Defend our digital domain
Despite limited resources, Pakistan’s security is almost impregnable against conventional aggression and our adversaries know it.
They have therefore decided, as recent events indicate, to target our unity, our will to fight, our internal security and our minds, by exploiting our most abandoned flank, in the digital domain.
Consider the following: In Pakistan, there are 190 million cellular subscribers, of which 100 million own smartphones with access to Facebook (FB); What Sapp; Instagram; Youtube; and Twitter etc.
This has led to growth in awareness, learning and e-commerce with approximately $6 billion spent on business transactions this year and the digitalization of our commerce, economy and education are encouraging and welcome developments. .
However, the same media is abused by many, which has profoundly influenced and negatively affected our politics, national security and ethics, and sometimes it seems that the minds of a large segment of the population have been completely hijacked, by a combination of various enticements and false narratives based on twisted truths and lies.
Rampant social media addiction, with cravings similar to intoxicants and drugs, wreaks havoc on the developing minds of teens, who are prone to risk-taking, which is intensified by social media.
Furthermore, overuse of social media induces psychological conditions such as anxiety, depression, acute bias, extremism, cyberbullying, antisocial behavior, vandalism, and diminished well-being of the people.
(Similar results are recorded in the US Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, the University of Pennsylvania and the Wall Street Journal).
Many people (some licensed by TV stations) started their private YouTube transmissions, without any license, for money, cheap popularity or political ambitions.
The pervasiveness of social media has enabled many state and non-state actors to weaponize it, for behavior control and perception management, which has endangered both the people and the state in Pakistan.
But because the state is unaware, unprepared or unwilling to meet these challenges, we continue to suffer.
Unfortunately, it also includes heinous attempts to subvert the loyalty of the defense forces or discredit them and brazen threats against law enforcement, homeland security and the justice system.
This milieu continues to be exacerbated by our many external enemies and their internal accomplices, as revealed by new investigations, reported by multiple sources, that 18 Indian social media accounts, 33 other foreigners and 580 Pakistanis were involved in the case.
Transparency and the need for algorithmic social media audits are being highlighted globally and the European Parliament recently passed a Digital Services Act, making the EU the first to set a comprehensive standard to regulate the space digital.
This legislation obliges these companies to share their data not only with regulators, but also with users.
The EU model has been adopted by Turkey, Kenya, South Korea, Mauritius, South Africa, Japan, Brazil and Argentina.
In India, social media has been controlled since 2021, with its offices established in the country for the filing of complaints by users.
These must be acknowledged within 24 hours and resolved within 15 days, failing which, users can go to higher courts.
In addition, they use the multimillion-dollar Israeli spyware, Pegasus, and other means to monitor our communications and security, gather our perceptions, and weaken us internally.
In the United States, Trump’s use of social media was banned by Facebook indefinitely and by Twitter permanently for misleading content in 2021.
Both in India and the United States, defamatory or illegal content cannot escape legal liability. China provided “platform regulation” before “content regulation” and criminalizes online activities that undermine government, security organizations or erode national unity, while unlicensed websites can only republish content from legalized sites.
Our laws must also keep pace with technology to save the country from internal chaos and instability, even if that means blocking certain social media accounts or shutting down certain platforms or channels.
FB and You Tube were blocked for years in the past, for profanity, until the problem was fixed by Google, and the sky didn’t fall.
Our legislation must compel social media companies to comply with PTA registration, establish their offices and appoint authorized Grievance Redress Officers in Pakistan.
These companies and our ISPs must deploy mechanisms to ensure that local laws on Pakistan Security (Section 260 of the Constitution), Public Order or Safety (CPP XIV, 1860), Decency and morality, are respected.
Violators should be punished severely, including heavy fines; defamation should be made a non-bailable offense and should encompass criminal prosecution by individuals and institutions, with prison terms on conviction increased from three to five years for complaints brought by institutions.
Most of these measures were part of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes (Amendment) Order 2022 (PECA).
Unfortunately, the High Court in Islamabad declared this order “unconstitutional”, requiring the government to “probe for abuses of the law”.
The government did not contest this, probably due to pressure from some champions of unbridled media “freedom”.
The world is successfully grappling with social media regulatory issues. Pakistan must also establish sovereignty over its unruly cyberspace, in defense of its most venerable digital flank.
This is possible through adequate funding, training, teamwork from the PTA, PEMRA, MoIT, FIA, intelligence agencies, legal support, hiring experts from the domain, building strong forensic auditing and monitoring capability and effective responses such as location-based filters, geo-blocking and “circuit breakers” to disrupt unverified sharing chains .
Finally, as responsible citizens, we must remember that social media is not always a representation of reality; seek the truth ourselves and reject dubious information.
We also need to free our own and our children’s minds from our “smart” devices, to avoid the pitfalls discussed above, choose social media groups wisely, and balance our screen and off-screen time, to find and redeem the positive influences and attitudes in our lives.
Without these defensive mechanisms and these responses, our enemies, the media giants, certain megalomaniac politicians and their cyber-warriors and Frankensteins, will continue to endanger us, in the disguise of freedom; to shatter our domestic cohesion and tear at the very fabric of our society.
—The author is the former president of the NDU.