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What a 12-hour Twitter Ban Says About Pakistan's Fractured Society

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Last Sunday, after Pakistan's government briefly blocked access to Twitter, the outcry in the country was instantaneous.

Ironically, most of this outrage was expressed on Twitter itself. Users in Pakistan promptly discovered alternate means of accessing the micro-blogging site, created the hashtag #TwitterBan, and angrily tweeted away.

Many faulted the government for once again trampling on social media freedoms. (Islamabad briefly outlawed Facebook and YouTube in 2010, and unsuccessfully attempted last year to filter more than a thousand words from mobile-based text messages -- including offensive terms such as "athlete's foot.")

A major theme running through the critical tweets was solidarity: Pakistanis were forming a unified front to contest the unjust ban. Emblematic of this response was Pakistani journalist Murtaza Solangi, who tweeted: "On #Twitter #Ban there is no division among Pakistanis. From Syed Munawar Hasan of JI, Faisal Sab[z]wari of MQM to Marvi Sirmed, V R One!"

Hasan heads the Islamist political party Jamaat-e-Islami; Sabzwari is affiliated with the MQM party, a secular outfit often associated with political violence in Karachi; and Sirmed is a prominent writer and human rights activist. In short, three Pakistanis inhabiting very different milieus who would otherwise rarely see eye to eye.

That the ban united the Twittersphere in a nation otherwise riven by division is not surprising. A wide range of Pakistanis depend on the medium, from journalists and social entrepreneurs to homemakers, entertainers, and -- increasingly -- politicians. Pervez Musharraf and Imran Khan have joined the club. So has Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a front organization for the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group.

In Pakistan, Twitter users often speak with one voice. A recent Harvard University study produced by Pakistani journalist Wajahat S. Khan examines how social media in Pakistan responded to the assassination of Punjab Province governor Salman Taseer in January 2011 (Taseer was an avowedly liberal politician who aggressively defended the rights of religious minorities). Khan concludes that those expressing themselves on Twitter were nearly unanimous in mourning the loss of Taseer and in excoriating his assassin. (By contrast, Facebook mirrored Pakistan's ideological cleavages -- some messages condemned the killing, while others praised Taseer's killer.)

Paradoxically, however, the Twittersphere's unified position on the Twitter ban actually underscores the deep divisions that dominate broader Pakistani society.

One of the manifestations of this division is ideological. Twitter users' overwhelming condemnation of the ban and of Taseer's killing reflect the liberal mindset espoused by most Pakistani Twitter users. By contrast, Pakistani society on the whole is highly conservative. Simply check the news headlines in recent months: Punjab Province's parliament passing a resolution that would ban "objectionable" concerts on college campuses; masked men raiding a school and beating up female pupils for not wearing hijabs; and an increasingly active group of right-wing religious parties -- the Defense Council of Pakistan -- hosting rallies in Pakistani cities.

The Pakistani government said it banned Twitter because the site was promoting a Facebook competition to draw cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. While Twitter users lambasted this as a pure pretext to justify a crackdown on media freedom and anti-government sentiment, many across Pakistan's conservative society would likely have a sharply different opinion. This is, after all, a deeply religious country where polling finds nearly two thirds of the youth population supporting an Islamic state, and large majorities identifying themselves as Muslims instead of Pakistanis. One can't assume these people would easily dismiss what the government described as Twitter's "blasphemous" content about Islam.

Then again, millions of Pakistanis probably had no reaction to the ban, because they have no clue what Twitter is (this makes the government's claim that it outlawed the site to keep "the emotion[s] of the masses in mind" sound downright silly). And herein lies another way that the Twitter ban amplifies Pakistan's divisions -- in this case, a technological one.

The number of Pakistanis on Twitter is a tiny percentage of the general population. A German report on social media in Pakistan, released in December, estimates that there are 2 million Twitter users in Pakistan -- a fraction of the country's 180 million-strong population.

Additionally, the number of Internet users in Pakistan is quite small relative to the total population. Some sources give a figure of nearly 30 million people, but others say 20 million, and still others provide significantly lower numbers. A Gallup poll from late 2011 found that 93 percent of Pakistanis do not have access to the Internet, and a BBC survey from 2008 reported that at most 1 percent of respondents in rural areas across Pakistan's four provinces use the Internet. Little wonder Twitter is far from a household brand among the Pakistani masses.

The Pakistani Twitterati's solidarity in opposing the Twitter ban is admirable. But let's not forget that this unified position merely confirms the divisiveness that prevails across the country on the whole.