How social media made these Pakistanis instant celebrities — at a cost

Want to go viral? You need a smartphone and a thick skin, because there are costs to online fame
Published 15 Aug, 2016 09:02am

If it hadn’t been for a friend’s incessant badgering, Junaid Akram may never have uploaded that first video of his comedy skit to Facebook back in 2012. He was apprehensive: after all, it featured him wearing a wig and a friend’s mother’s dupatta as he satirised ‘Things Pakistani Girls Say’.

Taking a leap of faith, Akram uploaded the video online and called it a night. When he woke up the next morning, it had got a whopping 50,000 views.

It was his first taste of instant popularity in the era of viral posts on social media; a place where stars are born, celebrated and despised overnight.

Four years and 170,000 likes later, Akram is one of Pakistan’s most followed comedians online.

No contacts? No problem

Singer Bilal Khan got a firsthand taste of the power of social media when the online release of his debut single 'Bachana' in 2009 made him an overnight sensation  - Illustration by the author
Singer Bilal Khan got a firsthand taste of the power of social media when the online release of his debut single 'Bachana' in 2009 made him an overnight sensation - Illustration by the author

Perhaps the biggest advantage social media offers to those on the quest for stardom is access. It allows for a certain kind democratisation, where reaching out to people is about content and not contacts, flashy production values or high budgets.

A well-conceived video with none of the perks of a full-blown production can do wonders on the Internet.

“[Social media] has potentially excluded the need for a casting session; whoever has an act, it is very simple to produce and upload it. If it’s good, the word [will spread],” says Akram.

Musician Bilal Khan has experienced this firsthand. As a college student back in 2009, he uploaded a video of his song hoping to reach his friends. But he ended up reaching out to more than just his immediate network; today he has over a million fans on Facebook.

Khan believes that social media stars have to share a bit of their lives with followers: “Being relatable is very important,” he says.

Advancing this ideology, he shares regular updates with fans. The topics range from what phone he should buy to updates about his cat Paaru, who has her own Facebook page where we see Khan and the world through the feline’s perspective.

The musician has also found an international audience on the Internet. An old video of him singing an English version of his 2009 hit 'Bachana' went viral after it was recently posted online by a Reddit user. The musician thanked his new fans, promptly releasing a studio version of 'Save Me'.

But Khan admits that there are challenges. “For newcomers the online space is getting very crowded.”

Feminist comedian Faiza Saleem too has felt the change in just a year and a half.

In December 2014, her video on the dichotomy between living in North Nazimabad and Defence went viral, with her catchphrase “Baji eww” becoming an instant hit.

Things are different today, she feels: “There is a lot of competition, every second person I know has a page now, so your [organic] reach is limited… now you have to pay for reach on Facebook”.

As per an official Facebook statement, “There is now far more content being made than there is time to absorb it.” It continues, “As a result, competition in News Feed… is increasing”.

Does it pay to be an online celeb?

Comedians like Junaid Akram rely on sponsored content to make some moolah on the internet
Comedians like Junaid Akram rely on sponsored content to make some moolah on the internet

The million-dollar question is: can stars make money online even if they manage to grab eyeballs?

“In Pakistan, the whole model is based on making your songs popular; if they get popular enough, people want to see you live… that’s where you make money,” says Khan.

After building a persona and solid fan base, many artists explore branding opportunities. Khan, for example, recently was part of an online campaign for car-hailing service Careem. During the campaign, fans could call a Careem driven by the pop star; the rides were broadcast on Facebook.

Similarly, Akram recently posted a video sponsored by food delivery service Foodpanda. Hilariously preempting commenters from dubbing him a ‘sell out’ for promoting a brand, in the video he says, “Abay to izzat ki kama raha hoon na?” [So? I am earning through honest means.]

A podium for free(ish) speech

Activist Jibran Nasir has been able to say on social media what is censored on live TV - Illustration by the author
Activist Jibran Nasir has been able to say on social media what is censored on live TV - Illustration by the author

While there is space for entertainment online, another big pull factor for social media has been the (relative) freedom of speech it offers so far. It allows for conversations that can instigate change.

Jibran Nasir knows this all too well. In 2010, as Pakistan was hit by devastating floods, the activist took to social media to call for volunteers. He gathered a team of about 200 volunteers, who then sent up a relief camp called Pehla Qadam [first step].

This was just the beginning for him; he has since contested for a National Assembly seat in the 2013 general election, and has gained the reputation of being an outspoken human rights advocate.

Also read: After Qandeel's murder, frustrated Pakistanis express their outrage through videos

“At times the mainstream media censors you, [I have also been] muted on live programmes”, he says. Following such appearances he often takes to social media to voice his opinions.

Censorship does happen online, but there is room on the Internet to counter this.

Recently, when Facebook removed posts in which people were supporting Kashmiri separatist militant Burhan Wani, Nasir responded with a social media campaign. The initial images showed Indian public figures, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, photoshopped to appear as if pellet guns have shot at their faces.

The campaign went viral and also attracted international attention.

However, this space for free speech may well shrink further now that the National Assembly has passed the controversial Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB) 2015.

Political activists and satirists frequently use social media to voice their dissent. Perhaps, once the PECB is signed into law, they’ll think twice before doing this.

Also read: 13 reasons Pakistanis should be worried about the cyber crime bill passed by NA

Critics of the bill maintain that it will curtail free speech online. The “glorification” of an accused, for example, is a crime under the PECB. In an editorial previously published in Dawn, Lawyer Babbar Sattar noted that, “Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri are both accused under the Anti-Terrorism Act. Any supporter glorifying them electronically could thus render himself liable under Section 9.”

Another offence under PECB is “Spoofing.”

Does this mean parody accounts on Twitter, made for humor will be illegal? Can a meme be considered an “Offence against modesty of a natural person”? With the bill come many questions and concerns, and social media stars seem to be taking note.

In a recent video, Akram, after talking about the prevailing insensitive attitudes towards the August 8 blast in Quetta ends the clip by saying, “May Allah help us. Can’t say much, because otherwise they put you in jail. Those who are killing are fine, when we speak, for us laws are swiftly introduced."

The price of fame

Faiza Saleem feels she's trolled more often on the internet because she's a woman - Illustration by the author
Faiza Saleem feels she's trolled more often on the internet because she's a woman - Illustration by the author

While the PECB may not be considered the right solution, it is widely accepted that there is a need to regulate the online space. After all, with all its benefits, the Internet can also be an ugly place.

Activist Nasir has been threatened online on more than a few occasions. For the most part, he says it does not worry him.

“In all honesty, those who are trained to kill you do not [bother to] threaten you online,” he says.

“If a troll is telling me that they ‘wish I die’ … I know they’re just trolling,” he says. “I have been threatened on a regular basis by people who are known to be much more effective than social media trolls.”

Aside from death threats, many social media celebrities face other forms of abuse online. Most just ignore them.

“I’ve seen my share of threats from the elite force behind the keyboards. I usually let it stay for others to view and prove my point that [this] extremism persists among our people,” shares Akram.

Saleem, one of the only prominent female Pakistani comedy acts online, has it worse.

“Men don’t get the kind of negative comments that I get. People comment on my appearance, they try to body shame me.” She has deduced that, “a lot of people come at you because they are hidden behind a screen, they just vent out their own frustration”.

Akram hit-back at the vitriol online in a recent video. He spoke about the killing of social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch through a video, in which a visibly aghast Akram condemns the ‘honour’ killing of Ms Baloch. He asks those lauding her brother for the murder, to stop following his page.

“Around 300 people [unfollowed my page] that day. That’s a large number, but good riddance!” he said.

Despite the hate, the video, which has been liked 20,000 times, did receive a lot of support. Clearly, with time social media personalities are becoming opinion makers and influencers.

It is primarily through this very platform that a girl from Multan rose to national and international prominence. The online space gave her fame and infamy, disdain and support. Her smartphone selfie with a cleric made the mainstream media go into a frenzy. Knowingly, or unknowingly, she became a household name with a few clicks and swipes.

Indeed, this is a brand new world where the social media star is as legitimate as any other. You can love them or hate them but you cannot (easily) ignore them.