Dank memes: The rise of social media incel groups in Pakistan’s digital space
Incitement of violence against women and animals is considered a form of dark humor in such groups.
Mahrukh*, a 20-year-old student and victim of online mob-harassment, believes that social media is not a safe space for women anymore, “or any space that was started by men,” she said. In July 2018, Umer Shekh, leader of a cult Facebook group which targets women, and his gang attacked her on Facebook. She believes they found her through a safe space she was part of initially, “someone leaked my involvement there,” she said.
They cyber-bullied and harassed her for two months, “they took my videos and pictures and turned them into explicit sexual connect,” she shares. Word got to her mom and she was asked to deactivate her account.
Mahrukh is now on social media under a false name.
Last week, a viral video of animal abuse resurfaced on Facebook. This video, in which a 20-something male is seen abusing a cat, throwing it around and asking people of ways to torture it, was being re-shared on various Facebook groups that are pro-animal rights or women-centric, calling for help against the miscreant as there were indications of more to come on the abuser’s Facebook Profile.
The video and Mahrukh’s cyber harassment were just a tip of the iceberg, upon investigation, TechJuice discovered a cult working closely to harass, abuse and hurt children, women, feminists and animals.
Soon after the video surfaced, a petition requesting for signatures was circulated against the abuser. Influencers like Muhammad Moiz, Muhammad Jibran Nasir and Gharida Farooqi also picked the topic on their platforms.
The said video was originally posted, five months ago on Innocent Pets Shelter Welfare Society, a pro-animal rights page to raise awareness against ‘Sed Qureshi’, the abuser.
So what exactly is a dank meme or humor?
In Pakistan, ‘Dank Meme’ groups have become a space where memes that are derogatory, explicit, sexual and intimidating in nature, especially towards the opposite sex, are shared.
The word ‘dank’ is being used more frequently on the internet. It is an urban dictionary word which means “exceptionally unique or odd memes”. In the national context, the ‘Dank meme’ groups have become a space where memes that are derogatory, explicit, sexual and intimidating in nature, especially against women or the LGBTQ community, are shared. It is termed as ‘dark humor’ or ‘sarcasm’ which the followers engage in for cheap thrills. The irresponsible nature of these groups begs us to reflect – to what length and at whose cost are they willing to have ‘fun’?
Earlier this month, a sexist closed Facebook group, “Dankpuna at LUMS”, was exposed by female students of the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).
About 600 people, men, and some women were part of the group which shared sexist and gross memes that slut – shamed students. The institute later stated that it hopes to maintain a “culture of respect” on its campus. The girls involved in exposing the group, especially from the Feminist Society (FemSoc) at LUMS are since being targeted on social media with threats, their accounts are being hacked and they are being bullied by the supporters of the group.
TechJuice contacted the girls, who have declined to comment, stating “[They are] currently in the middle of legal/disciplinary proceedings, and it would be harmful to our case to be letting out any details,” said one of the girls.
The LUMS expose might have seemed like a one-off situation, but incidentally, the conversation has just started.
Dank groups keep coming back
Sed Qureshi a.k.a Bilal Qureshi has various other Facebook accounts and he is notorious for posting abusive videos on his profile. These videos range from verbal abuses including incitement of violence against women to frequent videos of animal abuse.
Sed Qureshi, whose Facebook profile has since been taken down, is also a member (and some say leader) of a closed Facebook group, “Pak Meme Academy (Dank)” which has over 4500 group members.
On this group, these men (there are indications of women profiles too) share unethical rape jokes, character shame women, share political satire that targets women/children/ animals and plan raids. They specifically look for feminists or women who like to speak their minds and raid their public profiles. These ‘raids’ include calling them names and sharing explicit content on their public profiles and threatening them with explicitly described physical assault. They also steal images and doctor them into sexual content which is shared within their ‘dank’ circles.
This is not the first time Sed and his group are on the radar, they were allegedly the founders of a former Facebook group that shared unwarranted memes on Zainab murder case and has been penalized by the Karachi police for a similar act.
“The more we dug, the worse it got”
TechJuice was able to contact a dozen women, who have been targeted by the group.
“I knew about the first kitten abuse video, for which ‘Sed Qureshi’ had apologized and gotten away,” said Fatima Javaid, while talking to TechJuice. Fatima fosters, rescues and rehabilitates animals and keen to bring Sed and his group to justice.
Earlier this month, Fatima came across the picture of Sed holding a cat, which was captioned ‘link is coming’, she knew she had to act immediately.
In hopes to gather more information about Sed, Fatima shared posts on her wall and in some closed groups with all the factual information she had. The posts were further shared into other groups, as word got out.
Unfortunately, “the more we dug, the worse it got,” said Fatima. She initially believed the abuse was limited to animals but as she explored Sed’s profile, the profiles of his ‘friends’ and read comments on her posts; she realized that this isn’t just a, “Random boy acting out. It is, in fact, a group of people, deriving pleasure from all these acts. Which aren’t limited to animals. They extend to women, children, and feminists,” she said.
TechJuice was able to contact a dozen women, who have been targeted by the group. They shared similar stories of cyber harassment and bullying. All of them identify themselves as feminists and believed that was why they were bullied.
Though none of them could identify when the group might have formed, they all cited their first interaction to have taken place in 2018.
Yousra* runs the Feminism Pakistan page on Fb, which the group regularly spammed. It was through the public discourse on the page, the group identified other feminists to attack.
Because Yousra’s personal Fb profile is also public, the group started making memes using her pictures and slut-shaming her profile and her inbox, “It didn’t scare me but it was annoying. I blocked some of them but they had more friends,” said Yousra.
She too believes “Umar Shekh” one of the group members, usually leads the raids.
Later, multiple other girls called on her, describing similar cases of cyber-bullying and harassment. In the process, Yousra came across some men from the group who she believes had good intentions, “Whenever Sed and his friends tried to “raid” (spam) me or others, we would help the targeted,” she said.
Soon Sed and his group realized, she had somehow infiltrated their group and tried to falsely accuse her of blasphemy, “I shared screenshots of their messages with the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA). They got scared and said that they were just having fun. That’s how they stopped raiding my profile,” explained Yousra.
Yousra claims that most of the boys are under 19, “How do I know? I put an age restriction on my page and none of them could see my page,” she claimed adding, “Most of them are from Punjab.”
Another victim, Maria*, too believes that the group has an extremist anti-feminist agenda, “The bullying was mostly on posts where I expressed my views on feminism or posts of liberal nature,” said Maria, a housewife, and mother. She has been regularly targeted since early 2018.
She shares that all reasonable arguments were overruled by the group and they resorted to profanity, “Basically (g**hti) is their favorite word for liberal women,” she said.
Over two weeks ago, Umer Shekh added her to a messenger group chat, from which she was later removed, where Maria’s doctored images were being circulated and she was being slut-shamed, “I was disgusted. They always find new ways to bully you,” said Maria.
‘Incels’ in Pakistan
“These boys are getting rejected by girls and this is how are they responding,” he proposes.
Dr. Muhammad Moiz, a gender and sexuality expert believes that this is an ‘incel’ group.
According to BBC, “ ‘Incel’ is short for “involuntarily celibate” and in particular refers to online groups of men who feel that they can’t enter into sexual relationships.
The attitudes of men who visit the boards vary widely, but online they frequently vent anger against sexually prolific men (“Chads”) and women (“Stacys”). More generally, incel forums often include rants aimed at feminism and women.”
Contrary to popular belief, that as digital spaces grow they are becoming a reflection of actual social spaces, Dr. Moiz begs to differ. He believes digital spaces on the context of anonymity allows people to say or express things they can’t or won’t say in actual social interaction, “Hence, we see a lot of toxicity, vitriol, and threats being openly thrown around in digital spaces,” he said.
Being a male feminist, Dr. Moiz is a keen observer of patriarchal behaviors, “In the recent past, young men have started to congregate on memes which are on the spectrum of ‘dank pana’,” he asserted.
“These are young boys, whose values are very stereotypical,” Dr. Moiz highlights adding that the group rejects any paradigm shift and would not reorient their ideas.
Through the conversations TechJuice has had with victims, it can be deduced that a common theme that the group disagrees with is definitely feminism and feminists.
Aiming where it hurts
These groups are organized around a common hatred for feminists who they have identified on the basis of their judgment. Hence, the profane name calling, “It is purely patriarchal. They see feminist women as a specific object. Consequently, it requires a specific treatment,” highlights Dr. Moiz.
To impart this specific treatment, these men aim to hurt these women where they think it hurts them the most, “They focus on things they think feminists like. If they hurt animals or say politically incorrect things – real feminists will be hurt or triggered,” he said while explaining why they tend to hurt animals to put across their point.
With this ideology, when they want to hurt cat lovers or feminists the group would go to any length. Even if it involves actually hurting animals and making videos of them.
Rabiya Mumtaz, a mental health counselor, and psychotherapist, suggests that even though the said behavior cannot be justified it may stem from a place of damage. She believes it is hard to deduce the acts of such a group without further studying them.
From merely suggesting to kill pussies to actually hurting cats, the group has become a cult. In his first video, Sed Qureshi asked a kid to kill a cat ( the video was uploaded on his Facebook profile but was later reported and taken down).
Since the video resurfaced Sed Qureshi uploaded a number of videos and status in his defense, claiming that he was not going to abuse animals anymore and his past videos are being propagated against him.
As things heated up, a former group member shared pictures of Sed Qureshi wrapped in a white cloth with cotton plugged in his nose. The post claimed that he had committed suicide under pressure. The claim was later debunked when a screenshot of his conversation stating he planned the act to calm people down.
Dr. Moiz suggests that to understand the incel group and it’s working one needs to dig fairly deep into social issues and how class, economics, and gender anxiety is playing a role in this, “These boys are getting rejected by girls and this is how are they responding to all of this,” he proposes.
He explains that this group is using their general gender angst and acting out on social media, “And because they are straight men, at the end of the day they are prone to being toxic and violent and how they permeate it on their social network,” he said.
Another Facebook group has been created since “I stand with Sed Qureshi”, in favor of Sed Qureshi and against Jibran Nasir’s post. They are also asking followers to make fake email id’s to increase the signature on the petition.
Gharida Farooqi and Jibran Nasir’s posts were also spammed with anti-feminist and derogatory remarks by the group.
Getting help not an option
None of the women, TechJuice approached during the story, had filed official complaints against the harassers to the FIA. They had not even confided in both or one of their parents. Either way, they did report the profiles to Facebook which were taken down duly or blocked them. But the harassers keep coming back and in such cases, most of the victims resort to leaving digital spaces.
Some women, not the victims, have claimed to have sent screenshots picked off Facebook to the FIA complaint center but have not heard from their cybercrime unit yet.
Chaudhary Sarfaraz, Deputy Director FIA, Lahore encourages people to file complaints against such offenders, “It is our job to investigate these cases. Even if they are five million people online, we charge them accordingly,” he said. He confessed to not being aware of the current issue but stressed that it is a matter that needed to be addressed immediately.
“The women know their voice wouldn’t be heard. If rape cases get neglected. How much weight would a case of being harassed online carry?” asks Fatima adding, “They were abused in their own personal space. It’s an emotional trauma”.
Mahrukh recalls the threats not affecting her at that moment, “I was busy taking screenshots to file a complaint, but my mom said I can’t do this without my dad being involved,” she explained. She never got around to filing a complaint because her mom did not want her father to find out, “I was angry and wanted to track them down and honestly kill them all,” she expresses angrily adding, “I get tensed just by the memory of the incident”.
She thinks women do not have the luxury and safety in Pakistan to go forth with such cases, “Not on their own at least. Knowing they’ll be blamed by their families (and society) really holds women back,” exclaimed Mahrukh.
*names of girls have been altered or changed to protect their identity.