Rapid rise of social media has given young Afghans fertile ground for self-expression, boosting hopes of democratic change by Sabra Ayres in Kabul theguardian.com, Thursday 26 September 2013
There may be too few Facebook users in Afghanistan to trigger an Arab spring-like revolution, but the rapid proliferation of social media in the country has provided its youth with fertile ground for self-expression. With under-25s comprising 65% of the population, and a crucial presidential election due in 2014, it is a timely moment for young people to find their voices.
This summer, a hard-hitting film about sexual harassment in Kabul went viral. Made by Sahar Fetrat, 17, an aspiring documentary film-maker and college student, the movie's tough stance on the poor treatment of Afghan women ignited heated online debate, and was posted and reposted on Facebook.
A national talkshow host caught wind of the storm brewing around the film and invited Fetrat to debate the issue of sexual harassment in Afghanistan with a mullah, two members of parliament and a university professor. The public nature of the debate represented progress, Fetrat said. "Change is not easy in Afghanistan. But it's not impossible," she added.
Fetrat is among a small percentage of internet users in Afghanistan. By some estimates – and getting accurate statistics in Afghanistan is difficult – only 2.4 million Afghans, or 7.7% of the population of 31 million, have online access through computers and smartphones. Of those, about 74% use social media, according to Javid Hamdard, an independent technology research consultant and author of the most comprehensivesurvey of telecoms and internet use in Afghanistan.
Users like Fetrat were the target audience for last weekend's social media summit, funded by the US embassy in Kabul. Organisers of the talks, the first of their kind in Afghanistan, said one of their goals was to promote social media as tools for democratic change.
Though internet use remains low, there has been a significant advancement in access since 2002, when most Afghans had to travel to neighbouring countries just to make a phone call. The battle to increase usage is unlikely to be won quickly.
About 75% of Afghans live in rural areas with little or no access to a reliable electricity supply, let alone computers or the internet. The UN estimates that only 41% of the country has reliable electricity. So government claims that more than half the population has a mobile phone and four companies offer 3G service should be tempered by an acknowledgment that not all users can keep their handsets charged.
Literacy rates are also a concern, although major strides have been made, with more girls attending school. However, only 43% of Afghan men and 13% of women can read and write.
Internet access is expensive, although prices have decreased, thanks to the expansion of a fibre-optic network, supported by the World Bank and other international donors, that is about 65% complete. Plans to connect all 34 provincial capitals with fibre-optic networks have been stymied by insurgent activities in the restive south and east of the country, according to Hamdard.
Despite these obstacles, Afghanistan's youth, civic activists and politicians see the potential for social media to become a major forum for public engagement. Many potential presidential candidates are on Facebook and Twitter, the two most popular social media networks in Afghanistan.
"My students hardly check their emails; they are using Facebook almost exclusively," said Faisal Karimi, who teaches online media and journalism at Herat University. "I post assignments and grades on the class website, and then put the link on the Facebook page and they get it immediately. If I sent an email, they will not see if for many days."
President Hamid Karzai and many government ministries have Facebook and Twitter accounts. Adela Raz, the president's deputy spokesman, said the palace turned to social media to reach the youth population, who were more likely to be online than their parents and were the country's largest voting bloc.
When the Afghan national football team won in the South Asian Football Federation Championship this month, the presidential palace tweeted a photo of Karzai watching the game on television then posted the image on Facebook. After receiving more than 30,000 "likes" for the page, "we knew we would get viewers more quickly than an email," said Raz.
The Taliban's Twitter account frequently issues statements and claims responsibility for attacks around the country, a remarkably different approach from when the group banned television and most technology during their brutal, six-year rule.
"The thirst for access to information, freedom of expression and making your voice heard is great here, after decades of not having this," Hamdard said. "And that thirst could be what makes a revolution happen here, faster than in the rest of the world."
But Afghanistan's ultra-conservative culture could prove to be another big challenge for the country as it tries to increase the number of people online. In a country where many women are forbidden by their families to go to work or school, a Facebook account that allows them to link up with male users may pose problems. Many women use a pseudonym on social networking sites, and most never post pictures of themselves or their female friends.
"Girls aren't using Facebook as much as boys, because they can't post much on there," said Gazele Zaheer, 22, a software engineering student at Herat University. "I'm lucky that my family supports me, and even my parents are on Facebook."
Fetrat said she had a stalker on Facebook who harassed her using different accounts. He created them as quickly as she was able block them. "I am very careful with the people I accept friend requests from," she said.
Original Source: The Guardian Poverty Matters Blog