become increasingly difficult to govern in a sea of internal and external storms that have progressively diminished the military’s desire to seize power and rule directly. The civilians are now learning how to leverage this fact to empower themselves in office. As a result, Nawaz Sharif, a Punjabi like much of the rank and file of the military, is tempted to cross red lines and still manage to survive after challenging the military’s hegemony over certain policies, while a Sindhi like Asif Zardari was hounded out of office for trying to break the rules of the game.

Second, the military has responded to a dilution of its threat to impose martial law by harnessing the media and disgruntled politicians via inducements and intimidations, to undermine mainstream parties and redress the power equation in its favour. Until now, the PPP and PMLN have in turns been goaded to destabilize the other in government. But now that both have become wise after the event, the military is inclined to flirt with the PTI that is seeking a short cut to office. The proliferation of TV channels owned by ideological businessmen and widespread application of social media among a younger generation hungry for “change” has facilitated its objectives, as is evident from what has been happening on both fronts these past three years.

The third source of tension stems from the changing face of the military. The new military leadership is predominantly middle and lower middle class, urban, conservative, religious, anti-West, as opposed to the officers’ corps in the early post-colonial years which was broadly more urbane, secular, landed, elitist and pro-West. For the last three decades, this officers’ corps has manufactured Islamist non-state actors for asymmetric warfare across the eastern and western borders of Pakistan and in the last decade fought a bloody war with some of its own proteges as a result of the blowback from such policies. This has made it aggressive, self-righteous and, in the face of criticism, even defensive and prickly. The so-called “national security” Dawnleak in question provoked institutional rage precisely because it exposed this weakness.

The fourth source of tension originates in a failure of the economy and dwindling foreign aid to finance the strategic ambitions of the military. The civilians are unable to provide good governance and public service, which translates into a low tax base for resources and wasteful expenditures for corruption. This restricts military expenditures and strains the relationship.

The irony is that the civil-military relationship is primed for institutional strain precisely at a moment in history when institutional harmony and consensus is needed. On the one hand, as a result of its strategic policies, the military has aroused the hostility of neighbours India and Afghanistan and Iran and dislocated its extractive alliance with the United States. On the other hand, China is offering an unprecedented opportunity through CPEC to enable Pakistan to take off into self-sustained growth provided it mends fences with its neighbours and becomes politically stable so that the full economic potential of CPEC in the region can be harnessed.

The conclusion is inescapable. Instead of continuing tensions in the civil-military relationship that feed into old prejudices and distrusts and misplaced notions of strategic priority, the national interest demands harmony and consensus to assemble and implement the parameters of desired change. This requires certain prerequisites. First, it requires an institutional mechanism for dialogue and debate between the civilians and military to establish trust and confidence. Second, it requires a sincere effort to recognize and overcome one’s own failings instead of pointing fingers at each other. Third, it requires a vigorous reassessment of how to define Pakistan’s national interest away from singular notions of militarism and towards economic notions of integration and globalism. Above all, it requires that the rule of law and constitutionalism should prevail to form the bedrock of Pakistani nationhood like all modern nations.