Show of hands: how many of us have attempted to engage in a rational political discourse online or with family or friends during a dinner gathering, only for it to end with the head meeting wall each time?
Our opponents have not only become increasingly comfortable subscribing to outrageous political theories, they also seem to inhabit an alternate factual reality. And when the analysis of Pakistan’s complex political history is hijacked by the uninitiated willing to accept clickbait as the absolute truth, it further complicates matters.
Pakistan’s political landscape mirrors an intricate game of connect the dots. Connect the wrong dots and the image fails to take shape. Historical context forms the underlying foundation; agendas — national, regional (and often personal) — dictate the vectors of political dynamics. Although the same variables determine political power plays, interstate relationships and foreign policy for pretty much every single nation in existence, Pakistan’s ideological creation — founded as a separate homeland for Muslims of the subcontinent — makes its political culture a lot more nuanced in comparison.
Geography doesn’t bode well for our political landscape either. We are sandwiched smack in the middle of arch-rivals India in the east, and Iran and Afghanistan in the west and northwest respectively, the latter two representing two distinct brands of Islam, with all the complications inherent in such a situation.
Moreover, this is a country that’s fought several wars, seen its east wing separate, and endured the civil-military tug-of-war on several different occasions — all of which makes it considerably challenging for even knowledgeable citizens to make political judgements about Pakistan without keeping straw man arguments and prejudices at bay. And all that before Facebook came along.
Facebook didn’t just help us “connect and share”: it also made abundantly clear that we as a nation are incapable of having a coherent discussion regarding political affairs. The dearth of research and general lack of critical thinking among much of the population has mutated the nuances of the political equation into every colour of the rainbow.
A recent BuzzFeed research found that viral proliferation of misleading content on social media comes equally from the left- and right-wing camps. The hyper partisan content provides a steady dose of misinformation to millions, with dubious pages far outranking mainstream media in terms of shares, comments, likes or retweets.
Similarly, questionable content circulated by political rookies in Pakistan spreads faster via the majority stuck in echo chambers with little or no means of critically evaluating the narrative they are helping propagate. Hyper nationalist pages, in particular, tailor their content to make it more appealing to people’s sentiments than sensibilities, which also explains why their devotees respond aggressively when intercepted by fact checkers.
But not all blame lies with Facebook’s political operatives. As witnessed in the US election, Facebook was accused of personalising the news feed of its American users to filter political content that reinforced their biases, instead of presenting content that compelled users to seek alternative views or prompted them to think critically. The more likely that one is to see political narratives of one’s choice, the more likely they are to click on the post; and therefore more likely to increase ad revenue.
The outright political fakery is not just weaponising social media, but also constructing echo chambers. Warping Pakistan’s political landscape by simply disseminating what people want to hear, and not seeking alternative viewpoints will further diminish our capacity to distinguish between credible and suspect information.
For a nation that still can’t decide whether it wants to salute a dictator or vote for a leader, fact resistance can manifest as an incurable disease that could incapacitate our ability to receive and process information. Facebook is rife with political inaccuracies. What’s worse is that the half-truths have been expertly woven into facts and proliferated on the Internet for popular consumption, hence spreading further confusion. If you have a theory, no matter how outrageous, chances are there will be a page on Facebook purporting it to be true.
Add to this the fact that most political discussions on Facebook blur the line between fact and fiction, it becomes even more imperative for us to seek “deep knowledge” if we are to wield social media as an instrument of change. Investigating theories through insightful research and developing critical reasoning is step one in the direction of eradicating political mass hysteria from Pakistan.
By arrangement with Dawn...