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92% of Pakistanis Encounter Online Hate Speech, Survey Finds

BY Jessica McKenzie | Monday, June 9 2014

Malala Yousafzai meets with President Obama (Photo: Pete Souza/White House)

In 2012, just after then 14-year-old activist Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by masked Taliban gunmen, the Pakistani cyberspace was briefly united—as pro-women and pro-education—but not for long. Soon a counter-narrative emerged, depicting Yousafzai as a pawn of the United States, or even a willing operative, and obscured the facts of her attack. Even a journalist who claims to support Yousafzai's cause, the universal right to education, has dismissed her as a “good native” that the West is using to act out their “savior complex,” which one could argue illustrates the “warped mindset” that the pro-Taliban narrative has spread amongst Pakistanis, and the potential real-world effects of hate speech.

“Hate speech is the only real threat to Freedom of Expression,” says Shahzad Ahmad, the country director of Bytes for All Pakistan, which released a study of hate speech in Pakistan's cyberspace this Saturday, June 7. This is the first intensive study of the topic in Pakistan.

The report found that more than half (51 percent) of survey respondents said they had been the target of online hate speech, and 92 percent reported coming across hate speech online, especially on Facebook, where 91 percent reported encountering hate speech.

The study consisted of a survey of 559 Pakistani Internet users and a content analysis of popular and influential Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Generally, one of the distinguishing characteristics of hate speech is the targeting of vulnerable individuals or groups, but this study included politicians, military personnel, and members of the media because in the past decade or more they have been repeatedly targeted by terrorists. Politicians and the media were two of the most popular targets of hate speech, accounting for 38 percent and 10 percent respectively:

Such unchecked hate speech creates an environment where actual violence against politicians or journalists is not only condoned, but also celebrated, giving those carrying out such attacks greater space and encouragement to act.

The study was carried out for the purpose of understanding hate speech online, and not to encourage the stifling of free expression.

As Ahmad explained in a press release:

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.

The report found that the percentage of hate speech that could be prosecuted as a criminal offense to be negligible, or less than 1 percent, so the solution must and should be found outside the legal system.

The report advocates for a “multi-pronged approach that educates, creates awareness and discourages hate and intolerance, prohibits and criminalizes the most extreme and dangerous forms of hate speech by law, yet guarantees that fundamental human rights to free speech and information are safeguarded.” This would include additional steps by media organizations and social media platforms to create and maintain stricter codes of conduct and best practice. The report also suggests the creation of “counter-speech i.e. collective, organized efforts by society and the state to create positive, progressive narratives to gain back any space occupied by hatred and intolerance.”

Ahmad elaborated on these ideas in an interview with Global Voices:

There is no quick way of tackling online violence, because what happens online is a reflection of the offline. 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.

Having said this, the role of corporations and intermediaries in dealing with online hate speech and other forms of violence cannot be sidelined. Activists have been protesting against the lax attitude of corporations such as Facebook and Twitter in addressing online abuse through various campaigns such as Take Back The Tech!, #FBRape and #OrangeDay for years. Similarly many policy advocacy efforts are underway, but more are needed. Most importantly, at the end of the day, unity against violence will reign supreme.

Bytes for All, the human rights organization that took Pakistan's YouTube ban to court, launched the report at an event attended by parliamentarians, journalists, activists, and researchers, among others.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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