New Social Media Laws Needed To Curb Defamation Of Women In Politics

If the authorities are serious about making women an active part of the system, they must be given real representation on the assembly floors, and protected from social media harassment so that more women will enter politics and contribute towards putting the country on the path to prosperity.

First published on The Friday Times, "New Social Media Laws Needed To Curb Defamation Of Women In Politics" was produced under the ANFREL Asian Media Fellowship on Election Reporting. | Also available in Urdu

As growing numbers of Pakistani women politicians are being disproportionately targeted by disinformation, characteristic of a deeply patriarchal society, the authorities, civic action groups and victims appear to be fighting a losing battle in their attempts to rein in the harassment on social media.

While gendered attacks — often amounting to character assassination – seek to discourage women’s participation in the democratic process, false allegations about women candidates are aimed at eroding public support for their political parties, and, therefore, have a direct impact on the outcomes of elections.

In one of the two recent high-profile cases that highlight the despicable levels social media harassers will stoop to, member of the Punjab Assembly Hina Pervaiz Butt from the PML-N was targeted with a campaign of sexually suggestive fake videos posted widely on social media platforms.

The other case involves a Twitter post that falsely accused former minister and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf member Shireen Mazari of making racially offensive statements. The controversy almost cost her and her party the support of a particular community.

Notwithstanding the obnoxious social media posts targeting female politicians, measures taken so far by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) have not addressed the issue adequately, say victims and activists campaigning for greater regulation of social media at election times.

Figure 1: Pakistan has high-density internet and social media traffic

The need of the hour is an acceptable code of conduct that ensures that social media platforms are not misused by Pakistan’s 118 million netizens, who make up 54 percent of the population.

Last year, in an attempt to curtail cybercrimes, amendments were introduced to the Prevention of Electronic Crime Act 2016 (PECA), bringing the entire media industry under a single authority, but the amendments were decried by journalists, human rights groups, and opposition parties as an attempt to muzzle media freedom.

Digital Rights Foundation Director Nighat Dad said that with social media platforms emerging as a powerful force on the political landscape, women politicians had, unfortunately, become easy targets on these platforms, and character assassination was increasingly being considered normal.

She lamented that the ECP, the FIA, and political parties still had not come up with a plan to deal with fake news disseminated through social media.

Ahead of the 2018 general elections, a survey on online participation of women politicians found that of more than 43,000 comments on the Facebook pages of 43 women politicians, 49% were abusive. Media Matters for Democracy, the organisation that conducted the survey, wrote to the ECP, calling for guidelines to eliminate the abuse of the social media space, but the request yielded little or no follow-up action.

Although in the aftermath of public criticism of Facebook, especially after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Meta Chief Mark Zuckerberg pledged to remove content influencing elections around the world, including Pakistan, the ground reality is different, as highlighted in a social media survey conducted in Pakistan.

If the authorities are serious about making women an active part of the system, they must be given real representation on the assembly floors, and protected from social media harassment so that more women will enter politics and contribute towards putting the country on the path to prosperity, say activists.

The survey results revealed that although 75% of participants said they shared content only after verification, 82% of those who said they verified content admitted they had believed a story that turned out to be false. As the survey found, social media fake news is quite effective in misleading young voters.

The burden of rectifying the worsening state of affairs is on social media platforms, activists say, calling for more awareness campaigns to counter social media-based fake news.

They express concerns about the increased use of social media to spread false information about female politicians and the gullibility of those who fall victim to such canards, especially those in the 16-35 age group, who make up about 65% of Pakistan’s Internet users.

Once misinformation spreads, its effects are almost impossible to undo. They have a direct impact on voting preferences. The controversial Twitter post that carried a statement allegedly attributed to former minister Shireen Mazari was a case in point. In the post, she is alleged to have compared the Pakistani Pakhtuns with the Afghan Taliban.

Ms. Mazari said the barrage of criticism following this fake news incident was so overwhelming that she took to the assembly floor to explain her position and how comments she made in an interview were twisted to fabricate the story.

Although most women politicians are vulnerable to social media trolls, only a few are outspoken in combating the menace. One such outspoken politician is Ms. Pervaiz Butt, a victim of social media character assassination.

She says: “Social media trolling and institutionalised harassment are something that most women with strong viewpoints have to face. But trolls don’t realise that they are only making us stronger.”

A campaigner for ethics-based social media order, Ms. Pervaiz Butt says she has been courageously responding to fake news since 2014, a year after she first became a member of the Provincial Assembly of Punjab.

One such fake news item she successfully countered was a video clip that went viral on social media. The clip featured a woman, a lookalike, in a manner that did not conform to the traditional Islamic values her vote base respects.

She said that overnight she became the talk of the town and was subjected to abusive Twitter threads that were trending.

In the run-up to the 2015 local council elections, the ECP tried to maintain public order by preventing electronic and print media from resorting to irresponsible reporting, and politicians from making statements that could disturb the public peace.

The ECP held public awareness campaigns on responsible social media usage in collaboration with newspapers but they did not yield satisfactory results.

The ECP acknowledges that it is the responsibility of the commission to check on social media behaviour that targets women politicians during election times.

Punjab Election Commission spokesperson Huda Ali says the ECP takes strict measures to monitor the election campaigns of candidates and political parties. The ECP’s code of conduct clearly states the commission will not tolerate personal attacks and character assassinations whether they are aimed at male or female candidates.

She says candidates’ speeches are monitored along with their electronic media campaigns. The ECP, if deems necessary, takes the Pakistan Electronic Media Monitoring Authority (PEMRA) on board to monitor election campaigns in the electronic media.

The spokesperson also says the ECP designates monitoring teams headed by District Monitoring Officers, who are responsible for ensuring the implementation of the ECP’s code of conduct. In case of violations, the District Monitoring Officers have powers to take action, issue notices and warnings, and impose penalties in case of grave violation, Ms. Ali points out.

If a candidate repeatedly violates the code or slanders a female candidate repeatedly, the DMO is required to send a report to the Election Commission for necessary action. If the allegations are proved, the ECP will impose a penalty on the accused candidate. The ECP can even disqualify a candidate or a political party, depending on the magnitude of the violation of the code, the spokesperson says.

Unfortunately, the law [PECA] seems to apply mostly to journalists, according to data obtained from the Federal Investigation Agency through the Federal Information Commission. Data reveals that of the 18 cases registered under PECA last year, 11 involved the arrests of journalists.

As a further measure, the Information Ministry created a Twitter handle called “Factchecker MoIB” on October 6, 2018, to identify and debunk fake news, but this is largely used to combat fake news about the government.

Figure 2: the complaint ratio on YouTube is significantly lower than Facebook

With the Information Ministry focusing largely on fake news targeting the government, and with political party leaders concerned about dealing with fake news about them, the common thread appears to be self-centred politics. There are little or no serious attempts to counter the character assassination of female candidates on social media.

To prevent defamation and dissemination of disinformation by individuals, Section 20 of PECA prescribes imprisonment for three years and a fine of Rs. 1 million.

But unfortunately, the law seems to apply mostly to journalists, according to data obtained from the Federal Investigation Agency through the Federal Information Commission.

These data reveal that of the 18 cases registered under PECA last year, 11 involved the arrests of journalists.

Calling this clause controversial, the Islamabad High Court has recommended amendments. The law, however, contains some positive features. For instance, Section 34 empowers the FIA to remove false and inappropriate content from social media.

Figure 3: FIA is taking action against most of the complaints but more needs to be done in pursuing legal action

It is worth mentioning here that although social media forums platforms they ensure the protection of the personal information of their users, the policy as written has paved the way for abuse.

In addition, fake social media accounts use virtual private networks (VPNs) to hide their locations and personal information to spread disinformation that results in chaos. Even local law enforcement agencies and cybercrime busters are unable to trace accounts that used a proxy, an FIA official said.

The FIA cybercrime branch does not have statistics about complaints and actions taken with regard to character assassinations of female politicians.

With Pakistan’s women facing tougher challenges in politics and even more hurdles in socioeconomic inclusion relative to men, it is no surprise that the country ranks 167th in the Women, Peace, and Security Index 2021-22.

If the authorities are serious about making women an active part of the system, they must be given real representation on the assembly floors, and protected from social media harassment so that more women will enter politics and contribute towards putting the country on the path to prosperity, say activists.

They also call for the setting up of an authority with close ties to social media forums and Internet Service Providers to hold them accountable for inappropriate content, take prompt action to counter fake news, and penalise offenders with punishments that are genuine deterrents.

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