Facebook: It’s high time you control hate speech in languages other than English!

Published: April 5, 2017
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Therefore, the Islamists need not beat their trumpets because even if a ban is underway, it’s not because the government is too concerned about the so-called blasphemous content.

The increased role of social media recently has been fundamental in guiding social debates and forming narratives of people at large. It has posed many challenges in different parts of the world. On one hand, there are autocratic governments trying to ban TwitterFacebook, and WhatsApp while on the other, there is a scuffle between law enforcement authorities and the social media giants over the demand to hand over a user’s data.

The revolutionary rise of social media owing to its widespread popularity has also brought a range of issues to our already polarised society, one of them being the evolution of hard-core Islamists.

The Urdu content on social media sites has certainly resulted in the revival of a once neglected language. However, at the same time, this is also a cause for concern. Urdu pages on Facebook are constantly fuelling the already rising sectarian tension in the country. The hugely divided Pakistani society with its many groups and sub-groups has a plethora of problems, without social media adding to them.

Non-stop propaganda is prevalent on these pages and when it comes to insulting the revered figures of the opposing sect/group, none pull any punches.

Anyone can start a Facebook page; get it promoted for a meagre amount and start spewing venom against opposing groups. The fact that Facebook does not reveal their admin’s identity is a major factor behind this phenomenon, enabling people to freely preach hate while staying anonymous. The infamous Bhensa page was notorious for mocking the religious sentiments of the majority and disrespecting the most prestigious personalities in Islam, while other pages such as AngraMochi, and Roshni were run along the same lines.

After a long but awkward silence, the government seems to have woken up but only for all the wrong reasons. After the Islamabad High Court (IHC) Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui showed extraordinary interesty in the matter of the blasphemous pages, instructing the blockage of any page involved in sharing objectionable content. Furthermore, he said if needed, all of social media should be banned. Since then, the learned judge has softened his own stance.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has broken his silence over the matter, stating that no contempt of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) is tolerable, while his son-in-law also appeared up in arms about the issue. The government’s sudden responsiveness to the matter coupled with the fact that it has deemed a blanket ban as plausible makes one wonder whether the grounds for the ban are to solve the problem of social media criticism. The PM’s long-awaited response comes at a time when the four bloggers that had been accused without evidence, have already been forced to leave the country.

It has also been established that blocking specific Facebook accounts or pages is not possible for the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA). Therefore, it takes a lengthy procedure on the government’s part; whereby formal complaints are lodged with the relevant site’s administrators while the decision to remove the content remains at their discretion.

Moreover, even if the content is removed, it can always resurface on separate pages, bringing the authorities back to square one. However, this scenario cannot be used to justify the ban on all of social media since the solution lies in a partnership between social media sites and the government.

Amid this fiasco is the complete denial of the Urdu themed social media pages that promote hate speech and churn out extremist philosophies that influence a large number of people. The relevant authorities seem to be looking the other way when it comes to these pages. The prime minister must know that blasphemy is undoubtedly an unpardonable offence but so is making false accusations of blasphemy and praising convicted terrorists, what has he done yet to contain that part of the problem? Sum zero.

Soon after Justice Shaukat stated that social media must be banned, the government appears to be eager to jump on the bandwagon based on the rhetoric that they are the source of all evil. Perhaps the Nawaz cabinet has discovered a way out of the persisting problem that Facebook has proved to be for its alleged corruption-tainted ministers and projects that are initiated for the sole purpose of plundering the taxpayer’s money.

Facebook’s memes, mock videos, skits and other political posts that malign the prime minister on a regular basis, bashing him for his incompetence have continued to be a headache for the government. Let’s not forget that the cybercrime bill was unable to put an end to the anti-government rhetoric spewing from social media.

Justice Shaukat has paved a way for the government to go ahead with the blanket ban of social media on the same lines as YouTube, and for similar reasons. Previously, the government had made the same justifications for the ban though there were accusations of a political agenda at work, with respect to anti-government content on the site.

Therefore, the Islamists need not beat their trumpets because even if a ban is under way, it’s not because the government is too concerned about the so-called anti-religion content, they’re just doing it for their own self-centred reasons. There is a deep-rooted conspiracy behind the emotional Captain Safdar, best known as Nawaz’s son-in-law demanding action against social media content, or Maryam Aurangzeb stressing to put an end to the campaign against the prime minister on social media with respect to the Panama case.

A while ago, some abductions were celebrated as part of a larger trend to welcome violence. Facebook pages played judge, jury, and executioner as there were whistles of blasphemy and calls for condemnation without trial, with hundreds of trolls turning up to drum this mantra. Religious outfits had a field day, handing out fatwas like parking tickets while the security agencies and the Pakistan Army hailed as defenders of our ideological frontiers and liberals slewed as foreign agents. All this was effectively propagated through the blatant use of social media.

Facebook has set specific community standards that have been established to counter exactly this kind of extremism or incitement of violence. However, it has still become the main source of hate mongering, and the most lethal weapon in the arsenal of the extremists who use social media to advance their agenda.

Why has Facebook failed to implement its rules? Why have these groups been allowed to operate freely on Facebook, bash their opponents and call for the murder of anyone who happens to disagree with them? The answer is the language barrier – Urdu itself! Some Facebook pages post everything in Urdu, from death threats, videos featuring hate speech to trolls and offensive memes, it is all in Urdu, wherein lies the problem.

It is not a matter of the definition of hate speech but the fact that Facebook cannot identify hate speech in other languages. Thus, deciding whether it fits the definition of hate speech or not comes later. It means that I can call for the murder of anyone I don’t like in let’s, say, Arabic or appeal for the recruitment for a militant organisation in Urdu; in either case, I will face no repercussions.

According to Facebook’s definition of harmful content,

“We define harmful content as anything organising real world violence, theft, or property destruction, or that directly inflicts emotional distress on a specific private individual”.

According to Facebook,

“We define the term to mean direct and serious attacks on any protected category of people based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or disease”.

Facebook’s platform is being used to not only promote hate ideologies but dispatching threats openly. The bloody role of Facebook, in exacerbating conflicts is also evident through videos that have gone viral for all the wrong reasons. One example is that of Khadim Rizvi’s sermons – the cleric who incited violence against ex-governor of Punjab Salmaan Taseer, eventually leading towards his assassination.

Apparently, he has found a new target – Shaan Taseer. Rizvi’s obsession with the Taseer family doesn’t seem to end. He has not just used derogatory language repeatedly against Shaan Taseer and his late father, but in a recent video while declaring him out of the sphere of Islam, threatened,

“Beware of the same fate as your father”.

The reason? Shaan Taseer had called the blasphemy law “inhumane”. The Punjab-based extremists belonging to different groups became more active after the statement and have made an extensive use of social media, in the abomination of Shaan Taseer, the chunk of which comprises of Mr Rizvi’s videos. Shaan Taseer is just one of the large number of people who have been targeted for possessing different opinions.

A rising concern for Pakistani users is, upon repeatedly reporting content written in Urdu script, Roman English Urdu and Urdu/Punjabi videos, they are informed by an automatically generated response that “We deem them fit as per our community standards”.  Even though the reported posts/videos openly call for murdering, hanging, chopping, defaming certain individuals/groups, provoking others to kill and mocking other people’s faith. How can Facebook decide which content is fit or not, without the ability to comprehend languages other than English? This criminal neglect on the part of the Facebook administration enables the extremists on all sides, to carry on their trade of insults.

Facebook is quick to take down images or videos depicting graphic violence, bloodshed, and nudity but those who preach violence using Urdu, easily evade such checks due to these technical loopholes, on the part of Facebook, as evidenced below, highlighting Facebook’s incompetence pertaining to the filtration of hateful content:

1. Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s page

In this video, Khadim Rizvi sporting a white beard sits on top, addressing his devotees in Urdu cum Punjabi, quoting excerpts from the Quran. He appeals to the abductees,

“The whole Ummah demands that you kill them. I promise if you do this, shrines shall be built for you. I will personally reward you. I will polish your shoes”. 

He pauses as the chants of “Labaik Labaik” ensue and then begins again. Every time he says something outrageous, he looks at his devotees for an affirmation and asks, “Kyun ji” (What do you say?) as if his supporters are going to say any different. If the incitement of violence was a science, this man would be Einstein. What places him top of the list is his knack for abusing in the name of preserving the honour of the last Prophet (pbuh).

He is notorious for his ability to perpetuate real world violence simply through sermons. These are just some of the many videos in circulation where Rizvi is either delivering death threats to the Taseer family or uttering expletives against other individuals.

Photo: Screenshot

As is evident from these screenshots, I reported Rizvi’s video and page for hate speech and incitement of violence but no matter how many times I reported it, the response was always the same.

2. Mashal

From putting up baseless accusations, and defaming NGOs and people involved with them, to celebrating abductions, this particular page has done it all. Mocking different people for their beliefs/opinions and spewing hate against different sects seemed to be its sole objective.

Photo: Screenshot

Translation: “Any friend of the Bhensa deserves death”.

These posts are among many, designed with the sole purpose of placing Jibran Nasir in danger by maligning him as one of the blasphemers.

Let’s just avoid the hassle of the court proceedings altogether and shut down all courts, since the alternate system works just fine. People are accused, a charge is proven and the decision is announced through posts such as these. As far as the question of who will carry out the punishment is concerned, anyone who gets provoked and wants to redeem their ‘faith’ will do.

3. War against liberals

Thank God! These people are not running the real world war, because from what I have ascertained from their posts, these people are prone to violence and mimick the Islamic State (IS).

Photo: Screenshot

Translation: “What Terry Jones did by burning the Quran and Charlie Hebdo by making cartoons, the same has been done by the page admins of Bhensa, Mochi, and Roshni, then their friends say that freedom of expression is being targeted”.

4. Think

Photo: Screenshot

Translation: “History will be a witness that not only their names were same but actions were the same too. Blasphemy, abusing the respected figures, ridiculing Islamic teachings, negating the ideology of Pakistan, working on a foreign agenda and proving the heroes of Islam as villains”.

Facebook is clearly unable to differentiate between the content that should be hosted and the one that shouldn’t. It has been accused of deleting statuses that merely condemn acts of terror or a brutal fascist regime, some pictures face the ax for casual humour. However, in Pakistan, extremists have been allowed to implement their nefarious agenda through Facebook.

With an easy availability of cheap gadgets, the use of social media namely Facebook has become rampant. According to research, there are 25 million social media users in Pakistan, with the majority comprising Facebook users as its user-friendly and interactive medium makes it the most popular choice. However, as the influence of Facebook rises, so does the influence of the elements that hold fundamentalist views. What is the probability of a common man watching a hateful address on Facebook and being brainwashed into murdering someone?

It’s no surprise that the government has failed to control the online incitement of violence, despite the cyber-crime bill. This is why there is a dire need to stress upon Facebook and other sites to realise their responsibility in enforcing moderate values through a robust framework, so that they are able to detect hate speech in other languages such as Urdu.

Mark Zuckerberg has pledged to take measures to curb the spread of extremism and terrorist ideologies. It would be a shame if his brainchild keeps getting utilised for agendas that run opposite of what his vision is.

As I mentioned earlier, Facebook needs to establish a framework to detect hate speech in Urdu and other languages because the blasphemous content, as well as the fundamentalist ideological content, is solely based on the Urdu language. Instead of urging the Facebook representatives to curb the core issue, the government appears to be adopting the most extreme measure since it serves its own best interests.

According to the Ministry of Interior, 85 blasphemous pages have been removed from Facebook. This is an indication towards the right direction. However, there is still no acknowledgment of the seemingly moderate pages that do not host blasphemous content but still promote hate speech. The state’s concern should not be focused solely on the issue of the blasphemous content but it must also take into consideration the prevailing extremist ideologies on Facebook that are if not more, a matter of equal apprehension as blasphemy.

Ahsan Zafeer

Ahsan Zafeer

The author is interested in politics, social issues and sports. He has a passion for writing and believes that issues can be resolved through discussion. He tweets as @AhsanZafeer (twitter.com/AhsanZafeer)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Iftikhar Ali

    Point of out of no controlRecommend