Pakistan's First Online Hate Speech Report Is Out, And It Isn't Pretty

Hate Speech: A study of Pakistan’s Cyberspace. Click on the image to download the report

Hate Speech: A study of Pakistan’s Cyberspace. Click on the image to download the report (pdf)

Bytes For All, an advocacy organization in Pakistan has released the first ever empirical-based research report on online hate speech in Pakistan (here are some of their key findings). In this piece, Global Voices contributor Qurratulain Zaman interviews Shahzad Ahmad, the Director of Bytes For All.

Pakistan's first-ever hate speech study is an attempt to understand and quantify online hate speech in the country, by examining the actual hate content produced in the country's cyberspace, and build the first quantitative snapshot of who is targeted, who creates it and what forms of hate speech are out there.

Screenshot from the report

A screenshot from the report

Hate speech is a growing concern among many Pakistani online social media users. Innocent people and minority communities like the Ahmadis, are often the targets. The Islamabad-based think tank Jinnah Institute's blog gives some examples:

Pakistani media is an agent of CIA and RAW, Shariat ya Shahadat (Shariah or Martydom), Maslak-e-Deoband (Cult of Deoband) and Shias are unbelievers. This is not a list of slogans chanted by extremists on the streets of Pakistan. It is a very small sampling of the thousands of hate-fueled extremist Facebook pages that make up the Pakistani online experience today.

And exactly what do those Facebook pages share? The blog cites an example of the extremely popular page My Ideology is Islam & My Identity is Pakistan (MIMIP) which has more than 700,000 likes.

The page averages about one share every two minutes, up to 10 hours a day. What do these shares consist of? The latest statements by Jamaat-ud-Dawah chief (formerly Lashkar-e-Taiba) Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, generic religious messages, anti-Ahmadi hate speech, health tips, the faces of Pakistani TV anchors, politicians and senior members of the judiciary Photoshopped with dogs, demons or Hindu/Jewish symbols, anti-Hindu, anti-India hate speech, anti-Semitism, racist, homophobic content, calls for jihad and news updates.

Screenshot from the report

Screenshot from the report

There have been weak efforts at condemning rising hate speech online. A website called Nafrat Aggregator tried to name and shame those who post hateful messages online without much success. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s (HRCP) Expert Group on Communities Vulnerable suggested that strong action be taken against those instigating violence through hate-speech online. Earlier this year Islamic scholars in Pakistan pushed for a hate-speech ban.

The Pakistani government vowed to stem the flow of hate-speech by taking strict action against anyone who propagates sectarianism via social media or mobile phones. The provincial Sindh government is keen to ban instant messaging and voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) clients such as Skype, Viber and other communication networks because terrorists were reportedly using them to plot terrorist attacks. But nothing seems to deter the growing popularity of hate-filled social media shares.

Furhan Hossain writes on Twitter:

Shahzad Ahmad. Image by Rezwan

Shahzad Ahmad at Washington DC. Image by Rezwan

I have consulted with Bytes For All in the past and got to read their hate-speech report before it was released. I interviewed Shahzad Ahmad, the Director of Bytes For All, to get more details about the study for Global Voices (GV) :

GV: How do you define online hate speech?

SA: At Bytes for All, Pakistan, we align our definition of hate-speech with the recommendations of Frank La Rue, based on the work of Article 19, which lays out a series of parameters which form the basis of hate-speech which should be addressed by the law. Some of these parameters include the intention and intensity of any form of expression that either calls for or can lead to curtailment of human rights, discrimination, hostility and violence against any human being or group.

GV: Which community or group of people face more hate speech and what are the reasons?

SA: Groups which were observed to faced the most amount of hate-speech included politicians, media groups/individuals, women and LGBT, and religious minorities. Another visibly large amount of hate-speech was against ‘Indians’ and ‘Hindus,’ where the two terms were being interchangeably used as if both were synonyms.

GV: What are the key findings of your upcoming report?

SA: One of the most important finding of the research indicated that Pakistani internet users were largely unaware of hate speech laws in Pakistan, but were, in general, largely able to identify hate speech correctly. One trend observed in the survey results was the impact of income on views, attitudes and understanding of hate speech. In almost all cases, respondents in the high income bracket had progressive views on hate speech, expressed a greater understanding of the issue, and were better at identifying hate speech correctly, as compared to all other demographic groups. Conversely, respondents in the low income bracket showed the least understanding of hate speech and were markedly worse at identifying hate speech correctly as compared to all other groups.

In terms of platforms, Facebook was highlighted as the most problematic, with 91% of respondents indicating they had come across hate speech on the social network. It is unclear whether this is the result of Facebook’s immense popularity in Pakistan, or the result of an endemic problem on the platform.

GV: Why is there a growing trend of hate speech and culture of humiliation on the Internet?

SA: Internet witnessed a steep rise during last 15 years in Pakistan. In a country where approximately 60% of population can be categorized as youth (less than 30 years of age), this new medium gave a new tool of communication to the youth. But the intolerance and conservativeness of society remained a problem even on the internet. Internet escalated this intolerance because it gave a platform to people to speak (and abuse), while maintaining any level of anonymity as per their desire. Lack of effective cybercrime laws and pro-people legislation, the intolerance of the society started reflecting on the internet more visibly. This is one of the reasons why we witnessing growing trend of hate speech on the internet in Pakistan.

GV: How do you think, this issue of online hate speech should be tackled?

SA: There is no quick way of tackling online violence, because what happens online is a reflection of the offline. While conventional peace building methods such as dissemination of online social etiquette are extremely important, Pakistani cyberspace is in dire need of pro-people cyber legislation to address the need of the day – holistic accountability of all individuals. Pakistan has had cyber laws in the past, when the ordinance lapsed, no one bothered to make sure that it remained a continuing process. Sadly, the past laws were anti-people and largely flawed, and the current proposed draft is also fairly problematic, although it can be improve after a multi-stakeholder process, which the government is always wary of.

Having said this, the role of corporations and intermediaries in dealing with online hate speech and other forms of violence cannot be sidelined. Activists have been protesting against the lax attitude of corporations such as Facebook and Twitter in addressing online abuse through various campaigns such as Take Back The Tech!, #FBRape and #OrangeDay for years. Similarly many policy advocacy efforts are underway, but more are needed. Most importantly, at the end of the day, unity against violence will reign supreme.

GV: It is seen that peace activists, lawyers and journalists are also being targeted and threatened online in Pakistan? The recent case of Raza Rumi is an example: he was sent graphic images of death threats on Twitter and Facebook and the accounts were deleted later. How do you look at this situation?

SA: ​This is a classic example of how dangerously malicious some people can be online. It highlights the importance of treating digital mediums with as much importance as offline mediums. While ​cybercrime legislation as well as corporate intermediaries can both address these issues of user generated threats and violence to some extent, one issue is often not given adequate attention; dangers of non-transparent and illegal surveillance conducted by the governments themselves.

Recent days have seen a massive increase in attacks on journalists and human rights defenders; all this, after governments have been exposed conducting illegal and invasive spying on everybody, which hints towards possible repeated misuse of such technologies even. It is no rocket science to understand that when governments force corporate intermediaries producing hardware and software to create back-doors into people's privacy, they create vulnerabilities in their physical well-being just as much. The lack of transparency in matters such as usage of dangerous technologies such as Finfisher is such that even after almost a year of filing a lawsuit against it, no progress into initiation of hearings has been made.

There is however a difference between trying to stem hate-speech and indiscriminately trying to stamp out differences of opinion and ideology. Unfortunately the first (Internet governance) often becomes an excuse for authorities to implement the latter (Internet censorship). Many secular, left-leaning Facebook pages from Pakistan found this out the hard way as they were allegedly removed and disappeared, almost magically. Let's hope this report is used positively to understand hate-speech and stem it's rise and not be used negatively to feed the demon of censorship.

Written in collaboration with Rezwan, Global Voices’ Regional Editor for South Asia. This piece was edited on June 7 at 19:56 GMT to include the author's prior association with Bytes for All, she has consulted with the organisation in the past,  but was not involved in the research or writing of this specific report. 


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