In Summer, it is an endless carpet of dust and sand, a shimmering haze violently punctured with mountains more menacing than they are majestic. In Winter, as the plane descends into Kabul, the snow-capped mountains are more welcoming from the air, and offer an illusory image of calm serenity. Kabul is anything but serene or calm. Nestled in a narrow valley at the foothills of the Hindu Kush, Kabul simply isn’t on the usual tourist’s map and with good reason. I have gone to Kabul on work around six times over three years. In the same period of time, I have also travelled to Yangon, in Myanmar around seven to eight times. Unlike Kabul, Yangon and Myanmar is a new hot-spot for tourism and donor-driven political and economic optimism.
Even just a few years ago, both countries weren’t meaningfully connected to the Internet. There was no international call or data roaming possible, because the quality of the telcos and their service was so poor. Web browsing was both incredibly expensive and terribly slow. In Yangon, the best speeds at one point were from the fashionable lobby of the Sule Shangri-La, the occupation and use of which required not so infrequent refills of at least fruit juice and snacks, at five-star hotel prices, in addition to the exorbitant connection charges. In Kabul, the nature of my work prevents me from walking about freely or going into the handful of hotels that operate in the city. At media institutions and the offices of civil society organisations, at the time, the Internet was at one point was a really precious resource – tightly controlled, and rarely given out to even core staff. Like water in a drought. Every megabyte was rationed, carefully considered and slowly disbursed over crumbling infrastructure.
However, what was even at this time quite jarring to see was, in both countries, the prevalence of smartphones. Without access to the Internet, these smartphones were status symbols in the main. Used more for actual phone calls than for social media or web browsing, rich media content was quite literally uploaded to the phones by the shops that offered pre-paid top-ups. These merchants, who installed both apps and content on smartphones, at the time and even to date, are important nodes in an information distribution architecture that is a unique mix of online access and offline injects based entirely on subjective preferences. Some merchants put religious content and apps. Others chose to focus on entertainment, from movie clips and music videos to photographs and sound clips. Even today, pre-registered SIM cards are sold openly on the street in Kabul by merchants who sell both the hardware and data to consumers who are in this strange twilight zone of mobile users – operating on registered networks, yet entirely outside of corporate customer databases. You don’t find that category of users here in Sri Lanka, or even now in Myanmar. There are other differences. From not being on the Internet, Myanmar is now investing in 4G services in major urban areas and beyond. Afghanistan’s telecoms infrastructure and regulatory frameworks, in comparison, are woefully under-developed – even though when I travel there now, my phone switches over automatically to 3G networks, now offering voice and data at speeds, though still frustratingly slow by Sri Lankan standards, unimaginable a few years ago.
Tellingly, Facebook is huge in both countries. In Kabul, from May last year to February this year, Facebook’s own statistic indicates a growth of around 500,000 new users, mostly anchored to and around Kabul. In Myanmar, the growth has been more significant year on year, resulting in a captive user base of around 15 million, in country of around 54 million. I work with major media institutions in Kabul, and a range of civil society collectives and organisations in Yangon. In both countries, media and civil society advocacy in just two or three years has moved from zero focus on social to an almost complete reliance on it in order to get news, information and advocacy across to key constituencies. In Kabul, illiterate gardeners in the office complex I work in are seen gleefully clicking ‘like’ on photos that appear in their Facebook Newsfeed. Small shops in Yangon, with entrances often too short and narrow to enter without acrobatic manoeuvres, are all on Facebook, and proudly advertise the fact. For many, Facebook is the Internet, with everything they think is the Internet actually a function, feature or app developed by one company.
Particularly in Afghanistan, though all media is very young, web based social media has taken off at an explosive growth rate consumed largely by the most politically active segment of the population. And with special data packages across all major telcos offering unlimited data for Facebook and popular instant messaging apps like WhatsApp, the consumption of media is now mediated through palm held devices and the flick of a thumb more than the turn of a page or dial, the tuning of a frequency or the changing of a channel.
What makes this an interesting time for media development, including programmes to develop media literacy, is that in both countries, more and more are consuming and generating news and information independent of literacy levels, livelihood and location. What makes this a particularly frustrating and downright dangerous time to be involved in content development are the new found, economically viable and technically sophisticated vectors of fake or false news generation. In a context where what is online and distributed over social media is believed more than what government or old media states, the potential for rumour to spread, and for misinformation and disinformation to take root, is unprecedented. This in turn has resulted in four key developments. A government and officialdom in both countries interested in surveillance and the monitoring of social media, ostensibly to prevent the spread of hate speech and content that incites violence. An explosive growth in the production of misleading information, that over social media, is impossible to stem the flow of much less censor completely. An interest in counter-speech and counter-messaging, to tackle meaningfully and as effectively as possible the spread and reach of violent rumours. And finally, the use of social media to bear witness to inconvenient narratives – from violence rarely covered in mainstream media to corruption that embarrasses government.
These four competing developments are in constant tension. But academic and professional interests aside, observing how the chaotic life of Kabul flows around the phones of those who inhabit it is as fascinating as watching devotees at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon offering prayers in Pali read off glowing screens, cheek in jowl with young couples who are tuned into whatever their Facebook newsfeeds offer them. There are glaring contradictions galore in both the harsh Hindu Kush and the vast, verdant plains of Myanmar, but it is a given that social media in general and Facebook in particular are already inextricably entwined in the socio-political negotiation of any future for both countries.
First published in The Sunday Island, 19 February 2017.