December 12, 2018

Shouldering social change

Originally Published in: Daily Times

Writer: Mawish Molvi

The communication of any information is not desultory. When the outside world is brought within the confines of our homes by the media, it too must serve a purpose. A show and tell is not enough. The audience must be engaged such that seeing serves a purpose beyond simply knowing. Highlighting issues faced by the people, mainstream media has long been the sculptor of the society. However, so many media houses are so quickly grabbing and dropping stories in Pakistan that the issues are stated but not addressed. And social media is left to shoulder the burden of social change despite our prevalent digital divide.

On October 5th, Harvey Weinstein’s dirty laundry was hung out to dry in public by The New York Times. Hollywood’s A-list producer had also been a sexual predator for over three decades. The story rapidly found space on television screens and newspapers alike. Nonetheless, it only garnered international attention when it was retold and disseminated through social media. Since mainstream media is perpetually competing in the race for ratings, stories often disappear as fast as they appear in headlines and programmes. Consequently, mainstream media failed to unpack the large-scale sexual abuse carried out by Weinstein. Despite mainstream media bringing the story inside people’s doors, social media was left to shoulder the burden of bringing about social change. The scandal’s circulation through Twitter stirred memories of similar experiences amongst the people. Emotions flowed over the brim and into a 140 characters.

Within two weeks of the story surfacing on mainstream media, on October 16th, actress Alyssa Milano through Twitter called upon all victims of sexual harassment and assault to unite under the umbrella of #MeToo. She tweeted: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” British newspaper The Telegraph on October 18th reported over a million people had tweeted using the hashtag Me Too. Over a million people across different continents and countries, sharing their stories of unwanted sexual advances, had ignited a worldwide dialogue. Five letters had revoked the issue’s taboo status even in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan

Prominent and ordinary Pakistani women alike shared their experiences via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Digital rights activist Nighat Dad wrote: “#MeToo Countless times! First sexual assault happened when I was in grade one.” Journalist Rabia Mehmood shared a similar experience: “#MeToo. As a child and as an adult.” In Pakistan’s collectivist society dissent can have dire consequences. Thus dissent becomes easier with solidarity undercutting threats of ostracisation and death.

The #MeToo movement created a space for individuals in Pakistan to stand in unity. Social media users demanded and achieved change. The hashtag was akin to a street demonstration, but one which retained individuality while collectively subverting the stigma of sexual harassment and abuse. However, this decisive and proactive role played by social media in Pakistan is not unprecedented. Social media has single-handedly carried the burden of changing our society before.

For a very short period of time, this year social media took sou moto control of the market mechanism when our government failed to address the hike in commodity prices during Ramzan. Prices of fruits and vegetables had soared by over forty per cent, leaving the poor starving even after Ramzan. To halt this injustice, social media activists began a fruit boycott campaign calling individuals to avoid the purchase of fruit for three days, between the 2nd and 4th of June. The message was circulated on WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter in order to compel fruit sellers to lower prices. The campaign garnered sufficient attention to gain coverage by mainstream media as well.

Speaking to a Pakistani newspaper on the June 5th, Fresh Fruit Traders Welfare Association Chairman Zahid Awan claimed that the wholesale rates had come down by 15 to 20 per cent over the three days. The price of an average quality Sindhri mango declined to Rs.50 from Rs.65 per kg. Social media had held the reins for change during Ramzan. While mainstream media stood by waving, social media drove the justice carriage home and continues to do so today. But is the mosaic of Pakistan’s social media users, compelling social change, all-inclusive?

According to Pakistan Advertiser’s Society, as of January 2017, there are 35.1 million internet users and 31 million active social media users amongst Pakistan’s population of 194.8 million. These users account for roughly 18 and 16 per cent of the population respectively. Not even half of Pakistan uses Twitter or Facebook. Yet, social media is fast becoming recognised as the driving force for change despite the digital divide.

Millions of voices in our nation have something to say but cannot be heard. In remote rural areas, the only means of knowing and understanding the outside world is through a small television. And on this television news channels, rapidly bouncing from one story to the next, are failing to follow up issues and hence failing to push for change. An individual sitting before the screen sees a lot but can recall very little. The news flashes are desensitising individuals instead of binding them to those they see on screen. Given the digital divide, social media cannot and should not be expected to shoulder the entire burden of bringing about change. Our mainstream media needs a moral awakening if it too wants to see a prosperous Pakistan.

 

The writer has a master’s in media with a distinction from the London School of Economics. She tweets @mawish_m

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Talal Raza is a Program Manager at Media Matters for Democracy. He has worked with renowned media organizations and NGOs including Geo News, The Nation, United States Institute of Peace and Privacy International.

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