An angry mob tortured and killed university student Mashal Khan this month for allegedly sharing blasphemous content on Facebook about Islam and the prophet Mohammed, a charge he said was the result of a friend creating a fake Facebook account in his name.
The brutal attack at Abdul Wali Khan University has created fear among other Facebook users.
“People are being killed for their Facebook posts. I don’t want to be killed, so I am deleting my account,” Muhammad Aslam, a shop owner in the Pakistani town of Chichawatni, wrote on Facebook last week. “Someone issued a death edict against me for my post on Facebook.”
In this majority-Muslim country, insulting the prophet Mohammed or Islam is a crime of blasphemy punishable by death. Last month, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif ordered the removal of blasphemous content online, saying anyone who posted such content would face “strict punishment under the law.”
Mufti Naeem, a religious cleric in Pakistan, said people sometimes settle their personal disputes by using blasphemy allegations against others.
“The blasphemy law is being misused in the country,” Naeem told Dawn TV.
Sabookh Syed, an Islamabad journalist, said he changed his Facebook ID after getting death threats.
“I can’t take it anymore. People were calling me an infidel and sending death threats over my posts. I thought about quitting social media then decided to change my name on the platform to avoid trouble,” said Syed, who now runs a news website.
After Khan’s killing, many of the 28 million Facebook users in Pakistan shared this message: “I don’t have another Facebook account and if someone sends you a request with my ID and display picture, please report to me.”
Khan, 23, had posted in December that a friend had created a fake Facebook account with his name as a malicious prank and was trying to make him look bad.
Facebook said it is reviewing content in Pakistan and taking action to ensure the safety of people using the platform.
The company also said it recently improved its measures against fake Facebook profiles, and a team is dedicated to detect and block those accounts.
At least 65 people have been killed over blasphemy allegations since 1990, according to a recent report by a Pakistani think tank, the Center for Research and Security Studies. Dozens of people convicted of blasphemy are currently on death row in local jails.
Targeting people for alleged blasphemy has grown with social media.
“I am afraid that my posts could be misinterpreted or a fake ID could be made to post something that could be termed blasphemous, resulting in violence against me,” said Babar Malik, a journalist based in Islamabad.
He said powerful individuals and institutions can accuse their critics of blasphemy. “They can make fake posts to level allegations and settle their scores, which is a very dangerous way of silencing the opponents,” Malik said.
Some activists critical of the government or military are self-censoring on Facebook or leaving the social platform to be safe, said Shahzad Ahmad, country director of “Byets for All, Pakistan,” an organization working for digital rights.
“Cyber armies and troll forces are a gruesome reality in Pakistani’s cyberspace. We believe that powerful state and non-state actors are using these groups on Facebook and other social media platforms to dominate the space with their own narrative,” Ahmad said.
Rauf Arif, a professor of digital media at Texas Tech University, said Facebook and the Pakistani government should work together on safety measures for users because fake social media identification is not a new phenomenon.
“In the U.S., users had the same problem but Facebook came up with multiple verification systems to ensure every account belongs to the real person it is representing. The same could be done in Pakistan.” Arif said.
Despite the safety concerns, Arif said social media can help countries like Pakistan where mainstream media may not always represent the voice of the general public.
“Curbing free speech on social media will deprive the people of their source of expression,” he said.
This story was published in US-Today,