Pakistani film explores social media’s role in anger over blasphemy

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – The creator of an animated film on blasphemy in Pakistan is hoping it will prompt discussion on tolerance at a time that rights advocates say hate speech on social media is increasingly triggering violence.

The short film “Swipe” is about a boy obsessed with a hypothetical smartphone app that allows people to vote on whether someone should be killed for blasphemy and offers a glimpse of a stark future of what rights groups say is a worrisome present.

“The screen is what alienates people and what they say through a screen they probably wouldn’t say to another person in front of them,” Arafat Mazhar, the director of the 14-minute animated film, told Reuters.

Blasphemy is a crime in Pakistan and officially carries the death penalty. While no executions for blasphemy have been carried out, enraged mobs sometimes kill people accused of it.

Rights groups say the blasphemy law is often exploited to settle scores and increasingly it is accusations made on social media that have triggered violence.

The film, produced by a studio in the city of Lahore and released last month, shows what could happen if people could see photos of those accused of blasphemy on an app, and then had the option of swiping right to condemn them to death or left to forgive them.

If at least 10,000 people condemn someone, then members of the public go and kill them.

The boy protagonist scans the app checking out the accused, including a man who did not forward a religious message on social media and women accused of wearing too much perfume or being immodestly dressed.

Driven to score “points” on the app and enraged by the accusations, the boy goes on a right-swiping spree and in the frenzy accuses his own father of blasphemy.

Mazhar hopes the film should make people think about rash accusations. But taking a critical view, or even just questioning the blasphemy law, carries huge risk.

In 2011, the governor of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, Salman Taseer was shot dead by one of his police guards after he spoke out in defence of a Christian woman, Asia, Bibi, accused of blasphemy.

The guard, Mumtaz Qadri, was lionised by many and his arrest, sentencing and later execution lead to an outpouring of anger and even violence at huge protests.

Bibi spent eight years on death row. She eventually had to flee Pakistan after the Supreme Court acquitted her.

Mazhar says he wants to connect with the sort of ordinary people who hailed Qadri as a hero.

“I’ve been surrounded by people from the religious conservative community growing up,” Mazhar said.

“I’ve seen them as kind, compassionate people but with tendencies to endorse and empathize with people like Mumtaz Qadri from time to time, and it’s a very difficult process to try and empathize with these people but I have no choice, I have to relate to my own community.”

The film comes as cases of violence triggered by online accusations are becoming all too common.

“It’s happening almost every day,” Hassan Baloch, a researcher with the hate-speech monitoring group Bytes 4 All, told Reuters.

“What begins online is being translated offline, often in violent and dangerous ways.”

In July, a teenager shot and killed a U.S. citizen of Pakistani origin in a court where he was on trial after being accused of posting blasphemous messages.

In August, police filed a blasphemy case against an actor and singer over a music video they shot in a mosque after social media outrage.

The same month, hundreds of people, most of them members of the Shiite minority, were arrested after complaints of blasphemy were posted on social media.

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