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Hashtag warriors dumbing down debates

India, Pakistan issues lost in the cacophony of voices and characters.

By Mehr Tarar

Published: Tue 16 Jun 2015, 9:06 PM

Last updated: Wed 8 Jul 2015, 3:15 PM

The politics of hashtags. The politics of trends. The politics of words that are twisted and convoluted. Welcome to the world circa 2015, as seen in the 140-characters of that thing called a tweet. The protocol of due verification be damned, the undignified hurry to turn tweets into headlines has altered the face of news-dispensation in ways many of which defy all accepted norms of journalistic integrity.

Before an official statement is presented by an organisation, celebrity, politician, or a political party through the old mediums — print and electronic — the tweet is posted. Before the tweet is fully understood, it squirms its way into the 24-hour news channels and their online portals. And before the retweets and favourites pile up, a long virtual debate is initiated, most of which comprises of mindless attacks from the opposing side. Tweeting your statement may be a supersonic way to communicate, but like all things that are fast, there’s the downside. And this one comes with a price that at times becomes too steep to make any head or tail of. Like a jungle fire it spreads, and like a jungle fire that can be doused only by divine intervention once it spreads deep, the aftermath of a twitter storm is often messy, occasionally sordid, frequently dangerous and intermittently hilarious. If only it was the last one most of the time…

Now take Pakistan and India for instance. The sheer inanity of misplaced jingoism and hyper nationalism that one sees on Twitter timelines. The keyboard warriors on both sides with words to mince, hatred to grind, mistrust to stew, and paranoia to serve. Threats and counter-threats are tweeted, and patriotism is cloaked in jingoistic hyperbole, war-chants and aggressive rhetoric. Arguments break, and there’s the distinct feeling of watching, with bemused fascination, a match that’s being played in mud. You know the kind where after five minutes you can’t tell one fighter from the other. Mud to mud. The most abusive handles hide in anonymity. After all, even to be abusive without being scared is rare today, like finding one abusive tweet without misspelt words and non-performing grammar.

Worse is the occasion when there’s an actual incident of Pakistan-said-this-and-India-said that. That’s when the TV anchors go all loud, shrill and incoherent. Hashtags decide the temperature of the hostility between Pakistan and India, and the trends become crazier with every tweet. #AtankwadIndia and #ScaredPakistan clutter the timelines, depending on whether you’re in Lahore or Delhi. And then starts the talk shows, and adios…sanity. Ah, the nation wants to know, who cares which nation. Stereo? The debate kicks into action, and it’s a free-for-all before you say Salaam Arnab! The rest as they say is a one-sided shouting match, even if the panelists are divided into us versus them. There is no debate, no discussion, no end. It’s who shouts louder than the host, and who gets insulted the most by the host. The hour turns into that slow nightmare where you know you are screaming but no one hears you.

One wonders, bored, often confused, and sometime baffled, watching Pakistani guests on a show like Newshour. A special form of masochism? Why put yourself in an arena where the gloves are off, knives are sharpened and sanity has gone AWOL? How has this become accepted behaviour? Invite people simply to shout at them and insult them without giving them a chance to put across even a tiny counter-argument? Why ask questions when the only answer acceptable to the host is yes-you-are-right-sir? The circus is so macabre it has become absurd.

TV shows are just TV shows but then they are much more than that. Even when loud and partisan and incoherent they set the mood for the responses of the audience. They mould opinions. They dull the gullible viewer’s mind with suspicion. And they become the representation of one nation’s endorsement of good and bad. One statement of one political leader is played up so much it loses all relevance after a few hours of ranting. The Indian operation in Myanmar was a non-issue in Pakistan until the statement of the Indian Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting Rajyavardhan Rathore was hyped into a blatant threat to Pakistan. Add to that the hashtagged tweets of the super-emotional minister. Stir it with it the recent aggressive grandiloquence of many Indian politicians. And mix it with Arnab Goswami’s thrice-repeated question to take Pakistan’s name when the minister reiterated India’s determination to fight terror with all its might.

And before we know it, understandably, there is pandemonium in Pakistan’s media and parliament. One sovereign state “threatens” the other. Not nice. PM Nawaz Sharif and his ministers speak and resolutions are passed. Former president Pervez Musharraf adds his nuke-threat, which is dangerously reckless. And the two-way insult-game worsens.

True, the enmity is as old as Pakistan and India, but something’s gotta give now. This whole media-hyped war-mongering between the two nations that have already fought four wars is not just in bad taste, it is downright dangerous. The enormity of the sheer trivialisation of a huge thing like war that destroys lives, economies, infrastructure, minds and hearts is staggering.

It is the agenda on which political point-scoring is done and TV ratings are manipulated. It is the clichéd bombast that does not allow small talk to become a serious dialogue. It is the exploitation of history that allows slights to fester into wounds that turn infectious. It is the bloodied line that draws invisible barriers between people who have much in common and much to lose. It is the industry of war that thrives on blood being shed and bullets being exchanged.

The question to ask today is: who benefits from keeping Pakistan and India at one another’s throat? No one. Who suffers? Pakistanis and Indians. Who are the soldiers who are shot trying to protect borders that could exist without barbed wires and heavy artillery? Sons of Pakistani and Indian mothers and fathers. The aftermath is in the fresh graves, in the comatose eyes, in the frozen tears, in the oozing blood, in the never-ending pain. Kab tak?

Mehr Tarar is a columnist based in Pakistan

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