Bytes For All launches “Hate Speech: A study of Pakistan’s cyberspace”

Karachi, June 07, 2014: The uncontrolled spread of hate speech on the Internet and social media is reaching dangerous levels, threatening society on many levels. The first detailed research into online hate speech in the Pakistan context – “Hate speech: A study of Pakistan’s cyberspace” – was launched today at Avari Towers, in Karachi.
Jahanzaib Haque, Editor, Dawn.com and author of the 63-page study presented the principle findings and recommendations, which consisted of two independent phases of research – an online survey on hate speech responded to by 559 Pakistani Internet users, as well as a detailed content analysis of published material and comments – both textual and iconographic – on high impact, high reach Facebook pages and Twitter accounts frequented by local audiences. [Key findings can be found on page 2 below].
Haque says “The need for such a study was paramount, given the real world impact online hate speech is having in Pakistan, whether that be the well-organized anti-Malala campaign online, how social media fueled sectarian divides during the Rawalpindi riots, the arrest of a professor on grounds of alleged blasphemy for posts run on Facebook, and even the most recent online campaign of hate against media persons. Clearly the issue needs to be addressed, but without regressive action such as state-led censorship and bans.”
The event was attended by parliamentarians, leading media practitioners, journalists, human rights activists, civil society, researchers and major stakeholders in the online space. A panel discussion on the issue included Ch. Muhammad Sarfaraz, Deputy Director FIA, Cyber Crime Circle Lahore, Senator Saeed Ghani, Pakistan People’s Party Parliamentarian (PPP-P), Faisal Sherjan, Director Strategy and Planning at Jang Group, Barrister Salahuddin Ahmed, President, Karachi Bar Association, and Gul Bukhari, B4A Gender Programme Manager.
“We at Bytes for All hold Freedom of Expression very dear as an inviolable fundamental human right, but often see it being fettered in false paradigms of morality, security, national interest or even hate speech,” says Shahzad Ahmad, Country Director, Bytes for All Pakistan.
 “For the reason that speech is regularly gagged in Pakistan under these guises, and the fact that hate speech is the only real threat to Freedom of Expression, we felt it important to study online hate speech in Pakistan, to define it using the best standards, and obtain some idea of its incidence in the country. This is important to ensure hate speech becomes clearly defined, and not confused with national security, religious sentiment, morality or decency.”
Ahmad further adds that, “We are proud to say this study is the first of its kind in Pakistan, and will form the basis for many more such studies to take this important work further. Much work in the coming years has to be done in this area to ensure that this threat does not impinge upon the freedoms we hold so dear.”
The complete report can be downloaded from here.
  1. Results from the online survey 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.
  2. 92% of total respondents replied “yes” to having come across hate speech online, while over half (51%) indicated they had been the target of hate speech online.
  3. Of those respondents who indicated that they had been the target of hate speech online, 42% said they were targeted for their religious beliefs, 23% for their nationality, 22% based on race/ethnicity and 16% for sex/gender/sexual orientation.
  4. One trend observed in the survey results was the impact of income on views, attitudes and understanding of hate speech. Respondents in the low-income bracket showed the least understanding of hate speech and were markedly worse at identifying hate speech correctly as com- pared to all other groups.
  5. In terms of platforms, Facebook was highlighted as the most problematic, with 91% of respondents indicating they had come across hate speech on the platform.
  6. In the detailed analysis of high impact, high reach social media accounts, the 30 Facebook pages analyzed (3,000 shares and related comments) contained 10,329 counts of hate speech, which translates to more than three counts of hate speech on every single share.
  7. The 30 Twitter accounts analyzed (15,000 tweets, replies, mentions) contained 350 counts of hate speech i.e. only 2.3% of total updates examined, showing a remarkably different landscape compared to Facebook.
  8. Hate speech on top Facebook and Twitter accounts that could fall under criminal offense based on the study’s definitions was negligible (less than 1%), suggesting that a solution to the problem does not lie in greater state action in catching and prosecuting individuals/groups, or through bans, but through alternate means.
  9. In terms of language, hate speech recorded on Facebook was largely in Roman Urdu (74%) followed by English (22%) and Urdu script (4%). Hate speech collected on Twitter was largely in English (67%), followed by Roman Urdu (28%) and Urdu script (5%).
  10. The two largest groups that were a target for hate speech on Facebook were politicians (38% of all hate speech) and members of the media/media groups (10%). These attacks on politicians and the media formed nearly half of all hate speech on the Facebook pages analyzed. On Twitter, 20% of total records were targeted at pillars of the state, with attacks on politicians (11%) and media (7%) registering highest. This high level of hate speech is especially worrying given the context of the ongoing war against terrorism and the real-life threats to life both politicians and those working in the media face.
  11. The need to counter the spread of hate speech in Pakistan’s online space is a pressing concern that needs to be addressed through a multi-pronged approach that educates, creates awareness and discourages hate and intolerance, prohibits and criminalizes the most extreme and dangerous forms of hate speech by law, yet guarantees that fundamental human rights to free speech and information are safeguarded.

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