Illustration by Aniqa Haider
The Internet 2.0 is marked by the advent of social media platforms and applications fueled by the popularisation of the smartphone. It is within this information and communication landscape that Maryam*, a 20-year-old woman, started to use Facebook at the age of 14. “I joined primarily out of FOMO (fear of missing out), it was the cool thing to do—everyone was using it!”
Soon Maryam* found herself immersed in emerging political spaces on the social media platform, “My first interaction with politics was with leftist Facebook groups.” She describes the mode of politics built around creating safe spaces for marginalised identities and call-out culture to eliminate what the group deemed ‘problematic’ behaviour. “My entire politics has been shaped by moments such as the MeToo movement,” says Maryam, who is currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in Lahore.
Stories of the politicisation of women such as Maryam* are not as popular in literature on politics and the internet. While there has been a recent rise in interest in online politics, the focus has primarily been in the context of far-right groups and the role of disinformation in radicalising individuals. On one end of the spectrum, the subject is often the archetype of a white loner male who spends hours on the internet, alt-right and incel groups such as the Red Pill thriving on spaces or in plain sight on mainstream platforms such as Facebook. These spaces are coded as explicitly political and worthy of study because they are perceived as having an impact on larger political discourse. Alternatively, the focus is almost never on the countless women and queer folks who also view the internet as a lifeline, consuming memes, articles and videos about subjects as varied as feminism, anti-capitalist critiques and queer indemnities while creating communities of support and comradeship. Their participation in these spaces is often viewed from the lens of culture or community-building, and rarely elevated to the level of politics.
Within the Pakistani context, the discourse of political parties and state institutions is often the touchstone of online political activity. The rise of the now-ruling party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in the early 2010s and their ability to capture political discourse in the early days of social media are important to understand the politicisation of the online realm; however, it tells an incomplete story.
H*, an avid internet user who recently completed his undergraduate studies in Lahore, sees social media as a counter-space. “[Mainstream parties] already have enough coverage and space, they are on TV all the time. I’d like to see social media used to organise for progressive causes; to spread more awareness regarding feminism, persecution of religious minorities, and of course the issue of enforced disappearance and murder of Baloch people.”
In the last decade, countless Pakistani women, trans* and non-binary folks have logged onto the internet documenting their lives, forging connections and developing a distinct political consciousness. Fatima, a 22-year-old undergraduate student, joined Facebook in 2013 out of peer pressure, Instagram in 2015 to avoid the social surveillance that comes with the demographic composition of Facebook as the most popular platform in the country, and, lastly, Twitter in 2018 to be part of fandoms she was interested in. This platform hopping is a common experience for many young users, who identified Twitter as the most political platform that they used, and Facebook as the least political and most surveilled due to the presence of their family members. However Atiya, a 31-year-old organiser, teacher, writer and content creator from Karachi, sees each platform as presenting a different type of political engagement. She makes it a point to post on Facebook as part of a political performance, “I use Facebook as a way to show people the person that I am now. I see my real life as spilling over from my online life; the two are intertwined.”
The Internet as a Teacher
The thread of politicisation running through the experiences of many tells the story of the internet as a teacher. Hamza, a 22-year-old student in a private university in Lahore, talks about the role of YouTube as formative in the development of his politics. He says, “There are a lot of documentaries and lectures that are about politics. They’ve played an important role in forming my political ideology and also have helped me in my academic pursuits. Watching them [and] listening to them takes up a very large part of the time I spend online.” Hamza says that he was able to access progressive political spaces in Pakistan, which are often censored or ignored in the mainstream media, through the internet. Sadia*, a 21-year-old from Islamabad who spends hours on the internet daily, agrees. “I learnt more from Twitter than I did in school, honestly.”
Traditionalists might turn up their nose at such declarations, attributing a shallow understanding of politics and the world around us through mediums such as memes, short videos and Twitter threads. Atiya, however, attributes the internet as central in deepening her feminist politics. She says, “My understanding of intersectional feminism has come from the internet; for instance, people would correct others on things like usage of pronouns, and my politics grew and became more inclusive over time.” Where she uses Facebook to express her personality, Twitter has helped her in many other ways in shaping her politics. As a teacher adapting to distance learning during Covid-19, Atiya was able to learn through ‘education Twitter’, consisting of accounts and conversations by progressive educationalists stressing on the importance of empathy and the impact that traditional tools of learning have on students’ mental health.
The vocabulary provided by the internet has opened up new possibilities for many women. Sadia*, for instance, found a name for a problem she had experienced her entire life—patriarchy. Feminism is not taught in most schools in the country. Even though it has been covered in some classrooms at the university level, there is a simultaneous hostility towards progressive politics and movements such as Aurat March. When Sadia joined Twitter in 2016, her internet activity mostly consisted of following poetry accounts as a matter of interest, but the internet soon provided an alternate space of political discourse. She says, “People I now follow are so knowledgeable and they fight back with educated responses. They write threads upon threads about history and revolution, feminism and racism. They recommend and share the books they like and I end up reading them too, which a lot of times has resulted in changing the way I think. In a way, it’s Twitter that radicalised me.”
For others, it is the connections they forge through the internet that transforms their politics. Asad*, a journalist and organizer in Lahore, identified with right-wing politics in the past, and looking back, referred to some of his former views as fascist. “My politics has evolved a lot because of these [online] platforms. If I didn’t have the online interactions I had, I would have been a completely different person.” He tells the story of starting a conversation with someone on Facebook, “[She] DMed me, we grew really close and eventually fell in love, but then she told me she was an Ahmedi. Growing up, I had been taught not only to think that Ahmedis were not Muslims, but also to believe that the structure of oppression directed towards them was justified.” However the strong connection he had made online forced him to read up on the subject. He adds, “I read history, and the experiences of discrimination and daily violence other Ahmedis shared on social media. I transitioned into learning about political ideas, emotions, structures, [and] gender which led me to question existing structures and veer more towards left-leaning politics.”
26-year-old Ayesha, felt that her world opened up due to the internet. She says, “I come from a very traditional, religious family so it took me some time to understand how feminism can empower me. I learnt this from the awesome women I followed online: the ‘Naik Parveen syndrome’, Hadeel Naeem, Atiya Abbas, Sabahat Zakariya, Mehar Khursheed, Nighat Dad, Imaan Sheikh and the lovely organisers of Aurat March.” The accessibility to politics provided by the internet is particularly important given the gendered barriers women face. Maryam points out that for women whose mobility is heavily controlled, organising outside the house can often become difficult; the internet provides a way to stay engaged. During the Covid-19 pandemic, these barriers have been compounded, further centering the importance of the internet in politics, organising and protesting.
Tools of Politicisation
The language and modes of expression in online spaces are distinct in the fluid, multimedia forms they take. Timelines of many young users interviewed for this article can at times seem frantic and incomprehensible to anyone not well-versed with internet culture. For instance, many urban, upper-class internet users often describe TikTok as confusing. However the Bytedance-owned application survived a temporary ban in September of this year and is generally the fast-growing platform in Pakistan. While TikTok is associated with lip-synced videos, choreographed dances and the most elaborate storylines to be told within the span of 60 seconds, the format also lends itself to seamless political parodies.
The content is by and large lighthearted, but videos often speak to political sentiment regarding the incumbent government in the vein of satire that has long been a part of Pakistani political discourse. While Twitter threads can be pedantic and inaccessible for some, these videos are short yet undeniably political. When it comes to gender politics, a quick scan of feminist trends such as #MeraJismMeriMarzi shows an overwhelming resistance to feminism on TikTok. However, many women on the platform often do espouse these beliefs by pointing out double standards within patriarchy and the impact of rape culture on their lives.
Superficially, women on TikTok might appear to be less politicised than on other platforms like Twitter and Facebook, but on closer examination they often reverse the lens of camera to call out misogyny in their comments section or speak out against issues they believe in. For instance, Jannat Mirza, Pakistan’s first TikToker to cross the 10 million follower mark, produces content that is far from political in the traditional sense but does break the tone of her channel when necessary.
Many men and non-binary folks often use the space to challenge norms of masculinity, despite policing and harassment, thereby transforming TikTok into a space for politics and pleasure. These channels do not position themselves as political, but their content does come under scrutiny, subject to backlash and social commentary. This type of engagement falls under the definition of political for many including Sadia who says, “[Politics] is a relationship between all humans,” and negotiations within structures of power and social norms. Feminist and writer Amna Chaudhry notes, in her article ‘Why do girls posting attractive selfies make people uncomfortable?’, that even selfies posted by women on the internet, in which they are seen embracing their femininity, can be categorised as acts of online resistance.
However, there is no denying that the hyper-visual nature of these platforms lends itself to a type of performative politics centred on particular individuals and the cult of personalities. Amanda Hess in her essay ‘How Fan Culture Is Swallowing Democracy’ notes that ‘fan culture,’ associated with certain parts of the internet, has come to dominate politics. Popular party politics on the internet often mimics this form of discourse as well. For instance, PTI’s early online mobilising replicated fan behaviour on the internet, which is marked by ‘stanning’ of individuals such as Imran Khan. Ownership of the fanbase, both official and unofficial social media cells, entails promoting the party to a large extent. These modes of politics are still seen across parties, with Imran Khan fancams as common as main tera edits of Zayn Malik, collapsing tools of politics into modes of entertainment and leisure.
Trivialisation of Online Politics
This vocabulary of the internet and the memeification of politics can make its discourse seem superficial. Partly, this sentiment stems from a larger uneasiness of any displacement of social capital, to borrow from Pierre Bourdieu. In some ways, this mode of politics has redistributed some power of discourse from the political elite, flanked by the closed circles of political commentators, to just about anyone with time on their hands and enough knowledge of internet culture. Gatekeeping about who can do politics, organise and be its primary political subject leads one to scoff at classifying such speech as meaningful political commentary.
Zainab*, a politically active student from Lahore, feels that online participation in politics allows for a non-hierarchical approach that is often missing within collectives and organisations she has interacted with. She says, “There is a lot of gatekeeping when it comes to who can say what, and as a younger member of an organisation I often don’t have the same freedom as I do on the internet to just quote-tweet someone and express dissent.” Who has the power to do politics and comment on it is much more evenly distributed on the internet; one of the most frequently used templates for political commentary in recent years has been the nach majajan meme template, which manages to offer critiques that would not find space in the mainstream.
Feminist politics on the internet is trivialised often due to the way that it is accessed by many women. Zainab* recalls her experience of bringing up feminism within leftist organisations she was a part of, “It’s like [you’re] always the spoilsport, you’re made to feel like this is a personal problem rather than a political one.” However for many women, that is precisely the point, the feminist mantra ‘the personal is political’ seeks to dismantle the public-private, domestic-political distinctions constructed within politics. Jilly Boyce Kay and Sarah Banet-Weiser in their essay ‘Feminist anger and feminist respair’ posit that feminist anger, which is performed routinely online, is not given the same importance politically as is the anger of angry white men. Women, and particularly anger of women of colour they argue, is often ignored or trivialised, cast as hysterical rather than political. Many women feel that the internet lends itself to feminist politics through a confessional mode of politics, building on lived experience rather than abstract ideas is an explicitly feminist method. Atiya suggests that the very act of occupying and archiving her life online is a political act. “I see sharing my experiences [of] dating as political because as a woman taking space like this online is a political act. Once this cishet guy replied to a tweet in which I was sharing a dating experience saying it made him reflect on his own past behaviour.”
Women through their online politicisation are transforming the very meaning of what it means to be political. Nancy Fraser talks about how women have historically been excluded from the ‘public’ ideal, the space where politics takes place. She states that it is only through the creation of ‘counter publics’ that marginalised groups can be included but also transform the very nature of the ‘public’ and thus is political. For Maryam, there is power in online politics, “a combination of anonymity and accessibility allows for women, and marginalised communities in general, to hold abusers and oppressors accountable,” she says. The power of memeified politics often takes on an anti-authoritarian tone, which can be seen at play in the spirit of the ‘OK Boomer’ meme. Closer to our own context, in July 2020 when the Modi government banned TikTok, Gen-Z took to flooding Narendra Modi’s Instagram with emojis, song lyrics, jokes at his expense and gibberish to protest the ban.
It goes without saying that trolling and other tactics of subversion cannot be analysed outside of power structures as they are also directed at women, people of colour and other vulnerable identities on the internet to silence and intimidate them. Furthermore, the legal landscape in Pakistan has allowed powerful individuals and institutions to weaponise the law to clampdown on dissent online. Qudsia*, a university student and member of feminist collectives, mulls over the limitations of online spaces despite her entry into politics through virtual forums and groups. “When I joined university, I realised that I started to become self-righteous and would talk down to anyone who didn’t share my political opinion.” As she joined student politics and started to organise on campus, Qudsia realised that, “the discourse I learnt from online space during my O and A levels was detached from reality and would exclude people whose politics was evolving but wasn’t perfect according to those internet spaces.”
Qudsia* speaks to the performative nature of online politics, owing to its hyper-visibility and the superficiality that can emerge in political discourse. “I don’t engage in public fights anymore as they don’t really achieve much. It’s never about learning or engaging, rather everyone performs their politics when they know someone is watching. Now when I disagree with them I try to reach out to them privately.”
Hyper-visibility and Surveillance
The surveillance of female, queer and racialised bodies is particularly important within the subject of politicisation. As explored earlier, while digital platforms can become alternative space to mobilise, collectivise and raise issues ignored in the mainstream, digital modes of politicising comes with a constant trail of messages, collection of personal data and public declarations that can put political workers at risk. State and social surveillance of our digital selves is abetted by social media companies who collect and share immense amounts of data. The performative aspect of online politics is not simply termed as such because it is necessarily insincere, rather that the act of doing politics in these spaces can eerily feel like there is always an audience, even in private WhatsApp chats and closed online groups. The gaze of this constant surveillance falls heavily on marginalised bodies, taking on gendered and racial forms when directed towards them.
The nature of politics on the internet, however, is not always seamless. For many women, family and social surveillance are central factors in their online political activity. Qudsia* notes that she has two Facebook accounts, a ‘main’ account that is closely associated with her ‘IRLs’ (In Real Life), particularly family, and her ‘alt’ (alternative) account where she is more comfortable sharing anti-establishment views. Qudsia’s experience solidifies the fact that women inhabit double lives even on the internet. Even when women have profiles on hyper visual mediums such Instagram or TikTok, privacy anxieties remain and they are constantly treading the thin line between anonymity, safety and self-expression. Some women on TikTok maintain public profiles while never revealing the entirety of their face, filming their hands, covering their face with a dupatta, or, conveniently during Covid-19, face masks.
Being public and anonymous might feel like a contradiction in terms, but it speaks to a negotiation familiar to many women and queer individuals; surveillance and backlash from their family is often more of a disciplining factor than the more abstract state. Whether at a protest or speaking up online, engaging in politics for women means constantly looking over your shoulder—digital spaces cannot insulate women from patriarchy.
While women face systemic barriers to political participation on the basis of their gender, others also felt that the internet has become much more fraught in recent years. Asad* observed that his online self-expression has gone down lately. He says, “I feel more overwhelmed by the internet now. I have become more passive in my use of social media as most of my time is spent catching up. I feel that keeping up is very important for my politics because you’re not a good organiser if you don’t know what’s going on, but I am more conscious of what I say because your every move is being watched.” He hints at the self-censorship state surveillance induces, but also greater scrutiny from his peers. “On Twitter I used to treat my likes as bookmarks, things I wanted to keep track of or read later, but since Twitter shows your likes to others I am very conscious of every aspect of my online profile as people might misunderstand my likes as endorsements.”
Hamza, whose politics emerged from access to learning resources on YouTube, feels similarly. “The way I used social media has changed because I was no longer comfortable expressing myself in front of a lot of people I barely know. Most of the things I’d want to say are about controversial political debates or opinions, so I guess concerns about privacy and the fear of getting into trouble sort of changed the way I use [these platforms].” He adds that he subject himself to a lot of self-censorship on the internet given the hostile environment and risk of inviting hate for projecting opinions that challenge the status-quo. He says, “I often write and upload rants on my stories on Instagram and then I delete them out of fear of getting into trouble.”
It is impossible, and also unhelpful, to tell one story of politicisation on the internet. Online spaces are contested and constituted by the very structures of power many of the individuals who spoke to me for this story rail against. Despite the structural impediments that dominate, the internet does give way to pockets of resistance, transforming digital spaces as well as the people who occupy them. These stories bear witness to an internet as a radical and at times a nurturing space. These spaces are not static and not experienced similarly, but they are worth engaging with: a side of the internet worth fighting for.
*Names have been changed reflecting the consent of the parties.
Shmyla Khan is the Research and Policy Director at Digital Rights Foundation. She researches on tech and gender, and has previously worked as a lecturer teaching law, technology and gender.