With more than 47.5 million mobile internet users and another 2 million fixed broadband subscribers in the country, Pakistan has conveniently surpassed South Korea, Spain, Canada, Australia and countless other developed countries to rank 20th in the world for online population.
With such massive numbers, Pakistan has enormous potential, accompanied by ample challenges, when it comes to the online space.
If we look at growth trends, more than 90% of this number came online in the past 4 years – mainly after the introduction of 3G and 4G technology – and it wouldn’t be entirely incorrect to say that our online ecosystem was not prepared for such massive adoption.
For example, Pakistan had no cyber-crime laws until late 2016, our nation’s awareness about basics of internet such as identity theft, phishing, privacy, online harassment, scams and frauds etc. were non-existent and above all, we didn’t – and still don’t know how to productively use the internet.
Against this backdrop and dirt cheap internet prices, the entire nation embraced the internet with nothing much to do online except to use the internet for basic telephony (voice and SMS) and social media.
State of Social Media in Pakistan
With a lawless online space – mainly due to limited capabilities of the FIA/NR3C – the social media in Pakistan is yet to be used maturely.
If I may speak frankly, such a large incognizant and technically handicapped internet population is nothing less than an unguided mob that can be manipulated by anyone. And this is exactly what has been happening during recent past and is likely to pick up more during 2018.
With competing political motives, upcoming elections and widening polarization, social media is going to struggle with mis-information, propaganda and more agenda driven content than ever before.
As said above, due to the fact that the online ecosystem is yet to be equipped with needful laws and general awareness, there will be individuals and organizations that will misuse social media for their vested interests.
Regional references – mainly from Middle East and from US as well– are already available that confirm the fact that social media was successfully used to drive propaganda and misinformation among masses. It is feared that the same will be replicated in Pakistan as users consume and re-share information without verification as long as it adheres to their personal beliefs and opinions.
Unlike developed markets, where social media is considered as an alternate media for accurate, more factual and non-commercial reporting, Pakistan is yet to see the line of approach where more factual information is floated on to the internet. In fact, the flood of misinformation overshadows any attempts of factual reports that seldom make it to the social media, eventually nullifying any potential positive impacts of the internet.
While Pakistan is not alone in facing the said challenge, the inability of cyber crime law enforcement agencies – mainly because they have limited resource and capabilities – make this place a heaven for conspiracy theorists and propaganda drivers.
It won’t be out of place to mention that online-only publishers – otherwise considered as an alternate media with less-commercial interests – are also part of the problem because they, albeit unwillingly, resort to misinformation since usual monetary avenues, like in the West, are not available to them at all.
For example, a personal blog with one thousand visitors in USA could earn the owner around $1,000 a month while a similar website in Pakistan cannot make more than $50 with same revenue models. In such situations, online websites get involved in clickbait and incorrect content that will bring them 20 times the traffic to meet their basic cost of operations.
Why Pakistani traffic doesn’t earn the websites same amount of revenues as in the US is an altogether different discussion which I will leave for another time.
Due to this prevailing situation, political parties, and local and foreign propaganda agencies are investing more in social media in Pakistan to achieve their desired results but at the cost of spoiling the entire internet space of Pakistan.
Efficacy of Cyber Crime Act During 2018
While the cyber crime bill was passed by the parliament in August 2016, the implementation of the act cannot be termed significant. And it’s not a rocket science to understand the reasons. Keep reading to know why we are still light-years behind the western world in dealing with cyber crimes.
In the online population of almost 50 million, the majority is not academically and technically sound. Hence, they are easy targets for fraudsters, scammers, harassers and organized cyber criminals.
Unfortunately, our law enforcement agency tasked to deal with cyber-crimes doesn’t have the numbers, the resources or the tools required to deal with these.
Worst of all, they need to rely on international organizations – such as Facebook, Google, Twitter etc. – to solve cases with little support in place.
So for example if there’s a Facebook user defaming you, National Response Center for Cyber Crimes (NR3C – part of FIA) can’t do much unless it gets the user information from Facebook.
As we saw in blasphemy cases, Facebook held out for many years on handing out any information about the alleged users until it finally agreed to share the information with Pakistani government (read FIA). Help from these organizations for other crimes, such as defamation, misinformation is even harder to get, leaving the agency helpless in majority of cases.
Then the magnitude of cyber crimes – due to sheer size of market – is so huge as compared to limited quantitative number of NR3C that majority of cyber crime cases go unheard.
Unless you are at their doors round the clock or if you know a federal minister or unless it’s a high-profile case, chances are that you won’t get much resolution from NR3C.
As mentioned earlier, the government is already behind the curve when it comes to rules and regulations on social media and the use of the internet by the wider masses.
Our agencies are going to have trouble keeping up with sheer number of cases of misuse and reports, let alone dedicate time for making a comprehensive strategy to combat the use of social media as a source of propaganda and fake news.
In such cases, the industry and the torchbearers of digital Pakistan need to step up and present a solution otherwise social media in Pakistan is just going to be used to drive misinformation, propaganda and divisions in 2018.
A version of this article was first published in Economist 2018