Shaheera Syed looks after strategic communications at Democracy Reporting International (DRI), Pakistan. Previously, she was working at their Berlin headquarters. She holds a masters in public policy specialising in international conflict management from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy, Germany and has worked for numerous organisations ranging from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) to the United Nations (UN).
An influx of digital information streams has massively changed the way communities connect and communicate all over the world. Social media networks, in particular, have altered the way news is generated, covered, and circulated in society. Many scholars argue that these developments have played an instrumental role in providing a platform for discourse that gives birth to an engaged and self-reflective culture. Pakistan has also been a beneficiary of the explosive rise of information and communication technologies. However, the impact of the rapid adoption of these developments on the social fabric of society remains uncertain. This paper intends to fill in this gap by using a case study from Pakistan. It critically analyses the case of Qandeel Baloch – an unorthodox self-made internet celebrity in Pakistan – to study the impact of information and communication technologies in the country.
The analysis of the case is used to decipher how social media plays a role in making controversial content viral. It particularly highlights the tendency of broadcast media in Pakistan to rely on viral content on social networks. The case also aims to show how media-generated hype and news waves can have a drastic impact on the parties involved and the overall society.
Qandeel Baloch, “dismissed as a Kim Kardashian-like figure”, hailing from Pakistan was a model and singer who rose to fame for her provocative selfies and videos uploaded on social networks like Facebook (Mohsin, 2016). The twenty-six-year-old had a following of over a million people on Facebook. She started her career by auditioning for a singing competition called “Pakistan Idol” (Chughtai, 2016) but rose to fame only when she started uploading bold and suggestive videos on YouTube. “Some of Baloch’s more notorious acts included offering to perform a striptease for the Pakistani cricket team, and donning a plunging scarlet dress on Valentine’s Day” (Presse, 2016).
Baloch belonged to an extremely poor family who lived in a humble house with mud flooring in a “small town in a conservative, feudal district of the Punjab” (Mohsin, 2016). She was responsible for financially supporting her immediate and extended family. In the words of her mother, Anwar Wai, “she was an amazing daughter. I have no words that do her justice, and she took care of us much more than our sons including financially” (Presse, 2016). Qandeel concealed her identity using a pseudonym, her real name was Fouzia Azeem. She was married off in her late teens but unlike many women in her position in Pakistan, she walked out of the marriage when it turned abusive (Mohsin, 2016).
Her provocative videos had captivated the entire nation but the media-frenzy surrounding her sky-rocketed when she posted selfies with a high-profile mullah, Mufti Abdul Qavi, on Facebook. “The pictures showed Baloch wearing Mufti Abdul Qavi’s traditional lamb wool cap as she posed next to the cleric. Qavi later said Baloch had asked him for a meeting and they had met in a hotel. A video of the encounter showed Qavi promising to advise her on religious matters while she tried to sit on his lap” (Boone, 2016). The pictures controversy sparked a strong backlash in the country and, as a result, he was suspended from two important religious councils in Pakistan. A month later, Qandeel Baloch was murdered.
Although many were suspicious of Mufti Qavi’s potential role in Baloch’s death, no substantial proof was submitted against him. Baloch’s mother claimed that her son had killed Baloch in the name of honor. Explaining the motives behind his actions and shedding a light on the psychological state of her son, she said that “he killed my daughter after being taunted by his friends. They would infuriate him and tell him she is bringing you dishonour.” In an interview to a leading news channel in Pakistan, Baloch’s mother made allegations against Mufti Qavi for provoking her son for murdering her daughter. She believed that her son was acting on the advice and guidance of the mufti (Perry & Saifi, 2016).
Baloch’s two brothers flew away after her murder but the police captured one of them shortly after. Her brother, Waseem, openly admitted that he disapproved of his sister’s behaviour on social networks. Assuming a staunch patriarchal position, he said that “girls are born to stay home and follow traditions” and since his sister didn’t do that, it made sense for him to kill her. He further admitted that the incident with Maulvi Qavi was the moment he decided to end his sister’s life and by doing so, he had earned a place in heaven (Perry & Saifi, 2016).
When police arrested him, he said in a press conference that he “killed for honour” and had “no regrets” (Chughtai, 2016). Elaborating upon the manner in which he took his sister’s life, he said that he “drugged her first” and then “killed her.” When asked for the reason behind his actions, he plainly stated that “she was bringing dishonor to our family” (Perry & Saifi, 2016). Qandeel Baloch was well-aware of the gravity of the situation and on receiving numerous death threats, had demanded the government to provide her with security.
She had expressed it on news shows on national television that she didn’t feel safe in Pakistan. Her demands were mostly dismissed and, worse yet, often ridiculed (Mohsin, 2016). On the morning of her death, in her final post on Facebook, “she shared a picture of herself staring defiantly into the camera, wearing a pair of leopard print pants and a black tank top” (Perry & Saifi, 2016). It read that “I am trying to change the typical orthodox mind-set of people who don’t wanna come out of their shells of false beliefs and old practices.” She claimed that she was a “fighter” and she would “bounce back” and be an inspiration in a culture where women are “treated badly” and are “dominated by society” (Chughtai, 2016).
Digital Information Technologies and Society
The rise of Qandeel Baloch is a perfect case study for analysing the impact of information and communication technologies in a developing country such as Pakistan. Many scholars contend that the influx of digital information streams has massively changed the way communities are connected all over the world. It impacts the way of life at both the micro and macro level. The individuals living in society are given an alternative way to view things and phenomena around them and in turn, society as a whole is provided with a “new and different” meaning. Some scholars argue that these new modes of communication are so transformative that we are living in a new kind of society altogether (Svensson, 2011).
It is of massive scholarly debate whether these changes have transformed the society for the better or worse. There is a significant amount of literature that talks about the vast impact of the digitally connected and networked societies on everything ranging from economics to the culture of the society. Benkler (2006) argues that networked societies provide a great deal of liberation to the citizens and provide a platform for rigorous engagement and dialogue. Drawing upon the research in the field, Benkler (2006) contends that the emergence and spread of the World Wide Web has had a significantly positive outcome for the society, as it has provided for a platform for discourse to the general population (Benkler, 2006).
The easy access and simplicity of the internet are believed to bring the previously disengaged populace into the discussion loop – many scholars believe that this engagement and participatory nature of activities in society ultimately set the ground for developing a “more critical and self-reflective culture.” Further, the online platforms enable the people to defuse tensions via online political debates and discussions. In turn, all these factors have the cumulative impact of empowering the democratic vigour of a country (Benkler, 2006).
Digital Revolution in Pakistan
During the last decade, technological advancements and growth of the usage of smartphones have led the revolution in the global telecommunication sector. Governmental policies such as the liberalization of trade and investment have boosted the growth in the telecom sector in Pakistan as well. The decision to deregulate and privatize the Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL) in particular “resulted in rapid expansion in network coverage and subscriber base of cellular industry” in the country. The ability of the country to attract foreign investment has enabled the market to support a competitive environment reducing the price of products offered and attracting a wider consumer base (Imtiaz et al., 2015).
Pakistan has also seen its mobile subscriptions rise from a mere 5 million to over 120 million in a matter of 8 years (2003 – 2010) (Haque & Popalzai, 2013). According to the Measuring the Information Society Report 2016, Pakistan is one of the countries that stand out for providing “prepaid mobile-broadband plans at prices below USD 2 per month” to its consumers (International Telecommunication Union, 2016). The introduction of 3G/4G network technologies has shown similarly impressive numbers with 38 million subscribers in 5 years (2013 – 2017) (Haque & Popalzai, 2013). These figures reflect the tremendous pace at which cell phones have penetrated the market and how most of the people are using their smartphones to come online.
According to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), the regulatory body for internet and mobile industry, every month around one million people come online via their mobile phones in the country (Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, 2016). Pakistan is considered to be among Asia’s fastest internet growing markets. It is estimated that around 35.1 million people in the country are active internet users and that makes up around eighteen percent of the total population (Husain, 2017). This has had a direct effect on every industry with the government also scrambling to take advantage of the huge opportunity presented by the newly coming online population in a country of over 200 million people.
However, there is a distinct lack of guidance on how to make use of the internet in a productive manner. That shows in numbers as well, with 83% respondents in an Express Tribune survey saying they used the internet for chatting and social media. 58% said they used the internet for entertainment (Haque & Popalzai, 2013). Furthermore, when compared to the global average of internet and social media users, Pakistan’s averages are way higher. Estimates by data agencies reveal that the “internet users in Pakistan swelled by 20 percent in 2016” and “active social media users grew even more rapidly – registering growth of 35 percent year-on-year”, while “the global average stood at 10 percent for increase in internet users and 21 percent in social media profiles” (Husain, 2017).
Viewing the development in the technological sector in Pakistan, it is surprising to consider that information technology didn’t even exist in the country around two decades back. The telecom sector has been at the forefront of this growth and leading the change in the country. Many analysts believed that much of new technologies like 3G and 4G will be primarily utilized by the population in the urban centres of the country; however, trend analysis reveals that these services are demanded all over the country (Imtiaz, Khan, & Shakir, 2015). The country still has a long way to go before it can bridge the “digital divide” (Mujahid, 2002). However, the dynamics of access and penetration of digital networks have increased at such a tremendous pace over the last few years that their impact on the culture of the society is yet to be thoroughly analysed and understood.
Social Media and Viral Content
The influx of digital information technologies and social networks have indeed changed the way societies are connected and how information is spread within the communities such as Pakistan. However, this increasing inter-connectedness and networked individualism don’t come without challenges (Castells, 2002). The case of Qandeel Baloch is one such example where the social networks, high-speed connectivity, and information flow played a particularly negative role. Ms. Baloch rose to fame on social media by sharing content that went viral overnight.
It has become a cornerstone of modern life to share content online with friends and peers on social networks. The content that becomes viral on online networks has certain characteristics. Research in the field suggests that the “psychological processes” followed by the content displayed have a defining role in determining the level of social transmission and virality of the content. In particular, content that invokes a high level of physiological arousal has a higher probability of becoming viral.
For instance, stories that induce “high-arousal emotions” like “anxiety” and “anger” are more viral (Berger & Milkman, 2012). Often these viral items are reactionary and controversial, based on emotional appeals. Qandeel Baloch ticked a lot of these boxes. Her photos and videos showed skin, were sensual in nature and lacked any sense of modesty or decorum, which are taboo in Pakistan. While most of the debate surrounding Ms. Baloch was centered on social networks like Facebook and Twitter, there were a tremendous number of people searching her on Google as well. The following graph has been generated from Google Trends and it exhibits the Google search volume for two major events relating to Qandeel Baloch.
The red graph in the figure represents the search volume for when Ms. Baloch offered to do a strip-tease for the Pakistani cricket team and the blue graph in the figure represents when she uploaded a controversial photo album with Mufti Qavi on Facebook.
Pakistan is one of those countries where women empowerment is still a novel idea and where “women are reported to be in a much more servile situation than men.” Women and men do not share the same rights in society. Culture and religion are used as tools to disempower women in society. It is extremely difficult for women to break free of the socially constructed roles defined for them. Although women are increasingly entering the workforce, a widely held acceptable role of woman in society is to “take care of the house, kids, and husband” (Ali, et al., 2011).
A newly published report titled “Women’s Economic Participation and Empowerment – Status Report 2016” produced in collaboration with the Governments of Norway and Denmark by UN Women in collaboration with Pakistan’s National Commission on the Status of Women, sheds light on the societal and economic barriers that hinder the progress of women in the country (UN Women, 2016). It elaborates upon the structural and cultural deficiencies in Pakistani society that impede the growth of women.
Similarly, shedding a light on deplorable conditions for women in Pakistani society, a survey was compiled by the Thomson Reuters Foundation some years back that ranked Pakistan as the third most dangerous place for women to live in (Bowcott, 2011). The conventional norms of womanhood in Pakistan revolve around the concepts of “keeping the family harmonious.” In such a society, the behavior of women primarily follows socially acceptable cultural norms. Any behavior that provides an “untraditional view of gender” is deemed unacceptable by society since it clashes with the older norms (Ali, et al., 2011).
In this context, what Qandeel Baloch was doing was not only different but in many ways, it challenged the conventional societal norms of womanhood in Pakistan. With each provocative post, she drew more attention, which in turn led her to post more controversial content online. Other sectors like the fashion industry in Pakistan indeed have more similarities with western cultural norms than local ones. They project a very liberal outlook of women however, it is a common belief that the segment is restricted and “reserved for the privileged elite” (Shams, 2012). Despite remaining in different silos, even the fashion industry has attracted criticism from the conservative and religious sections of the community.
There have been conflicts in society whenever the two ideologies – liberal and conservative – come in contact with each other. For instance, it is not an uncommon sight in Pakistan to witness the “blackening of the billboards and advertisements displaying pictures of female models” by the right-wing extremists in the country. There have also been a number of reported cases where the members of the fashion industry have been threatened due to their professional activities that are sometimes deemed immoral or against the religious values and norms of the Pakistani society (Shams, 2012).
Hence, while there is conservative push back on the “un-Islamic” (Shams, 2012) antics of the fashion industry in Pakistan, what drew attention to Qandeel Baloch was the manner in which she embraced her sexuality on public platforms and purposelessly offered to perform acts like a striptease if the Pakistani team won a cricket match (Mohsin, 2016).
The discussion is not to suggest that progressive women don’t exist in Pakistani society. Women have resorted to deploying numerous strategies to counter the “conservative” and “antagonistic” environment in society (Jafar, 2011). However, the blatant ownership of female sensuality and sexuality is a subject that continues to remain highly controversial with little to no social acceptance in Pakistani society. This is one of the reasons why Qandeel Baloch’s antics on social media platforms brought her into the focus of the broadcast media in Pakistan.
Broadcast Media and Social Networks
During the last decade, “television has emerged as the primary source of news” in Pakistan. And the “proliferation of breaking news” culture on television has changed the “news landscape” in Pakistan from “both on air and in print, to copy-cat reporting: TV chases ratings, and newspapers chase TV.” The twenty-four news channels are mostly competing with entertainment channels which have severely downgraded the quality of reporting and news in the country (Yusuf, 2013).
Clickbait sells and often content that provokes an emotional reaction has more monetary benefits than serious reports. Hence, TV journalists are forced to “constantly produce content that will boost ratings” with many media professionals ending up rebroadcasting and republishing breaking news “without conducting independent reporting or verifying the information.” The high pressure to generate consumer captivating news 24/7 and in order to search for what resonates with the audience has also led to a “mounting reliance on social media” including platforms like Facebook and “especially Twitter” for potential news stories (Yusuf, 2013).
Hence, it is not surprising why Qandeel Baloch was given so much air-time on the Pakistani news channels. She made several appearances on news shows during prime-time and gave interviews to some of the leading news anchors in the country who have a following of millions. The following table has been generated from Google’s end year report for the year 2016. It exhibits the top ten most searched people on Google in the year 2016 and Qandeel Baloch was at the top of the list.
The event that is credited for making Qandeel Baloch’s antics a national debate and led to a meteoric rise in fame, and possibly led to her death, was when she posted photos with Mufti Qavi. Qavi was a respected religious scholar and the nature of his photos with Baloch drew anger from conservative circles. It resulted in her becoming a pariah in society, aided by the media with countless articles, opinion pieces, shows, panels, and commentary dedicated to the dissecting the matter. It is a common phenomenon that news stories with a peculiar nature develop a life on their own creating huge news waves that grapple their audiences.
Vasterman (2005) elaborated on the concept of media-generated news waves and how they have massive implications for the actors involved and also on the overall society. Tools like “exaggeration” and “distortion” are used by the media that lead to self-inflating coverage. Vasterman argued that media was such a powerful tool that could give birth to a “chain of events” that would not exist without the interference of the media platforms. In this way, according to him, “media are actively involved in constituting the social world” (Vasterman, 2005).
During these media hypes, like in the case of the story of Qandeel Baloch, the media not only played a role to provide coverage to the story but also played an instrumental role in the development of the scandal. The wide access of the information to the individuals in society has proved to empower the media to shape the discourse of the events and ultimately the perception of the people (Vasterman, 2005). Whether Mufti Qavi was responsible for the death of Qandeel Baloch is beyond the scope of the paper. However, the statements given by her brother represent how Ms Baloch’s fame and constant appearances on media channels were contributing factors towards his decision to kill her.
Pakistan has seen tremendous growth in the information and communication technologies over the past few years. These developments have led to numerous positive contributions in society; however, they also have a dark side. The case of Qandeel Baloch is an important study to analyse how these information and communication technologies in a particularly conservative society like Pakistan can have a drastic impact. Ms Baloch’s brand of self-proclaimed feminism and blatant embracing of female sexuality clashed with the orthodox and conventional norms of the Pakistani society.
She commanded a generous following on the social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter; however, her dangerous flirtation with the religious norms in the country by posing with Qavi landed her in uncharted territory. Everyone had an opinion and every subsequent post she made on her social media accounts rekindled the debate on whether she was a firebrand feminist or an opportunist looking for fame.
Due to the reliance of mass media on social networks for clickbait news pieces that generated traffic, Qandeel Baloch was given airtime on prime-time news channels in the country. Due to the complicated amalgamation of media’s role to sensationalize the story, religious conservatism and patriarchal roots of the Pakistani society, Qandeel Baloch’s story never died down and developed a life on its own. Unfortunately, this media news wave disturbed the precarious balance between conservatism and liberalism and was a significant contributing factor towards her demise.
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