As originally published in Synergyzer Issue 2 – Annual 2017 – ‘Abracadabra’

This US presidential election was the most talked about topic on Facebook during 2016. Second was the on-going political developments in Brazil, third was the epic success of Pokemon Go, while fourth place went to a social cause with roots in America, “Black Lives Matter”.

This past year has made one thing certain – social media has the power to change people’s perceptions, and it is only going to grow.

With Donald Trump himself stating that Facebook and Twitter helped him win the race to the White House, a claim backed by most experts, there are now growing voices, around the world, regarding social media’s deeply contradictory social force.

But aside from misinformation, filter bubbles and being a breeding ground for outright hate, social media has one very important role – to provide a voice to the suppressed.

Take for example the Black Lives Matter social movement. #BLACKLIVESMATTER became a hashtag in the summer of 2013, and since then, it has become a banner under which countless contrasting organizations, black Americans, and millions of individuals looking to offer their support have voiced concerns regarding police brutality and racism.

The movement has been able to knit together a national narrative of police violence and abuse against people of color in America. It has been able to mount some of the most potent civil rights activism since the ’60s. And all this was possible because social media platforms helped in overcoming distance and geography by putting people in immediate touch with each other.

The entire movement and similar movements i.e. #Ferguson showcase the unique ability of the Internet, and social media in particular, to bring issues to bear.

If one remembers the #IceBucketChallenge, it was able to raise record-breaking funds for the ALS Association ($115 million) proving that with a bit of fun, one can promote a social cause, while also loosening people’s purse strings.

“Social activists, lawmakers and the media quickly took to social media to register their protest under this year’s most empowering hashtag – #MuslimBan.”

Domestic violence is another area where social media has had the most impact. The sharing of experiences marked by campaigns like #WhyIStayed and #PutTheNailinIt are just some examples of how people around the world are coming out in support of women facing abuse.

These campaigns have forced organizations i.e. Major League Baseball, World Wrestling Entertainment and the players union, amongst others, to come up with a policy which will hold players and employees accountable for acts of abuse against women and children, while providing resources for the intervention and care of victims.

So there is growing proof that social media campaigns – or the #hashtag – has the power to bring change at all levels and cannot be dismissed as just noise.

In Pakistan, a country with approximately 190 million citizens, social media’s power to influence society on sensitive issues is still in infancy. With an online population of about 35 million (18% internet penetration), there is a major disparity between male and female users – 71% and 29% respectively. Women who do use the internet mostly hail from urban parts of the country.

This disparity is not the only reason behind the stark differences in online opinion on major social issues since the country has a deep-rooted liberal-conservative divide to consider as well.

But these factors aside, there have been multiple cases of successful social media activism, where the proponents have been able to gather support for the oppressed.

The most recent example of this is #Tayyaba and #JusticeForTayyaba. Also worthy to note here was the Facebook page created in the memory of Shahzeb Khan at the end of 2012, when the teenage son of a Karachi DSP was murdered by the son of a local feudal lord.

Also, interestingly, for a country often criticized for its lack of pro-women initiatives, there seems to be a lot to cheer for online.

For example, Girls at Dhabas – a Facebook community – is a collective of women who are concerned by the disappearance of women from public spaces. The movement has gained popularity as females begin to frequent places, which previously have been deemed not fit for women i.e. roadside tea stops or dhabas as they are called.

More recently, the United Nations launched a very successful campaign in Pakistan called #BeatMe. The campaign showcased women inviting men to beat them, but at things they, as women, are good at. This and a similar campaign by Fahhad Rajper with the hashtag, #TryBeatingMeLightly, came about after the Council of Islamic Ideology deliberated on proposing a women’s protection bill, which allows a husband to lightly beat his wife ‘if needed’ and prohibits mixing of the genders in schools, hospitals, and offices.

“There is a need – greater than ever – to ensure people are educated on social media’s constructive tools, so they aren’t seduced by its dark side.”

Both campaigns got tremendous response from not only Pakistanis, but from around the globe. It was heartening to see a huge portion of men tweeting in support of these campaigns and speaking out against the controversial women’s protection bill. It definitely allowed the country, collectively, to show another side to the generally stereotypical image Pakistani men seem to portray around the world.

As the year 2017 picks up the pace, social media is still buzzing with the aftermath of the US presidential elections, as Donald Trump continues his fascist antics, but this time as one of the world’s most powerful men.

It was one of his very first executive orders as the US president, which ignited this year’s loudest rallying cry by activists, not just from the States, but from the world over.

In January 2017, President Trump signed an executive order, which restrained immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, temporarily halted the entry of refugees, while indefinitely shut down the entrance of refugees from Syria.

The secrecy and speed at which the order was imposed caused widespread chaos at US airports, as enforcement agents, lawmakers and some of Trump’s top aides were not briefed beforehand on the order. Thousands of passengers, even with valid US visas, were detained at airports across the land.

An order labeled racist and condescending towards the values America was founded upon, saw social activists, lawmakers, and the media quickly taking to social media to register their protest under this year’s most empowering hashtag – #MuslimBan.

Apart from sparking protests across the country, the hashtag was able to mobilize legal support for the passengers. Lawyers across the country, even those not familiar with immigration laws, spent days at airport terminals to assist those being detained.

Finally, after a week, and partly on the back of immense public pressure, the order was shot down by the US Supreme Court. Social media, a tool vital in getting Trump elected, had played its part in dealing the first severe blow to his presidency.

These online initiatives and the support they receive showcase the multiple personalities filling up the social media space. Backed by their personal beliefs and ideologies, people choose to support one cause over another, while some happily play devil’s advocate.

Even as new users take up reigns of their social media profiles, it is imperative we understand that this space will not solve the world’s issues without proper guidance.

Yes, we hold in our hands a very powerful tool for change, but there is now a need – greater than ever – to ensure people are educated on its constructive tools, so they aren’t seduced by its dark side.

The case for this is greater in our part of the world, where the LEA’s (law enforcement agencies) and judiciary cannot always be trusted upon to protect and serve the rights of the masses, while mainstream media is swayed more by TRP’s.

Social media is definitely the platform required by the nation to voice the concerns of the oppressed and poor.

But, a large part of the population is uneducated, that too in a largely conservative society, meaning most online activity is restricted to finding a desirable partner online, or ridiculing people for their political beliefs.

Thus, it is high time that private & public entities educate the people on proper usage of the internet in a bid to make it a greater force for civility, resiliency, and broader civic engagement.