The Problem of Online Trolling in Pakistan

Data:

To start, here are some facts & numbers on Pakistan’s online & social media as posted by DataReportal’s research in January 2020:

  • There are 37 million active social media users in Pakistan. Around 80% of those accounts are identified as belonging to a male.
  • 33 million accounts exist on Facebook, 6.4 million on Instagram, 4.4 million on Snapchat & 1.83 million on Twitter.
  • According to another research, as of December 2019, 39% of the total population of Pakistan is on and uses Whatsapp.

Problem Statement:

In the recent few years, Pakistan’s problem of cyber-bullying, trolling and online harassment has become more evident and prevalent. Public figures, celebrities, online influencers, and even common people — many of them have been subjected to various cyber-incidents — be it harsh comments on social media by the trolls or blackmails/hacking attempts by the cybercriminals. Social media has become the home for the cruel and unkind and the abusers are going about their day, lashing out at every chance they get, the mask of anonymity allowing them to be invincible and unstoppable. The lack of control online has allowed them to roam freely and post their vicious thoughts on any public profile which can and has lead to receivers becoming victims of mental unrest.

Digital Rights Foundation (DRF), a prominent NGO in Pakistan which is focused on ICTs to govern digital environments, provides a service where online harassment can be reported and acted upon. In their 2019 report, they mentioned a total of 2023 cases of cyber harassment. In the years 2016–2018, a total of 2469 complaints were received — all highlighting the fact that the number of complaints on harassment cases is on a rise. The kinds of complaints received by DRF vary from hacking, blackmailing, hate speech, defamation, bullying, and fake profiles.

Trolling vs Online Harassment:

Where does one draw the line between online trolling and cyber harassment? When does trolling become so severe that it has to be considered a case of harassment? Trolling seemingly isn’t punishable by law just yet — trolls make provocative statements to rile up someone; to make fun; to hurt feelings and elicit a response. On the surface, it is just a comment — which to many people its nothing more than that — but the truth is, the agonizing words said, can lead to stress on the receiver’s end which can then further convert into disastrous mental health consequences. Many of the people on the receiving end of such lewd or harsh comments, might be thin-skinned and sensitive and with reading the savage comments, can encounter depression and anxiety as a result. Jokes are a grey entity — they could be considered safe and innocent by one but could have serious consequences on another. And when these jokes become targeted, specific and personal, then they could easily be considered as harassment. I do not know what the law says, but any such insensitive, illiterate and humiliating trolling should be punishable.

Civil standards should be set on having encouraging discussions on social media — the culture of respectful discussion and disagreements should be the norm. But we are far from that ideal state.

Online Trolling in Pakistan:

With COVID hitting, people are spending more time indoors and online and as a result, not surprisingly, social media trolling has been on a rise in Pakistan. There is this newfound yet undue aggression in the commentators and they are unrestrained — they are openly expressing on their racist, misogynist, ultra-religious viewpoints on their target posts. Their uncivilized attitudes and their savage commentary provokes not only their targets but also encourages others commenting on the same post, to let go off their civility and engage in the same demeaning tone.

From what I have witnessed and studied, there are certain types of trolling that are largely visible on Pakistani social media posts. The most common ones are the type called ‘moral & religious policing posts’ where targets are subjected to commentator’s hardline religious views and are chastised to punishments — even Hellfire on certain occasions. Another common type is the ‘misogynist post’ — where women specifically are told off and shamed by judgemental audiences (mostly men) on their clothing or any other artifact that is not within their accepted norms. Another common one is the ‘physical trolling’ — where one's physical features get lashed out by the trollers (comments like ‘are you fat?’, ‘you look pregnant’, ‘plastic surgery’ etc.).

Another thing to highlight is that it is generally the women who have been the easier target for the trolls — this could be attributed to the existing issue of gender disparity and male chauvinism and that is a separate research topic.

Celebrities have spoken out on trolling:

Recently several celebrities have spoken about how this aggressive commentary and undue hatred is unwarranted and harmful to one’s mental peace.

Just a couple of months ago, Ayeza Khan spoke about how such comments shatter their internal peace and questioned them:

Iqra Aziz who has been a subject of some seriously crude comments highlighted the seriousness of the issue of online humiliation in an Instagram post:

Saba Qamar also raised awareness on the damaging aspects of such cruel commentary on social media and the overall effect it has on one’s mental health. She emphasized the severity of a mental illness such as depression and how the insensitivity displayed by trollers can be so destructive to one's inner peace. The trolls may have no idea on the implications of their words and that is exactly the powerful message Saba cares to highlight in this video.

Yasir Hussain also has been vocal about the need for there being a law that disciplines and/or punishes the trollers. He has been confrontational with the trolls in his own way as well — I cannot comment on how serious is he about, when he states there needs to be a ‘danda’ for the trollers.

Some time ago, there was a picture that went in circulation where Mahira Khan was seen smoking a cigarette with Indian actor, Ranbir Kapoor. Upon seeing that, the trollers did not hold back and went all guns blazing at Mahira: no restraints and no mercy.
Several celebrities spoke out in support of Mahira: Osman Khalid Butt’s response on calling out the double standards that exist in our society, however, was one of the best responses in my opinion!

Armeena Rana Khan has also been a favorite target of trolls, probably because she retaliates and responds in the best fitting manner possible. Some time back, on one of her posts, the highly moral trolls started mocking her on her clothing, to which she replied:

With 2020 being the year where Ertugul was one of the watched shows in Pakistan, the desi troll brigade did not even shy away from making derogatory comments against the drama’s lead cast — which is Turkish, by the way. The trollers first started to thrash the main lead actress, Esra Bilgiç’s clothing & poses on social media complaining that what they saw, clashed with the image of the role she portrayed in the tv show (“how could you pose like that?”, “why are you wearing this?”, “this is not how Halimah is like!”). The hatred squad did not stop there — they went on to further grill the main lead, Engin Altan Duzyatan, on having a pet dog! (“this is not allowed in Islam”, “you will be punished”, etc.)

I found several other occasions as well where the haram police and the misogynist trollers went about harassing their targets — to some it might still be considered funny, but I firmly believe there need to be rules set in place to minimize the risks of mental health issues.

Conclusion

I tried conducting some research on what is a typical desi troller’s mindset like — how do they think? Why do they feel the need to shove and enforce their religious viewpoints or moral perspectives onto others? What do they get out of it? Trolling happens throughout the world; the desi trolls, however, are different as compared to trolls in other places. I will continue digging into this topic.

For the victims, I’d want to emphasize that there are options available where you can report racist and abusive trolling — on this link, there is a guide on how to go about reporting your incident to FIA.

I also did find a site hosted by Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), however, the site was not secure so I did not proceed further on it. But one can go and report their incidents there.

In summary, social media is supposed to be a place where respect should be one of the foundations in every interaction. However, that is not the case and the sooner we start setting some examples, the more chances there are, that we would be able to instill some discipline in our online spaces and have the trollers think twice before they post.

Life-long Customer Success Student; Member of Toastmasters; Sharing lessons acquired through journeys and experiences. Talking hard facts to change mindsets.