The state and the menace of social media

The dark side of the internet is an affliction on morals, sensibility and mentality of the people


Muhammad Majid Bashir September 19, 2022
The author is a former judge and President of Centre for Rule of Law Islamabad. He can be reached at [email protected]

With the steady growth of the internet over the past twenty years, there is no shortage of accessibility, knowledge, communication and entertainment. Social media applications are abundant, and there is something for everyone. The internet is a goldmine of knowledge and a hub for people to express themselves and connect in cyberspace, but it is also a minefield of false information, exploitation and immoral temptations. Weak morals and intellectual stagnancy are more harmful to society than it appears to be; they can destroy nations.

Where the internet is a spectacular source of information and accessibility, it is also a rabbit hole of unsavoury objects. The dark side of the internet is an affliction on morals, sensibility and mentality of the people, notably the youth and the children. The power of communication can influence and dictate our way of thinking and opinion making. A single tweet with just 280 characters can change people’s minds and morals. However, there is no governance over whether that single tweet relays a positive or a negative message. Therefore, the need for control and censorship is more than prevalent. The words control and censorship may elicit protectiveness over our state-given right to freedom of expression. However, censorship aims to nip at the buds of spreading false information and cybercrimes rather than suppress our freedom.

The internet is a vast archive of everything, and with nearly millions of content uploaded every day, it does not filter out the potentially harmful material. This leaves the burden on social media companies to develop and implement user guidelines and terms and conditions. Further regulations are enacted by the states based on their public policies and laws.

Pakistan has laws and regulations governing the use of the internet and media. The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 and The Citizens’ Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020 criminalise certain activities, such as cyber terrorism and exploitation, for the public’s safety. Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) is also actively regulating and reforming the policies on the uses of the internet. It emphasises the repercussions of illegal uses of the internet, such as uploading pornographic, blasphemous and exploitative and propagandist contents. The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) also plays an active role in highlighting the laws and urges the victims of cybercrimes to report the wrongs done to them.

The abovementioned acts and authorities provide clear guidance and repercussions regarding the uses of social media. Spoofing, cyber terrorism, hate speech, illicit content, misleading and exploitation of children are a few items in the many examples of illegal use of the internet.

In comparison, we may look at censorship and regulatory laws in other countries. China has banned several western social media companies, such as Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and recently, LinkedIn, as they do not comply with the strict censorship laws. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the laws in the United Kingdom do not regulate the use of social media applications. Instead, they demand that companies self-censor their applications for the safety of the public. Because no specific laws exist against any illicit uses of the internet, legal actions are taken through other acts such as the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 and the Malicious Comments Act 1988 in case of incidents such as cyber-bullying.

In light of the current political environment in Pakistan, where the nation is in a perpetual state of chaos, there is, more than ever, the need to have strict censorship laws regarding the use of social media. Ideas of fascism, anti-organisational propaganda, false information and religious intolerance need to cease at the roots, and the perpetrators need to be held accountable. Sections 5 and 6 of the Constitution impose a duty on the citizens to remain loyal to the state. Criminal conspiracy and blasphemy in Pakistan are punishable by death in the Pakistan Penal Code.

Social media websites and applications are the largest sources of spreading hate and propaganda by anti-state organisations, foreign agencies and state enemies. Therefore, the laws and regulations forbid and punish such activities to protect the state and individuals, while still maintaining the citizens’ freedom to express themselves.

Furthermore, now, more than ever, the population of social media users under the age of 15 has grown substantially in the past years. Along with planting rebellious ideas, the graphic images and imagery may also harm young impressionable minds. Many user apps, especially mobile games, show horrendous images and videos without warning; this may potentially traumatise children.

What can be done, by society and the Government, collectively, to restrict the harmful use of the internet while keeping the freedom to express oneself intact?

The answer is not that complicated. We already have the makings of an efficient monitoring system with the acts and the regulatory and censorship body, PTA. The Government should constitute a high level committee to ensure that not only certain cyber-crimes are effectively made impossible to commit, but also the crimes committed have appropriate punishments under special tribunals. The committee should also propose new laws and formulate policies to the public’s attention.

Furthermore, for the sake of the state’s safety, another monitoring cell should be formed under the military laws to observe online anti-state activities against the country and our military. The monitoring cell should be marked with special jurisdiction to investigate and probe foreign propaganda. The interrogation mechanism should follow the guidelines of the UN Charter and various international laws which promote a non-intervention approach towards sovereign state. Recently, a well-planned anti-state campaign through social media/internet against solidarity and integrity of Pakistan and Pakistan Army by enemy states had started to disrupt the political and social environment of the country by influencing and brainwashing its people.

The internet is as much a tool for destruction as it is a tool for accessibility. Its effects may not be seen but they are real, slowly creeping within the crevices of society’s moral infrastructure. Its impact on the minds of young people can potentially give birth to a generation of extremists and intolerants and a tendency to speak against the state under freedom of speech, which is a real threat to the nation.

The internet is a necessity for the modern world; it is a tool that is impossible to live without, but it is also a weapon that slowly and silently cracks the foundation of a moral society.

 

Published in The Express Tribune, September 19th, 2022.

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