Young Pakistanis Blog, Tweet to Push for Change
By Nahal Toosi
Meet Pakistan’s “Teeth Maestro,” a dentist who uses his blog to get to the root of the country’s many pains. One day it might be trigger-happy soldiers. Another day it’s corrupt bureaucrats. Sometimes, it’s US meddling.
The Teeth Maestro is among a growing group of bloggers, tweeters and others using the Web to influence Pakistani society and government.
These activists are providing a more nuanced perspective than Pakistan’s mainstream media, where right-wing TV talk shows tend to dominate the national discussion.
“Social media has actually created a dialogue of opposing thoughts and tries to bring them together to some sort of understanding,” said the Teeth Maestro, a 36-year-old whose real name is Awab Alvi.
There’s no revolution in the works like in Egypt, where young people used Facebook, Twitter and other web tools to organize protests.
But the use of such Internet tools is rising so rapidly in Pakistan that even US officials have taken notice, recently co-sponsoring the country’s first international social media summit. Held in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi, it attracted some 200 people.
Pakistan , a country of roughly 187 million, has roughly 20 million Internet users. Its penetration rate is a bit higher than neighbor India but a bit lower than fellow Muslim country Indonesia, according to http://www.internetworldstats.com.
There are at least 4.3 million Facebook users in Pakistan, while Twitter is the ninth most popular web site in the country, according to statistics presented Saturday at the summit.
To be sure, plenty of Pakistan’s bloggers promote anti-US conspiracy theories and Islamist, even pro-militant agendas. One group created an alternative to Facebook catering to Muslims, unhappy with what they say was offensive material on the regular site.
The overall numbers are skewed toward wealthier, educated city dwellers, and most of the Pakistani blogosphere is in English, though Urdu-language use is growing, experts said. But although social media lovers don’t represent Pakistan’s masses, they do represent many of “the elite” who hold the levers of power.
In many small ways, Pakistan’s social media activists already have been making their presence felt.
One of the more famous social media users in Pakistan is Sohaib Athar, the man who unknowingly live-tweeted the US raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May, gaining tens of thousands of new followers and providing witty insight into a stunning news event.
There also have been videos posted on the Internet showing the alleged brutality of the armed forces in Pakistan, outraging civilians and leading to investigations (though rarely with any publicized results). And during nationwide floods in 2010, social media activists helped raise money.
The blogs in particular give Pakistanis a chance to vent, no matter what their philosophy.
Alvi, the dentist, recently posted an entry about the shooting of an unarmed young man by security troops in Karachi. The incident was caught on tape, posted to YouTube and played on television, making him wonder what it would take for the masses to rise up and end such brutalities.
“Could this blatant killing of a young individual (regardless of his innocence or guilt) be the trigger?” he wrote. “Or are we still too occupied at allowing these political and military crooks run our country to smithereens?”
Pakistan ’s TV and radio stations remain the dominant force in shaping public discourse, followed by newspapers — especially Urdu-language ones. But employees of mainstream outlets note they still have to worry about some restrictive laws that are less likely to affect social media users.
“We have buildings and offices — we can get burned, we can get bombed,” said Kamal Siddiqi, editor of The Express Tribune newspaper.
He said blogs were a very popular part of his paper’s online edition, a sign of how the mainstream media and the social media are blending.
Pakistani social media activists said they too worry about their security, with some noting wryly that the Internet is also a place for militants to recruit suicide bombers and post tapes of beheadings.
Some say they’ve received casual, roundabout warnings to “be careful” from government agents. And Pakistani authorities have temporarily banned various websites in the past, including Facebook, for content deemed insulting to Muslims.
But in the end, “There’s a limit to how long you can stay afraid,” said Jehan Ara, who blogs at http://jehanara.wordpress.com. “We only get the society that we deserve.” Courtesy Associated Press