Digital Terrorism versus Hate Speech and Fake news

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By: Qamar Bashir

I have the privilege to teach the new batch of fifteen Information Probationers Officers of Information Group, the media laws  at the Information Services Academy twice a week. During our last session before I could start the lecture one of the bright students interrupted and sought permission to ask a question. I always loved the questions and gladly asked him to shoot. He said that lately ISPR Press Release has used the term “digital terrorism”, what is it?. How does it impinges on the media freedom, the civilized societies guard so dearly. 

In the ensuing discussion many other questions emerged. What if a state institute charges a section of its own people for committing digital terrorism ?. What if the charges of committing digital terrorism are targeted at the leader of a popular political party and its  millions of voters in the country and around the world.  Is it good public relationing  to alienate supporters and sympathizers of a particular party  who might have voted for the said party?. What if the alleged digital terrorism is emanating from other parts of the world which falls outside the jurisdiction of our constitution and laws and law enforcing agencies.   Another question was; Has digital terrorism been defined and covered in any media related laws of the country?.

Although a difficult challenge for a teacher, the teacher’s job was made easy, if the intended purpose of using the term “digital terrorism” was referring to hate speech.

Hate speech or expression of hate are covered in most of the international and national laws of many countries, religions and customs. But hate speech has its own limits and boundaries and  can only be applied when certain specific conditions are met such as  communications that disparage individuals or groups based on attributes such as race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or disability.

But digital terrorism does not fully qualify as a hate speech on many accounts. Digital terrorism can safely be defined as the use of digital technologies, such as the internet, social media, and other digital platforms, to spread fear, incite violence, or promote ideologies that aim to achieve political, religious, or ideological goals through intimidation, coercion, or violence. It can include activities such as cyberattacks on critical infrastructure, dissemination of extremist propaganda online, recruitment and radicalization through social media, and coordination of terrorist activities using digital communication channels.

In Pakistan, laws such as the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 (PECA) and the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997, along with provisions in the Pakistan Penal Code, 1860, cover aspects of digital terrorism and hate speech or related activities.

To qualify for committing digital terrorism, individuals or groups typically need to demonstrate intent to spread fear, incite violence, or promote ideologies through digital means, using technologies like the internet. Their actions must be illegal under relevant laws, impactful in terms of harm or disruption caused, and motivated by political, religious, or ideological goals. In some cases, a pattern of such behavior may be required rather than a one-time occurrence. However, the specifics can vary between countries and legal systems.

In contrast, the criticism of the government, its institutions, and departments is generally considered a vital part of democratic discourse and is protected under free speech principles. However, it crosses into hate speech or digital terrorism when it includes threats, incites violence, or targets individuals or groups based on protected characteristics like race, religion, or ethnicity.

In this background, the official press release by the ISPR on 7th June  which used strong words like perpetrators and instigators of the rebellion, fuelling hate and politically driven rebellion against the state and its institutions targeted the leadership of the PTI, which emerged as the largest party in the election held on 8th February 2024. In another para the PR used equally strong words about the social media activists of PTI who were termed as waging politically motivated and vested digital terrorism abetted by foreign cohorts to try to induce despondency in the Pakistani nation, to sow discord among national institutions and the people of Pakistan by peddling blatant lies, fake news, and propaganda”.

Technically, the qualification of lies, fake news, and propaganda can be termed as digital terrorism if these are used with the intent to spread fear, incite violence, or promote ideologies that aim to achieve political, religious, or ideological goals through intimidation, coercion, or violence. However, the mere act of spreading lies, fake news, or propaganda may not always meet the threshold for digital terrorism.

Similarly, lies, fake news, and propaganda can contribute to hate speech, but they are not the same thing as they can be used for other purposes. It’s important to distinguish between the two, as hate speech has specific legal implications and is often subject to regulation in many countries.

The strongly worded ISPR press release and subsequent media campaign around it in the digital and traditional media was successful in sending a clear position of the army against those who allegedly, were creating wedge between the army and the people of Pakistan.

But it was not free of risks either. It had the potential to reinforce perceptions of bias within the military against the PTI, potentially deepening political divisions and eroding trust between the military and PTI supporters.

Additionally, such a narrative accusing critics of “digital terrorism” and foreign involvement could evoke strong emotional responses, which might rally some segments of the population around the military and government, while simultaneously causing skepticism and decreased confidence among those who feel targeted.

While aiming to preserve the noble cause of national unity, using such strong words risks alienating a large group of citizens, potentially undermining efforts to foster cohesive and inclusive national dialogue. Additionally, the military’s visible stance against a popular political party may affect its reputation as a neutral and stabilizing force, leading to questions about its role and impartiality in democratic processes.

Alternatively, ISPR could have achieved the intended objective by emphasized the importance of responsible journalism, social media posts, and blogs,  and the dangers of misinformation in fueling tensions and destabilizing society, besides highlighting the efforts of the Army in combating such misinformation and call on the public to verify information before sharing it and stressing the need for unity and understanding among different communities.

By: Qamar Bashir

Former Press Secretary to the President

Former Press Minister to the Embassy of Pakistan to France

Former MD, SRBC