A New PUBGeneration
Throughout the month of October this year, Iraqi students have stormed the streets in defiance of a clientele state leadership that has left the youth behind socially and economically. The students have labeled themselves the PUB Generation after the popular video game Players Unknown Battlegrounds, which has been the target of a government crackdown against forms of online violence that could jeopardize state security. According to government officials, the game’s structure puts state security at risk because it allows young Iraqis to communicate subversive messages with each other while they are playing the game. Since the start of the protests, the Iraqi government has also banned other forms of social media communication, including Facebook and Whatsapp. The protestors have been able to bypass the social media blocks and continue to communicate with each other using uncensored virtual private networks (VPNs).
The reason for the government’s concern with PUBG’s effect on the Iraqi youth has to do with sheer numbers. Iraq’s youth population is surging, and 60% of Iraqis are under the age of 25. Consequently, PUBG and other forms of social media in Iraq are used as an outlet for youth disgruntlement over poor economic conditions and social repression. For instance, issues like Iran’s inability to create jobs for incoming graduates despite its position as OPEC’s second largest oil exporter in 2018, there has been little social mobility for the growing youth that is stuck in a shrinking job market. Moreover, Iraq suffers from a 25% youth unemployment rate.
Prime Minister Abdul- Mandi has attempted to quell the protesters by promising to increase efforts for finding jobs for recent graduates in his new 13 point plan. However, Abdul-Mandi’s promise has found little resonance with the protestors; this is due to the unusual structuring of the PUBG protests.
The protests do not have a central unifying figure. The protestors have sourced their motivation to stand up to Iraqi social issues not from a popular leader’s message, but from discussions over social media and games like PUBG. Without a leader directing the protestors, the government has no one to negotiate with. Consequently, Abdul- Mandi’s social media blocks have also hurt his government’s ability to interact with the protestors and respond to their demands. For instance, Abdul-Mandi unwisely chose to release his 13-point plan regarding graduate jobs on social media during the protests, so this announcement did not reach the protestors. Thus, the Iraqi’s government to turn off all forms of social media has paradoxically hindered its efforts to stabilize Iraq amidst the protests.
The Iraqi government’s response to the protests has also led to further confusion and ramping up of tensions with the PUBG protestors. Iraq’s President Barham Salih attempted to quell the uprisings by urging the state security avoid violence toward the protestors. His statements were followed with Iraq Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al- Sistani blaming Iranian backed security forces for causing the recent deaths to two protestors.
International institutions have taken a more supportive approach than the Iraqi government to the PUBG protestors. Both the United Nations and Amnesty International have issued statements since the blackout of social media acknowledging the high levels of anxiety in the Iraqi populace, and reaffirming the international community’s support for the people of Iraq. However, the efficacy of such statements is limited; without people on the ground, it is difficult for outside intervention to stop the violence. This lack of intervention has resulted in over 250 deaths and 800 wounded between the protestors and state security forces. Thus, the Iraqi protests have been characterized by the lack of an identifiable face.
Looking forward, it seems while social media has led to the demise of Iraqi order, the complete overhaul of communication networks has caused even greater instability. Reinstating social media will allow Prime Minister Abdul- Mandi to promote his youth employment solutions to the protestors and would increase cohesion between the government and security forces.
Now that the Iraqi government has witnessed the effects of their approach to the PUBG generation, they can self-correct and find more peaceful and legitimate channels to allow for government criticism in the future. Furthermore, the Iraqi government must acknowledge that the proliferation of underground communication will continue, and from this observation work hard to support the emerging Iraqi youth population to prevent such negative criticism igniting future protests.