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Azmat Khan responds to Douglas Rushkoff

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Azmat Khan


With all of the insightful commentary before me and in the wake of the WikiLeaks viral video, I'm thrilled to take part in this very timely conversation.

Although I have much I'd like write about, I am only going to comment briefly in two areas: 1) A complicated example of how the internet can bring social change in Pakistan; 2) The question of who decides whether social media from a particular region is relevant.

The Swat Flogging Video
Sam Gregory's work in Burma and discussion of the Neda Agha Soltan video from Iran, remind me of the Pakistani activist community's role in disseminating the 2009 Swat-flogging video, which is perhaps the most well-known, recent example of the internet's propensity for bringing social change in Pakistan. This video, which is believed to depict a young woman who is held down and beaten as public punishment for alleged moral transgressions, while a crowd of observers watch, went viral in Pakistan and around the world in March and April of 2009.

As a journalist working for Express 24/7 news when it was released, I saw firsthand how the video became a media goldmine: ordinary people watched it from their cell phones, the internet, and of course Pakistan's many passionate, prolific TV news channels. It sparked formal investigations and engendered rich, nationwide debates over the dangers and reach of the Pakistani Taliban, violence against women and misogyny, and notions of justice and morality.

For many in Pakistan, the video was a final straw in how far they were willing to allow Taliban encroachment in their country and for their government to strike deals with militants. Around this time, there was an observable shift in Pakistani public opinion against the Taliban, arguably a result of the video. The video is also believed to have significantly helped build support for Pakistani military operations against the Taliban in Swat.

Over a year later, it continues to be a source of controversy, with some individuals now confessing to have faked the video with paid actors in an effort to undermine the Taliban (and arguably rally military support). If this is in fact true, does it also undermine those rich conversations on violence against women which resulted from it?

Regardless of its veracity, the video's impact (whether good or bad) is undeniable. In Pakistan-policy discussions in Washington where I now work, I often hear U.S. strategists refer to the Swat flogging video as an example of how Pakistan can engage in a "strategic communications campaign" against the Taliban. This of course raises important ethical questions, which I'd be interested in hearing your perspectives on, particularly as they relate to your experiences elsewhere.

Dr. Avab Alvi, who is also on this roundtable, can probably speak more to the activism within Pakistan regarding this video and his own experiences writing about and bringing attention to the video and its authenticity through his popular blog, Teeth Maestro, which you should also check out.

Who Decides If Social Media Is Relevant?
I'm also very interested in the question of who (or which audience) decides whether social media from a country is relevant, particularly in politically volatile places like Iran, Pakistan, or Kyrgyzstan. Of course, the Iranian election brought unprecedented global attention to social media use in the country. Why can't the same be said for Kyrgyzstan? Sarah Kendzior of Registan.net does a wonderful job raising these questions in this post, arguing that social media users in Kyrgyzstan were ignored because they were writing for a local audience. I'd love to get your perspectives on this.

I have more to say on how the internet also opens up opportunities for the manipulation of events and promoting false information, as well as the less examined social and cultural impacts of greater access to the internet. I hope to raise these in future posts. I look forward to your responses.

posted February 2, 2010

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