A generation ago, people asked each other where they had been when Neil Armstrong made his giant leap for mankind by stepping on the moon. In years to come, the question will be repeated but with reference to a different event of arguably even greater importance. I refer, of course, to the spat on twitter between American filmmaker and communications consultant Cynthia Richie and professional twitter presence Farhan Virk. The genesis of 2019’s first big Pakistani social media bust-up lay in Richie’s response to a hostile op-ed in the Daily Times in which she was accused of being a shill for the military establishment. This accusation is one that has dogged Richie for some time; having visited, and been resident in, Pakistan for several years, Richie gained greater local prominence in 2018 when she began to use social media to project a ‘positive’ image of Pakistan. This would have all been well and good except for suspicions that the narrative Richie was pushing appeared to conveniently align with that put forward by the powers-that-be. Proof for this came from tweets made by Richie criticising movements like the PTM, attacking critics of the establishment, and even endorsing problematic ideas about the place of minority religious communities in Pakistan. In response to the Daily Times article that rehashed many of these claims, Richie took to social medias to attack the author of the column, the editor Raza Rumi, the newspaper, ‘liberals’, and anyone who had ever criticised her, claiming they were all yet another manifestation of the ‘5th Generation Warfare’ being used against the country to destabilise it and prevent its portrayal in a positive light.

Enter Farhan Virk, who apparently took umbrage at a foreigner castigating Pakistanis. What ensued was 24 hours of hilarity (roughly equivalent to the average amount of time the twitterati can focus on an issue before their information-addled minds are distracted by the next big thing) in which Virk and his minions pit themselves against Richie and her followers in a tweeted war of words for the ages; hashtags were launched, ‘trends’ were initiated, and dramatic pronouncements were made, with the piece de resistance being Virk’s vow to publish a video exposing Richie’s connections to Israel, her support for homosexuality, her opposition to the blasphemy laws, and her alleged criticism of the Pakistani military. For those of a particularly deranged right-wing orientation in Pakistan, this combination of issues would undoubtedly form the basis for a damning indictment of Richie except for the inconvenient fact that the video ultimately released by Virk was little more than a rambling rehash of old, relatively innocuous tweets that had clearly been dug up after extensive research that undoubtedly took up to five minutes to complete. In the end, as if often the case in such instances, no clear victor emerged; Richie and Virk went back to doing whatever it is they do on social media, and the nation somehow managed to find the strength pick up the pieces and move on after this clash of titans.

Absurd as all of this might sound to those not familiar with the idiocy that is often the norm on social media, a couple of interesting things are nonetheless thrown up by this spat on twitter. For one, it is representative of those difficult situations requires choosing between two equally unpalatable antagonists; while Richie’s unabashed endorsement of some of the worst tendencies in Pakistan’s politics and discourse has rightfully led to her being questioned and criticised, Virk is no less problematic. This is, after all, the man who rose to fame by masquerading as famous people after creating fake accounts for them on twitter, and who was subsequently involved with the PTI’s social media team for several years. Since then, while a big question mark continues hang over the nature of his relationship with the ruling party (having allegedly been kicked out of its social media team), Virk has made a name for himself by championing a variety of right-wing causes, supporting the PTI government, and being the architect of massive ‘trends’ on twitter when hordes of his followers and supporters (and not a small number of automated ‘bot’ accounts) tweet content related to issues he highlights. Indeed, what Richie and Virk truly represent is the narcissism of small differences; while they may have been on opposing sides this past week, their actual politics (at least as advertised on social media) and their followers overlap more than they might realise.

Indeed, the similarities between Richie and Virk are only to be expected. People who use twitter tend to overestimate its importance; while it is undeniably a powerful tool for the communication and dissemination of ideas, its impact in a society like Pakistan’s – where both literacy and internet penetration are low – is limited. The main audience for much of what happens on social media is arguably one that is predominantly urban and middle-class and, therefore, motivated by the desires and anxieties that often accompany that particular social position; as is the case in other parts of the worlds, members of the middle classes often play ambivalent political roles, determined by the contexts they inhabit, and are sometimes susceptible to the blandishments of leaders promising order, stability, and growth, even if that means compromising on democracy and more progressive ideals. The reasons for this are relatively straightforward; middle classes are often opposed to changes to the status quo that might adversely affect their own positions relative to those both better and worse off than themselves. Furthermore, as has been pointed out by scholars working on this area in Pakistan, the country’s emerging middle classes have historically been happy to endorse undemocratic and authoritarian politics, ranging from full-throated support dictators to alignment with reactionary religious forces.

As such, when Virk claims to be a ‘common man fighting the status quo’ (a line from his bio on Twitter) and reiterates the PTI’s claims that it is fighting against a decadent and corrupt elite, he is feeding into middle class resentment against a political elite that has excluded it from power, just as Richie’s statements against critics of Pakistan’s regime aligns with narratives that attempt to portray dissent of any kind as being treasonous and contrary to the stability and prosperity of Pakistan. It helps that these are ideas that have long percolated in the public sphere through the education system and the systematic curtailment of alternative politics and ideas after decades of state repression. In Richie’s case, it is also helpful that the message being delivered is coming from an American, providing external confirmation for widely held biases and arguably benefitting from older colonial tropes about the superiority of all that is said and done by white people (although the hostility that often greets Prof. Christine Fair, a one-time guest of the state who has since become a vociferous critic of the Pakistani military suggests there are limits to the fawning reception that foreign ‘experts’ might expect).

Social media in Pakistan is an interesting space characterised by liberal echo chambers in a sea of conservative and nationalist voices. Richie and Virk are exemplars of the latter and while they may have their differences (or so it seems), what they ultimately do is embody the problematic nature of political discourse in this country.

 

The writer is an assistant professor of political.

 hassan.javid@lums.edu.pk