Pakistan, Facebook and the Cartman Connection

The social networking site’s decision to back down in cartoon controversy has ramifications far beyond “South Park.”

Perhaps instead of blaming Canada, “South Park” and free speech fans should start singing “Blame Pakistan” – or “Blame Facebook.”

In a cautionary case showing both how connected and divided our world has become in an age of new-fangled social media and old-school religious fervor, Pakistan on Monday lifted a nearly two-week ban on Facebook after the site reportedly apologized for – and yanked – a page started by “South Park” supporters.

The page, called “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day,” sought renderings of the Islamic prophet, the promulgation of whose image is considered blasphemous by many Muslims.

The movement was inspired by the recent controversial censoring of a “South Park” episode in which Comedy Central bleeped the prophet’s name and obscured the image of a character who was supposed to be Muhammad in a bear mascot outfit, following a thinly veiled threat from a New York-based extremist group. (The character in the costume turned out to be Santa Claus).

The ruling Monday out of an Islamabad court, which ordered the blocking of certain “blasphemous” pages on Facebook and other sites, has ramifications far beyond Pakistan – and “South Park.”

Facebook, whose stated purpose is to “give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected,” doesn’t seem to be fully living up to its credo in this crucial test.

These are not easy decisions for Facebook, Comedy Central or any other media outlet. We all remember the violence that erupted in 2005 after a Danish newspaper published a cartoon image of Muhammad.

But perhaps more importantly, we’ve also seen the power of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media sites as key platforms for information exchange during unrest in Iran and elsewhere.

The Internet, of course, has become a conduit for both direct and indirect communication for hundreds of millions of people around the globe, and seems likely only to grow in reach.

With more than 400 million users, Facebook needs to allow the free flow of speech  – or users eventually will turn elsewhere.  Maintaining trust and credibility are vital, especially when some countries are bent on controlling information.

Google has clashed with China over Beijing’s censorship demands. After Pakistan first pulled the plug on Facebook, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said he suspected the ban was about a lot more than the Muhammad cartoon controversy.

“There is an awful lot of political criticism they are blocking at the same time,” he said at a New America Foundation gathering in San Francisco. “I am very suspicious here."

Meanwhile, a page called, “AGAINST ‘Everybody Draw Mohammed Day!’” is still up on Facebook.

The page contains some messages of peace and attempts at civilized debate – along with comments spewing anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim bile, and crackpot 9/11 conspiracy theories. But as scary as some of the rhetoric is, the conversation is at least out in the open, apparently uncensored.

It’s almost comical that we’ve gotten to a point where a cartoon comedy show about a cartoon some believe no one else should see is driving an international debate over free speech and the limits of the Internet.

But there’s nothing funny about giving in to bullies. If we allow others to tell us what to think, say or post, then we can only blame ourselves.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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