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[December 11, 2013]

The fragmentation of the public sphere

(Express Tribune (Pakistan) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) The imminent auction of 3G licences and rise of social media have prompted much excitement about the benefits these new technologies might bring. Many claim that fast mobile internet will spur much-needed economic growth, yet research conducted for the BBC’s international development charity, BBC Media Action, highlights potential implications that may have even greater significance for politics and public debate than the estimated $1 billion the auction will raise for the government’s coffers.

This recent research concludes that mobile phones, the internet and social media have contributed to bringing the country’s diverse regional and ethno-linguistic identities into a public sphere that has historically been dominated by centralist politics and a mass media monopoly on public debate. This trend may hold the promise of contributing to a politics more inclusive of regional and local diversity.

Importantly, the research found that diversity in the public sphere increased in line with internet access. When ordinary citizens from the country’s diverse communities were able to access the internet, they expressed the feeling that these technologies created new opportunities for self expression and was their preferred, if not only, means of participating in public debate. One research respondent from Karachi said that “When we share videos and images on the internet, (they) start receiving comments and people keep on sharing them. This way, (the story) reaches higher authorities as well.” As internet penetration grows and more users adopt social media, this diversity will only increase. The point is that, regardless of the actual impact of this new form of expression, people feel more included in the national conversation.

And importantly, these diverse communities include groups marginalised from the mainstream public conversation. For example, Baloch activists, largely excluded from public debates and coverage in Pakistan’s media, have used the internet to reach out to international broadcasters such as Al Jazeera, knowing that once the global media covers a story, the Pakistani media is more likely to cover the same issues. And, of course, in the recent election the extensive use of new technologies by political parties connected ordinary citizens long ignored by political representatives. That Imran Khan’s strategy of text messages, Twitter and Facebook was mimicked by competing political parties emphasises the extent to which these technologies are perceived to be able to reach out to groups which marginalised themselves from political participation.

Given this trend, the research conducted for BBC Media Action concluded that the greatest political impact of social media is perhaps, in making the gate keeping function of mass media - the way it allows some voices and not others - more inclusive of Pakistan’s political and social diversity. But it also cautions that this opening of the gates is not without its problems.

Firstly, the opening of the gates to more diverse voices also has problematic implications. Studies of political debate on social media show that discussion is frequently polarised and extreme. Polarisation occurs because people’s natural preferences are to discuss issues with like-minded people, and so self-select into shared interest groups. Views become more extreme as outlier views are echoed within shared interest groups, leading to these minority views becoming the new norm. For example, studies of political debate following the assassination of Salmaan Taseer show how debate on Facebook quickly became dominated by supporters of his killer, while more liberal debate found a home on Twitter ref A Bellicose Media. And of course, the rise of social media, unfettered by editors or regulators, helps extreme views find larger audiences. Most banned groups have their own Twitter accounts, Facebook pages and even conduct SMS campaigns.

Secondly, the degree of perceived threat posed by these new technologies is evident in government attempts to ban websites and install more effective internet filtering systems. While internet activist groups were successful in rallying international and domestic pressure to prevent government efforts to procure Pakistan’s version of China’s Great Firewall, digital rights activists fear the government is continuing to block content and monitor traffic. In June 2013, it was revealed that a Canadian technology called Netsweeper was being used to block thousands of websites, while activists also reported that a British surveillance technology called Finfisher has also been used. The blocking or censorship of websites and the continued presence of surveillance technologies emphasise the subversive power of ideas as well as the power of technology to spy on citizens.

Finally, the rise of decentralised, networked social media is mirrored in the fragmentation of centralised mass media. The growth of regional and social media was echoed in the 2013 election results, which saw a different ethnic party forming the government in each of the country’s four provinces. The BBC Media Action research found that many view this trend as a much-needed shift towards increasingly representative and decentralised politics. However, the same research also found others arguing that this situation could also lead to future political fragmentation, as power and public debate decentralise. There are fears also that this fragmentation might be seized on by government and state authorities to further clamp down on already vulnerable media.

The launch of 3G internet in Pakistan is just the latest stage in the remarkable role the media has played in the nation’s politics. It is now more vibrant, dynamic and diverse than ever before. New groups are articulating their needs and demands in ways previously impossible. The gates to the public sphere have been flung open. Yet, this has led to greater polarisation and extremism in political debate, and a weakening of the power of national media to hold authority to account and protect the journalists on which it relies. It might be time for all those with an interest in the future role of media in the country to consider how to best shape the next generation of media audiences.

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