Freedom of speech is a constitutionally protected right in Pakistan albeit with certain reasonable restrictions but there is always an interesting debate that can be about limitations on free speech. Should there even be limitations or should free speech be unrestricted? especially in digital spaces and social media platforms. Those who argue that free speech should not be restricted or curbed suggest that hate speech should be tackled and regulated. If the negative propaganda of any sort is initiated and spread through social media channels, then this should be rectified by providing alternative and factual viewpoints to counter the misinformation.
However, the fact of the matter is that the digital sphere has never provided free and equal space to all. Social media platforms have been polarized and politicized and there is a clear dichotomy between the stated aims of social media platform’s push for open spaces and their actual actions. In this age of digital capitalism, the social media conglomerates have to act as arbitrators and decide which content they allow to be published and promoted but these social media corporations and states themselves are not neutral dispassionate stakeholders. We might be elated when right wingers and other adversarial groups are removed from social media platforms by the content moderators but the next target, the most vulnerable target and the main target actually want to go for are the dissident voices on the left i.e. anti-capitalists and anti-imperialist agitators. The right frequently labels itself as the victim when in reality they have the loudest platforms on social media. It is usually the left or liberal segments of the society that are the most frequent targets for censorship. The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) has precisely for this reason defended free speech rights of racists and misogynists not because they agree with the hateful ideologies but because they know the actual targets are the vulnerable minority communities such as the Black Lives Matter activists or other human rights activists. Advocating for free speech does not mean not posing any challenge to hate mongering instead it means critiquing and resisting their propaganda without any interference from the corporations that control social media.
Worth mentioning here is that Facebook frequently deletes pro Palestine accounts at the direction of US and Israeli governments according to research done by the US media outlet ‘The Intercept’ (Glenn Greenwald,2017 The Intercept). According to Glenn Greenwald “what makes this censorship particularly consequential is that 96 percent of Palestinians said their primary use of Facebook was for following news.” That means that Israeli officials have virtually unfettered control over a key communications’ forum of Palestinians” the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and various other Israeli political actors constantly spread xenophobic and Islamophobic propaganda against the Palestinians on social media but the Palestinians face censorship and intimidation when they seek to advocate for the Palestinian cause. The Dutch/Palestinian supermodel Bella Hadid has routinely called out Instagram for shadow banning her posts related to Palestine.
Now do we want Facebook and other tech giants to regulate and to arbitrate on such major issues? Coming close to home the vulnerable communities and activists dealing with state repression such as in Kashmir rely on internet and social media to detail the state’s repressive capacities and human rights abuses to the rest of the world. They need social media to fight back against state’s narratives. Kashmir issue rarely gets attention in mainstream international media so turning to social media helps the activists reach a wide audience so that public opinion across the world can turn sympathetic towards their cause. If they are deprived of their free expression and speech rights that leaves the repressive state apparatus to do whatever it wants and to freely propagandize the rest of the world without any substantial challenge from the human rights activists and freedom fighters.
Racism, islamophobia, xenophobia etc. are actual pressing urgent issues and we should obviously not downplay them however, one way to tackle such problems is to push for cultural change, promote positive messaging via media, help those dealing with economic anxiety, do private counselling and caution the offenders in private instead of outright cancelling people with offensive views. Because at the end of the day cancel culture only really affects the vulnerable communities those who are powerless and cannot fight back, even if right wingers are cancelled from the polite society they still have the option to have lucrative careers as commentators and pundits in the right and mainstream wing media landscape but many in the vulnerable minority communities don’t have that privilege. Social media has permeated across all aspects of our lives so opting out of it will deprive activists of opportunity to sway public opinion and mobilize people but that cannot happen without their freedom of speech being protected in the digital sphere and elsewhere. So let’s advocate for unrestricted free speech.
Member – 17th Youth Parliament Pakistan (YPP)
Mishal is 25 and is based in Lahore. She majored in International Relations and Public Policy and her main interest lies in foreign affairs, human rights issues of Pakistan and challenges faced by the youth in this country. She is the Joint Secretary of Youth Standing Committee on Foreign Relations – III (Middle East & North Africa).