Pakistani social media gets a taste of the real world
Bank Al Falah’s decision to fire its employee Fazeel Tajammul because of a complaint by Dawn magazine’s editor Hasan Zaidi has renewed a crucial debate on social media ethics and real world consequences.
It started on June 12, when Zaidi tweeted about Prime Minister Imran Khan’s address to the nation: “A near-midnight address to the nation. That’s in martial law territory. Oh wait…”
Tajammul wrote back saying: “he was waiting for your mother to close her brothel and turn on the television”.
Some digging had revealed that Tajammul had a LinkedIn account that stated that he was the unit head for financial reporting at the bank. He had not mentioned his place of work on his Twitter bio, but he did write that he was a chartered accountant.
Zaidi wrote to @BankAlfalahPAK, asking if Tajammul worked for them and if this was the “level of scum” it employed.
More examples of Tajammul’s abuse on Twitter were shared. These tweets are too inappropriate to mention here. Zaidi said that he knew the bank’s CEO, Nauman Ansari. People started tweeting to the bank asking it to take notice. Eventually, the bank said it had fired him.
People asked if it was appropriate for the bank to fire Tajammul. The bank would understandably be concerned about the PR crisis. There was backlash when they did fire him. People started to say the bank should be boycotted. Others were satisfied that firing Tajammul was appropriate action.
In the very least, Bank Al Falah’s staff, and those at other companies, have learnt that they can be fired if they cross a line. (One assumes that saying someone’s mother is a prostitute is crossing the line).
The Bank Al Falah Code of Conduct says: “The employee will not indulge in any kind of harassment or intimidation whether committed by or against any senior/ junior, co-worker, customer, vendor or visitor. He/ She will not use language, written or spoken in intra-office communication(s) or communication(s) with any individual within or outside the office that may contain any statement or material that is offensive to others. He/ she will not engage in any discrimination against an individual’s race, colour, religion, gender, age, marital status, sexual orientation or disability to comply with Harassment of women act 2010.”
It lays out punishment: “When an employee of the Bank commits a breach of the policies, discipline and knowingly does something detrimental to the interest of the Bank, he/she may be subject to punishment which may range up to immediate termination in accordance with the Bank’s policy. The Bank, in its sole discretion, shall determine what act or omission constitutes misconduct, breach of trust or negligence of duty.”
Some people argued that instead of firing Tajammul, less severe action could have been taken. Perhaps the bank could have had training on how to use social media wisely. Cosmetics giant Sephora shut down its stores across America last week for one-hour diversity training after singer SZA accused a Sephora employee of racially profiling her. Starbucks closed 8,000 US stores in May of 2018 for racial-bias training.
Tajammul was fired and will face “cancel culture”. He will, in all likelihood, have a hard time finding a job at a bank again. One hopes he has learned that there are consequences to abusing people online. But there is the risk that this experience has just embittered and not reformed him. That said, at least he won’t be tweeting abuse from his own handle any time soon. He deleted his account. No prizes for guessing he may still be on Twitter by some other anonymous-sounding account.
Silencing someone on social media, especially Tajammul who had 94 followers, is one way to shut down abuse. But it is debatable if this tackles a bigger problem: abuse on Pakistani Twitter.
The case struck fear in the heart of anyone who has had an opinion on social media and works at a company. If Tajammul could get fired, they could too. Fear can be a deterrent to unacceptable social behaviour. Ostracisation and loss of income, in this case, can be a high price to pay. It is the social contract after all that keeps people in check.
People are upset that Tajammul was fired for something he posted on social media, citing free speech and personal and professional life boundaries. But those might not be the best arguments to be making. Some people are arguing that Tajammul’s termination was the result of the power imbalance between Zaidi and himself, saying Zaidi and Ansari misused their power to get him fired. Others are justifying Tajammul’s words by bringing up past tweets by Zaidi that are no less abusive, if less targeted towards women.
The divide between our personal and professional lives is narrowing day by day. The internet and social media has left little room for boundaries so the argument that he made the remarks out of office and it had nothing to do with Al Falah isn’t really valid. Like it or not, our social media accounts have become extensions of us and employers have more access to your private life than ever before.
The argument that Tajammul was exercising his right to free speech is weak. There is a difference between freedom of speech and abuse. I may not like what you say but that doesn’t give me the right to swear at you. Zaidi called Tajammul a “troll” which annoyed a lot of people, particularly from the same political party he supports. However, describing someone as a troll does not count as abuse.
The anonymity of social media gives people the license to say whatever they want to whomever they want. Pakistan has a law against this but that hasn’t deterred many people who feel it is their right to abuse others on social media.
What happens if all employers started penalizing their employees who abuse others on social media? News flash: this isn’t new and it’s already begun in other countries. BBC radio broadcaster Danny Baker was fired after posting a racist tweet about the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s new baby. A high school English teacher in Fort Worth, Texas was fired after asking President Trump to rid her school of undocumented immigrants in public tweets. A real estate agent’s comments targeting K-Pop band BTS cost him his job.
Hasan Zaidi’s tweeting
Touching on Zaidi’s own language on social media is tricky—one does not want to detract from the offense committed by Tajammul. People will, however, raise the question of whether the same standard is being applied to the accuser, Zaidi. In recent times we have seen a rising tide of public sentiment against clear double standards. (But we are also seeing much flawed debate based on incongruous comparisons when people try to equate situations that are not comparable.)
People said that Zaidi has used swear words and “Youthiya” which is a pejorative noun formation associated with the abusive supporters of one political party. Has Zaidi directly abused people on Twitter in the same way as Tajammul did? If he has, then aggrieved parties have a choice: they can complain to his organistion, they can mute him, they can block him or they can shame him on Twitter.
Yes, Dawn has a code of conduct for its staff using social media. But Zaidi’s tweeting doesn’t negate what Tajammul said. Two wrongs don’t make a right. What is clear is that we are divided over abuse on Twitter in the first place. One camp clearly believes it is acceptable and the other camp thinks it is not. Some people are not fazed by abuse and filter it out; others argue that Twitter is increasingly becoming a toxic space where especially women are overtly abused. As the Tajammul case has demonstrated, there are real world consequences to what you say on Twitter.