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Trolls flood social media in Pakistan amid virus lockdown

Filed on August 27, 2020 | Last updated on August 27, 2020 at 06.01 pm
Pakistan, trolls, hardliners
A member of a social media rights group displays pictures of actress Saba Qamar and singer Bilal Saeed's music video at his office in Islamabad.


Music video shot in a mosque draws threats from hardliners online

It was a music video meant to depict a young bride's joy: Actress Saba Qamar, in a flowing white wedding gown with a golden hem, was twirled by the singer playing her groom in front of the mosaics of a 17th-century mosque in Pakistan's eastern city of Lahore.

As soon as the video emerged earlier this month, it went viral - but for the wrong reasons.

It infuriated some people who inundated social media with claims that Qamar's dancing sullied the historic Wazir Khan Mosque.

The uproar was the latest example of how trolling has surged online in Pakistan since a lockdown, imposed in March over coronavirus concerns, confined tens of millions to their homes, leading to a 50 per cent increase in Internet use in the country of over 220 million people.

Minority rights activists and social media trackers say they've seen a sharp rise in online sectarian attacks and hate speech.

"It is unprecedented," Shahzad Ahmad of Bytesforall, an Islamabad-based social media rights group, said.

Toxic trending on Twitter has also taken aim at minorities, blaming the ethnic Hazaras for allegedly bringing the coronavirus to Pakistan from neighbouring Iran.

Some Pakistanis returning home from Iran were among the first reported cases of Covid-19 in Pakistan.

Qamar, the actress who danced in the promo video with popular singer Bilal Saeed in the Lahore mosque, apologised online.

"If we have unknowingly hurt anyone's sentiments we apologise to you all with all our heart. Love & Peace," she tweeted.

But the trolls were unmoved and last week, Qamar and Saeed appeared in court, charged with blasphemy. The two have not responded to requests for comment.

Haroon Baloch, also of the Bytesforall rights group, said he's been using sensitive software that tracks not only hashtags involving a specific name or an extraordinarily heavy use of a particular word, but that also identifies some of the underlying emotions behind the postings.

Such tracking can offer early warnings of "an escalation from online threats to physical threats," he said.

Facebook said it has increased its "content review team, including in Pakistan, and we now find and take action on more than 95 per cent of hate speech before anyone reports it to us".

"We're also in close contact with partners on the ground to identify and remove misinformation that has the potential to incite physical harm offline," the company said.

Twitter said it does "not tolerate the abuse or harassment of people on the basis of religion."

Journalist Marvi Sirmed was targeted after tweeting about forced disappearances of activists in southwestern Balochistan province.

Hassan Javid, a history professor in Lahore, blamed the government for its silence and for allowing rampant abuse on social media.

"Levying allegations of this kind - to intimidate, control, and endanger the accused - has become a national pastime in Pakistan, abetted by a state that continues to watch on in deliberate silence," he said.

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