Viewpoint by Hamid Ali Khan
BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan. 13 August 2023 (IDN) — The prevalence of social media has snowballed in recent years in Pakistan, ushering in a new era of digital interconnectedness. But with this technological advancement comes the unintended consequence of trivializing Pakistani society.
Social media platforms like YouTube, Twitter, TikTok, and Facebook have become integral parts of our society, drastically altering the way people communicate, consume information, and engage with each other—for example, instead of relying on radio or TV news bulletins for staying current on important political, social, and economic affairs and then having heated discussions on these happenings and events in barbershops, tea stalls, and other social gathering places.
However, in today’s digital age, Twitter (now called ‘X’) has emerged as a prominent go-to platform for staying updated on the latest news and trends. Hashtags on social media replace traditional sit-ins and demonstrations for advocating political and social causes. One can even get arrested for creating or promoting a hashtag from their social media account. Similarly, TikTok has become a more democratic and easily accessible platform for entertainment and showcasing one’s talent, such as acting, dancing, singing, fashion, and style, catapulting previously obscure people to fame and stardom overnight.
Instant gratification is the lifeblood of social media sites. Users frequently turn to flimsy material to immediately grab attention to gain validation through likes, shares, and comments—amusing and sensational posts searching for virility eclipse deep conversations and meaningful information.
As a result, important issues are diminished to fads, undermining Pakistani society’s need for meaningful discourse and self-reflection. Social media’s shortness and rapid speed have shortened people’s attention spans, especially the younger generation.
Last year certain regions of the country experienced significant destruction and suffering from floods. The primary cause of these floods is likely related to environmental and climate change issues plaguing the country. However, the social media trends and discussions were more focused on shifting the blame onto the inefficiency of the politicians in power. This misplaced focus turned the public attention away from the environmental causes of the floods, and even then, the issue was replaced by something trendier and forgotten till the floods appeared again this year.
This pattern has led to a deterioration in critical thinking and reluctance to conduct in-depth analysis in Pakistan. Simple explanations of complex subjects are given in soundbites, omitting the subtleties needed for careful reflection.
Social media can amplify social and political issues, enabling movements for positive change. However, it also has the potential to trivialize serious matters. Important debates can devolve into aggressive arguments, and sensationalism often overshadows substantive discussions. Consequently, significant societal issues risk being overlooked or forgotten amidst viral content.
We seldom see passionate debates on the ever-deteriorating situation of human and civil rights in the country, inequality, injustice, access to education, and the environmental damage caused by ever-increasing urbanization, oppression, and rights of marginalized communities.
The rapid spread of information on social media can be a double-edged sword. While it facilitates the dissemination of valuable knowledge, it also accelerates the propagation of disinformation and fake news. In Pakistani society, this can lead to misinformation about historical events, political matters, or cultural practices, further complicating the quest for truth and accurate understanding.
An example is the recent sexual exploitation and harassment scandal involving a public sector university. A few individuals, driven by their malicious ulterior motives and personal vendetta, used their influence to blow the issue out of proportion, resulting in a tarnishing reputation of the academia and particularly of the female students studying in higher education institutions. The propaganda created around the scandal spread the false impression that female students could only receive good university grades by offering sexual favours to their professors in return.
The worst part of this phenomenon is the role played by journalists-turned-YouTube bloggers—derogatorily called ‘YouTubers’ in the country— and pseudo-journalists running their Facebook news pages. The latter group particularly has no training or academic grounding in journalism. They do not understand the ethical and professional principles that guide trustworthy journalism. Their sole motive appears to be fame, power, viewership, and followership.
Often resorting to threats, exploitation, and harassment, they can be seen in police stations interviewing confined defendants and suspects, assuming the roles of investigators, prosecutors, and judges during these interviews. They often overlook the legal implications of these public interviews for the interviewees (confined defendants and suspects in this case). Regrettably, the police also support them in these damaging pseudo-journalistic endeavours, wrongly believing they are serving society by allowing such access of these pseudo-journalists to the defendants and suspects.
The sole motive of both groups—the journalists turned YouTubers and the pseudo-journalists—is to attract more viewers and increase their revenue. Many YouTubers in Pakistan, like elsewhere, earn money through views, advertisements, and sponsorships.
Some YouTube bloggers prioritize being the first to report on a topic over verifying facts. This haste to publish content can lead to inaccuracies, misinformation, and sensationalism. While traditional journalism at least follows specific ethical guidelines and standards, many YouTube bloggers may have different levels of accountability.
Certain YouTube channels may cater to specific ideologies or echo chambers. They might sensationalize trivial issues that resonate with their audience’s beliefs, leading to further division and misinformation.
Haqeeqat TV is one such example. This channel has 4.46 million subscribers. Some of the videos on the channel have garnered nearly two hundred thousand views. The channel thrives on exaggeration, fake news, religious and ethnic bigotry, ultranationalism, and hate.
It is also important to note that some YouTubers play an important role that mainstream media may gloss over. Pakistanis have to face the huge problem of human trafficking. One YouTuber Asad Ali, who has tried the illegal migrating route via Turkey and Iran to Europe twice, documented his second attempt through 104 minutes of footage on his YouTube channel Asad Pendu Vlogs alerted others to the dangers. The success of his channel in raising such a social issue has contributed to many other channels that have cropped up addressing this issue.
While freedom of expression is essential in a democratic society, the challenge is encouraging bloggers (or Vloggers) like these and stopping some bloggers who may misuse it by spreading sensationalized or misleading content without considering its potential consequences.
Rather than regulation (censorship), one of the crucial steps can be to implement media literacy programs in both educational institutions and online platforms. These programs should equip users, especially young audiences, with essential critical thinking skills. Through media literacy efforts, students and internet users may learn to spot and recognize false material.
They will learn the value of examining sources and how to differentiate between authentic and sensationalized content. By developing these abilities, people may use internet media with better discernment and comprehend the intricacies of the material
Collaboration between relevant authorities and content creators is essential to address sensationalized content and clickbait on social media in Pakistan. Combining regulation with self-governance ensures a focus on responsible content creation and fosters a credible and trustworthy online landscape for users in Pakistan.
Promoting positive role models among content creators (like the example of Asad Ali) is crucial in addressing sensationalized content and clickbait on social media platforms in Pakistan. By highlighting and supporting those who prioritize responsible content creation and actively contribute to positive change in society, we can set a standard for ethical and meaningful online engagement.
* Hamid Ali Khan is an assistant professor of EAP (English for academic purposes) at the School of Arts and Sciences of the University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan. Hamid holds a Doctor of Education (TESOL) degree from the University of Exeter, United Kingdom. [IDN-InDepthNews]
Photo: Screenshot of YouTuber Asad Ali from Asad Pendu Vlogs.
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