By Abbas Nasir
Have you ever asked yourself how representative of society are the fissures exposed on media with each new crisis or incident, where sanity demands everyone speak with one voice?
When only rude slogans set apart the main contending parties and their leaders rather than distinctive ideologies, the debate gives the appearance of serious discord, especially since many leaders resort freely to vicious personal attacks.
An even more exaggerated picture is bound to appear when these slanging matches take place against the backdrop of fast-approaching general elections and, before that, elections to the upper house of parliament.
In the past, when electoral politics was conducted entirely via public meetings ie direct mass contact and leaders addressed their supporters on the campaign trails reported in the next day’s newspapers, the temperatures never rose so dramatically.
Now with most parties run like personality cults, with much of the debate happening live on 24X7 TV and with attacks and counter-attacks responded to in real time by the leaders of the rival parties, the mercury has inevitably found a much higher normal.
Once the election is over, things should start to settle down and the debate move inside the parliamentary chambers. Whatever the norm elsewhere, in real life this has not happened in Pakistan because the loser has often challenged the poll results.
The involvement of state institutions in mainstream and social media has become dangerously deep.
There has been no let-up in the debate that has raged inside and outside parliament simultaneously. Even this would be fine if those providing a forum for debate, particularly in the electronic media, retained their impartiality and put tough questions to leaders about their policies.
Now many media groups have aligned themselves with one political party or the other — no matter how informally and their denials notwithstanding. Even when opposing politicians are not tearing holes in each other’s points of view, there are the equally partisan media personalities attacking someone or the other vociferously.
Speculation, conjecture and even malicious half-truths are passed on to the often equally partisan audience as analysis or investigative journalism. There seems very little opportunity for any meaningful exchange and cross-fertilisation of ideas. And this when the country is facing untold challenges.
In the political sense, what we are seeing today are silos in which most of the leadership and many of their supporters exist with no time, let alone respect, for the opposing point of view even on occasions when it is totally sensible and worthy of serious consideration.
Sadly, this trend is replicating itself on social media. Many of us engage in debate less and less. Mostly, it is not ideas that are discussed or criticised but the people putting them forward. This is not all. Motives are attributed in the blink of an eye.
As in the case of mainstream media, social media too is a platform where not only well-known personalities express their opinion but all kinds of anonymous entities are also active — the latter represent perhaps interests or institutions that cannot identify themselves openly.
In politics, we have often heard the allegation that there is a hidden hand (and we are restricting this discussion for our own ease to a non-foreign variety of the hand) that undermines democracy and tries to engineer the scenario that best serves its own purpose.
To be honest, this is not merely an allegation as irrefutable evidence surfaces every now and then that this has actually happened. The hidden hand has found a way of dealing with the mainstream media as there are many examples of newspaper deliveries being stopped in certain areas or an errant news channel suddenly disappearing from its usual spot on cable, apart from the relentless pressure on news bosses.
Social media is proving to be more problematic as, unless a blanket ban is imposed on it, it is next to impossible to ‘control’ it via coercive measures, especially now that it has apparently been assumed that the cost in terms of global infamy is way too high for such steps to be taken.
Ergo, some other solutions have been found. One is hundreds, thousands of fake voices (social media handles including Bots) that have been created and these harass (in remarkably similar words) anyone who disagrees or presents a dissenting view to the national security narrative officially propagated.
However, a much more dangerous path is being followed in recent months and that is attempts at silencing social media activists through brutal means where some of them have been picked up, tortured, and, after an agonising time in captivity, freed with warnings of dire consequences if they don’t stop.
Side by side, there has been a campaign to tar these social media users with blasphemy allegations, which means that even when freed from captivity they fear for their lives and safety, and have similar concerns for their near and dear ones.
The involvement of state institutions in mainstream and social media has now become so deep that even an attempt to kidnap, browbeat or threaten a journalist whose professional work or comments on social media are uncomfortable for some of these institutions does not evoke the sort of uniform condemnation it should.
Instead, the targeted, wronged individual is subjected to a demonisation campaign by even fellow professionals unlike in the past when an attack on one journalist united the entire community and mutual differences, even when deeply ideological, were set aside.
This officially engendered division is slowly but surely taking root in society; while it might deliver a short-term dividend to one entity or the other it will be destructive in the long run. But then, when have we bothered with the longer perspective?