Despite the internet shutdown in Pakistan, protests continued unabated

In the ongoing battle between Imran Khan’s supporters and the Pakistani military, the conflict has unfolded on two fronts: the streets and social media. Interestingly, the former prime minister appears to have gained an advantage on one of these battlefields.

Following Imran Khan’s arrest on Tuesday, the Pakistani government swiftly implemented an internet shutdown in an attempt to suppress resistance. However, his apprehension immediately triggered nationwide protests.

Nighat Dad, a lawyer based in Lahore, hurried home upon learning about Khan’s detention. As she left her office in the city center, her staff had already encountered violent protesters.

“They faced a mob that attempted to attack their cars and prevent them from leaving,” Dad recounted to the BBC.

Being one of Pakistan’s prominent digital rights activists, she was also closely monitoring the online discourse unfolding.

Images depicting protesters throwing stones amidst tear gas clouds spread rapidly on social media and circulated through WhatsApp groups. A video capturing Khan’s arrest, where he was surrounded by paramilitary troops, went viral. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Khan’s political party, rapidly posted updates on their Twitter page.

In an attempt to gain control over the rapidly escalating situation, the government implemented a widespread internet blackout. Social media sites like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter became inaccessible, leaving people struggling to load them.

Mobile networks faced blockades in certain areas, leading to a complete loss of connectivity. In other regions, internet speeds were deliberately slowed down. While the internet blackout was not surprising for many Pakistanis, those who had access to virtual private networks (VPNs) utilized them to bypass restrictions. Demand for VPN services surged by 1,300%, as reported by trackers interviewed by the BBC. Those with mobile access relied on platforms like WhatsApp to stay connected.

Internet shutdowns have become a common tactic employed by authoritarian regimes, especially in South Asia, to manipulate information and stifle dissent, according to experts. Kathik Nachiappan, a South Asia expert based in Singapore, remarks that governments often resort to such measures, treating the internet as a tool for control.

The internet shutdown in Pakistan has a significant impact as it effectively cuts off access to what is perceived as the only source of “real news” in the country. Over the past decade, the military authorities’ crackdown on independent journalists and newspapers has severely restricted the freedom of the mainstream media, leading many to rely on the internet for unbiased information.

Distrust in the ability of mainstream outlets to provide comprehensive information has eroded to such an extent that people turn to online platforms to discover “the real story,” according to Uzair Younus, a Pakistani politics expert at The Atlantic Council, a think tank based in the United States.

According to Mr. Younus, there is a growing awareness among the public that television news may be incomplete due to the military’s influence over media reporting.

Therefore, when significant events like Khan’s arrest occur, people turn to online sources such as trusted journalists, YouTube channels, and social media platforms.

“While I was at work, I was completely engrossed in Geo News, one of Pakistan’s major broadcasters,” Mr. Younus reveals. “However, I found a plethora of additional information about the protests—updates on the injured individuals and locations of tear gas incidents—through WhatsApp and Twitter. Geo News failed to cover any of those aspects.”

Certainly, relying on social media for news brings its own set of challenges. In Pakistan’s complex political landscape, misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories thrive, often perpetuated by the very political figures themselves.

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By Ryan

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