Disclaimer: This article was first published elsewhere and is republished here with recommendation and full permission of the author.
By Mushtaq Rahim
The emergence of social media in early to mid-2000s has revolutionized networking and people to people communication across the globe. The world, already termed as global village, has come far closer than ever before. The arrival of online social media networks have contributed to information sharing, relating to people of similar ideologies and mobilizing people towards a common agenda at a rapid pace in the most cost efficient manner. The Arab spring was one of the biggest movements of change caused by the social media resulting in decline of decades long regimes and emergence of new ones.
With the spread of internet network and mobile based internet facilities, Afghanistan too has embraced the modern day technological novelties. Social media has gained popularity over the course of last 3-5 years and a large part of Afghan society has signed up to different sources of social media. People of diverse academic backgrounds have joined the networks and are part of communication flows. Also, Afghan diaspora has found a way of linking up with their compatriots for sharing ideas and intermingling their ideas with the local thinking patterns.
Though social media is considered to be a tool for social networking, in Afghanistan, it has gone beyond social networking. The tool has been widely used for preaching religious and social change, political mobilization, promotion of certain ideologies and propaganda instrument. Ethnicity based groups operate reasoning for their mobilization to a common platforms, political personalities have been trying to gain public support and real and unreal material is disseminated about personalities and groups.
The spread of social media has proven to be very effective mechanism for public education and awareness raising about issues of common interest. In this sense, the media has proven to be a blessing for a country with limited access to modern day media outlets e.g. newspapers and television as they are coming to know about social, political and economic issues concerning the country and public. People are getting connected to rest of the world and learning about range of issues.
As a post conflict country, Afghanistan is currently faced with a range of challenges and issues demanding consideration at all levels. Social media, in this regard, has helped in outlining those issues and earmarking them for general public consideration. Academia and journalists have created pages for conveying their messages in order to mobilize masses for social change. Issues of nation building and creation of sense of nationhood, which has been on decline due to civil war, has been at the center of public discussion for a number of people. Corruption is a common topic of discussion on facebook and twitter where even covert videos of state and non-state officials are spread around. Discussions around political issues get an opinion from common men who may not have a chance to reveal their thoughts through other mediums.
Besides state related issues, material regarding religious and social learning is commonly shared helping public learn rather quickly and cheaply in comparison to other sources. Promotion of sporting activities of the country and public education about different sports have also been one of the common themes for Afghans on social media.
In general terms, social media has been a blessing for Afghan society which has been emerging from ashes of over three an half decade of conflict and searching for peace and stability. It has been a good tool for public vigil on state actors and leading pubic figures. While Afghan civil society continues to make its way forward, social media has been coming up as a watchdog and playing the role of independent social monitor on the Afghan society.
Nevertheless, a country with one of the worst literacy levels, social media is proving to be a cause of concern from different aspects. As most of the Afghans lag in academic terms, use of state of the art media is damaging the social fabric of the country seriously. Afghanistan is in earnest need of national unity, social stability and promotion of co-existence among different ethnicity. However, social media is found to be damaging tiny efforts of building national unity. A simple comment or a figure has been seen to fuel a huge debate among people going even to the level where ethnic and social values are cursed. While it is difficult to really authenticate the sources of communication, it is commonly believed that intelligence agencies have been engaged in promotion of national disintegration and ethnic hatred through social media networks. Yet; as a large number of people have academic limitations, unknowingly, they join in and support the cause by promoting debates in their own circles.
Similarly, fake and made-up information is also commonly available on internet. People tend to share stuff without trying to validate the source of information and as such divert public opinion. Recently concluded presidential elections campaigns have seen loads of such information which people have shared forward without verifying its real source damaging political figures’ personalities. This becomes very dangerous while things start spreading which could harm national interest of the country.
Loss of time is the least considered pitfall of social media. People invest a lot of useful official and academic time networking on social media. A lot of youth in urban areas can be seen spending their time in the internet clubs using social networking sites. Officials in the offices contribute their official time to the online social networking. As a result, the productivity goes down, ultimately harming the development and progress of the country.
Hence, analyzing benefits and drawbacks of social networking in Afghanistan, it is evident that the country has gained a lot from it. Yet; the comparative analysis reveal that disadvantages have been far graver. While social networking has been a mean of public education, it has also been reason for fragmentation of societal pillars which in this case are ethnic and political groups. People tend to be guided towards ideologies that could harm the efforts of peace building and stabilization in the country.
Therefore; there is need for Government leadership for public education about advantages and disadvantages of the social networking. The government needs to partner with other media sources in order to inform people about possible sources that could bid to use the social media for decaying national unity in the country.
Also, there is need for the Government to undertake strong monitoring of social media and following common trends. There can be efforts made to lead Afghan public towards elimination of ethnicity, sectarian and political grudges and promotion of co-existence with diversity of opinion. There is significant need for using social media as part of peace-building architecture that should contribute to social and political harmony and contribute to the overall development of the country.