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Archive for February 2nd, 2012

Maya Khan & the Art of Slacktivism

Slacktivists! Gah!

Ah, Slacktivists.

You know who I’m talking about. The Facebook users who ‘like’ every page calling for “Da Peaze in da Pakistan” and “We da true Pakis” and then blog angrily about how angry they are whilst tweeting under a pseudonym name like “Pakiz4Ever”. If I get another, “If you want peace and love in #Pakistan, RT this,” I will go Hulk on someone.

This phenomenon has risen as social media platforms have become increasingly more popular. The Express Tribune recently revealed some interesting statistics related to Pakistan and its presence on Facebook. According to the news outlet, over 6 million Pakistanis now use Facebook, making us #26 out of 213 countries that use the platform in the world. Given that internet penetration is just over 10%, Facebook usage is still relatively small (only 32.86% of the total online population), but the demographics are still significant (18-24 years, English-speaking, educated, “liberal”). Meanwhile, the use of Twitter has also increased significantly, though those numbers are harder to come by (one source noted it was over two million).

While I sometimes look upon Slacktivists with disdain & dripping snark (especially for those who do little more than ‘Like’ a page and feel like they are changing the world), there have been two recent cases for how social media activism can make a dent.

The Maya Khan Episode. Social Media: 1 | Vigil-Aunties: 0

For those of you living under a rock, blissfully unaware of Samaa Television‘s Maya Khan and the subsequent uproar, here is the breakdown. On Monday, Samaa TV fired newscaster Khan “after she led a self-styled moral crusade against dating couples that set off a furious public outcry,” reported the NY Times. These “vigil-aunties” (So p-unny! Ha! Ha!) essentially paraded around a park in Karachi, to ‘expose’ young unmarried couples on camera, even demanding to see a marriage certificate. After the show was broadcast on January 17th, “members of the liberal elite vented their fury on social websites at what they said was intrusion. Pakistan’s English-language media also took up the cause,” reported BBC NewsNosheen Abbas. Despite (two) public apologies by Maya Khan, the network dismissed her and her team and terminated the show. CNBC Pakistan (which owns Samaa) head Zafar Siddiqi said the company didn’t “absolve such behavior irrespective of ratings the show was getting.”

The Thori Si Bewafai Episode. Social Media: 1 | A Plus: 0

I first learned about the Thori Si Bewafai (A Little Unfaithfulness) show from Rabayl’s blog Obama Says Do More, in which she wrote about a reality television show on A Plus, a small entertainment channel, which claimed to use hidden cameras to intrude into real people’s personal lives and expose their alleged infidelities. Hosted by Shamoon Abbasi, the show is reminiscent of the ridiculously trashy American reality show, Cheaters. According to an online petition written by the newly created Citizens for Free & Responsible Media (CFRM),

The host of the show Shamoon Abbasi recently announced on his facebook page, that ‘Thori si bewafai’ is actually reenactments and involves paid actors. If in fact, Shamoon Abbassi’s statements are true, then the synopsis on your website and the programme itself, is a clear misrepresentation of the real nature of the show. But even if the programme is based on reenactments, the content of the show is dangerous; it encourages vigilantism and can lead to hate crimes.

Following the online petition and pressure, Abbasi quit the show, stating in a Facebook note, “I would like to clarify one last thing that myself was not comfortable doing this show in the first place and I AM QUITTING IT FOR THE SAKE OF THE PEOPLE WHO WERE OFFENDED BY THE SHOW!! I apologize to any one who I may have offended.”

The show is now off the air. Another win for social media activism?

Yay and…ye-ay. While both the Maya Khan and the Thora si Bewafai debacles were examples of how social media can be used to pressure mainstream media outlets, it is more a means to an end than an end itself. Journalist Beena Sarwar noted that this campaign incorporated a multi-pronged strategy in which social media wasn’t the only tool used to put pressure on these outlets. According to Beena,

Zafar Siddiqi from CNBC Pakistan responded promptly and positively to an email endorsed by several signatories that included some known names. His response may also have been due to other actions that were being taken: a copy of the petition signed by over 5,000 people was sent to him. Many people also sms’d him and called the Samaa offices at numbers publicised by some activists, who also posted links to the Pemra feedback form that people used to post complaints to. The Chairman Pemra said in an interview that Pemra had received over 350 complaints about that particular show. In addition, there was a threat of legal action against Samaa TV and several activists had begun contacting corporations to lobby them to withdraw commercials from such shows (both actions were stopped after Mr Siddiqi’s second email responding positively to media consumers’ complaints, but both remain real possibilities for future campaigns).

Firings and getting shows that encourage intolerance and vigilantism off-air are a short-term fix, but they ultimately don’t solve the greater issue – the need for independent checks and balances on the media. While Pakistan’s electronic media boom has been an important phenomenon, there also needs to be measures to curb that rein, so that it remains (relatively) responsible. Sahar Habib Ghazi wrote recently for Dawn, “My appeal is that we cannot lose steam with the [Maya Khan] parks episode. We have to continue to build pressure for all news channels to realize that they cannot afford to sacrifice ethical standards for ratings and money.”

For those of us who crowed that Maya Khan was a victory for social media, remember that pressure via platforms may help achieve one-off victories, but they do not cut to the root of the problem. Social media activism, while a tool, can’t achieve that end – it’s too simplistic, too microscopic. As long as you are aware of that limitation, then we’re cool. But if you ask me to RT for Peace, I’ll go Hulk.

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