Elections & social media in pakistan

During the last year, we have seen immense political presence in Pakistan’s social media. It started with leaders of almost all political parties garnering an online presence to realising how to market a party as an online brand. It has not been an easy ride for these political parties because our politicians tend to be more than a bit clumsy when it comes to technology and the online crowd is pretty harsh towards anything it deems to be even slightly illogical or rude.

However, during the process of forming party lines online and the practice of select groups of trolls lashing out at detractors, a pleasant new phenomenon has taken place. I have been watching this rather closely and have observed that people have moved from talking about parties and discussing them to now holding them completely and ruthlessly accountable for their actions online.

I suppose this transition took place because educated voters realised that this is, perhaps, the best way to speak out in a system, which is hell-bent on silencing their voice. Quite frankly, today, a person in Pakistan has little or no recourse to justice or speaking out if the issue is not bolstered by social media. This is why, one sees more people holding political parties accountable online for every decision they take. This is also bolstered by the fact that finally, at least in the recent elections, most of the startling news content was produced by the citizens themselves, be it in the form of videos showing rigging taking place or status updates on when they voted and in what conditions.

While it is true that many have in the past scoffed at social media on the basis that the number of people online was too insignificant to make a difference, as per information provided by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, the number of people using social media in the country is just under 30 million. Analytics companies, which make studies out of cookies that can trace a particular browser session, put this number at around 15 to 20 million. Even this is a huge number for a country like ours. To break this number down further, Facebook has around 8.6 million Pakistanis on it, while Twitter has just over a million users at present. Absolutely accurate figures cannot be given for social media simply because even as I write, more and more people are joining it, so it is a forever increasing figure. Compare this online reach with some of our mainstream print publications’ circulations and even after factoring in fake accounts, one can see an alarming gap of reach, leaning in favour of online media.

So, now that we are able to put out newsworthy content from the palm of our hand and hold our political leaders accountable, the ball lies in the political parties’ court. They can either embrace this tool more fully and form online complaint centres for people to interact with, as well as suggest public works projects to, or they can, as some currently do, ignore it all to their own doom. I say doom because this election was just a slight glimpse into what a social media-enabled generation can do. In five years, people will be using more efficient and perhaps, even securer means of communication. So, in the next election, they might go from just reporting and holding political leaders accountable to changing a candidate’s mandate by the power of their voice should he or she not fulfil their standards.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 4th, 2013.

Share