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Will social media-savvy political parties sweep elections in Pakistan?

Kaswar Klasra

Published: Updated:

It’s midnight in Kot Sultan – a small town of district Layyah in Pakistan’s Punjab province. The streets are empty and stars lit the skies.

Right in the heart of sleepy town, there exists a small building, the election office of Sardar Sajan Khan Tangwani a local candidate running for the Provincial Assembly.

Almost a dozen volunteers crowd into a mid-sized room of this election office. They are busy on their computers and laptops interacting with voters through social media, especially Facebook.

In Pakistan, majority of the population use internet at night. Keeping in view, Tangwani’s small-sized digital media teamwork through the night to cash-in on the internet users in his constituency.

In the corner, Sardar Sahib himself is busy interacting with his followers and voters through Facebook Live.

Social media tools

It’s a glimpse of how much election campaigns have changed in Pakistan.

“Social media is a powerful tool and the most efficient way to reach educated voters. Using Facebook for political campaigns have become the norm globally and we are just benefiting from it,” Qasim Khan Tangwani, chief strategist of political campaign of his father told Al Arabiya English.

As Pakistan prepares to hold general elections on July 25, political parties and politicians have turned to Facebook to connect with voters and followers.

There is no denying that social media is the most efficient way to reach a broad audience. Using Facebook for political campaigns have become the norm globally as it enables the candidates to reach out to their voters.

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Sensing the importance of social media, political parties in Pakistan have already established social media cells comprising energetic, youthful and enthusiastic members to reach out to citizens and convince them to vote for their respective candidates.

“There is a two-way conversation happening where people share what they care about and politicians as well as political parties get honest, real-time feedback,” Omar Khan, a social media strategist said.

Impressed by the way politicians and political parties in the UK and the US use social media to defeat their opponents, big political parties and politicians in Pakistan have established social media teams to influence voters.

Background Interviews and off-the-record conversation with government officials revealed that political parties, besides advertising on traditional mediums such as television and newspapers, are investing in digital marketing in a bid to compete with their rivals.

Supporters of Shahbaz Sharif, the younger brother of ousted Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif and the head of Pakistan Muslim League -Nawaz (PML-N), during a campaign meeting in Karachi on June 25, 2018. (AFP)
Supporters of Shahbaz Sharif, the younger brother of ousted Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif and the head of Pakistan Muslim League -Nawaz (PML-N), during a campaign meeting in Karachi on June 25, 2018. (AFP)

Until January 2018 internet penetration in Pakistan stood at 22 percent, encompassing 44.6 million users. Meanwhile, number of active social media users in Pakistan stand at 35 million with a penetration of 18 percent at the end of January 2018.

Majority of internet users in Pakistan are young – including college and university going students. There are hence apprehensions that Facebook can influence general elections in Pakistan.

Fake accounts

In April this year, Facebook Inc. Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg told US lawmakers that fake accounts can affect upcoming elections in Pakistan, India, Brazil and other countries, adding that Facebook will weed out bogus accounts seeking to interfere in elections and spread misinformation.

He said that fake profiles can influence election results and opinions by spreading false news.

Zuckerberg’s statement prompted a Pakistani to move to court requesting it to direct interim federal government, Election Commission of Pakistan and Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to regulate social media to ensure the democratic process is not harmed in the elections.

The court has served notices to the people concerned. However, experts believe that regulating social media will be an uphill task. Authorities in Pakistan fear that hundreds of thousands of fake Facebook accounts can influence elections while concerned departments lack expertise and sources to counter them.

“Sadly, fake Facebook accounts can surely affect elections and we are just unable to stop them,” a senior government official told Al Arabiya English.

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Pakistani government, however, welcomed an announcement by Zuckerberg that the social media portal will require all political ads on its platform to clearly mention who is paying for the message and for their identity to be verified, in a bid to curb outside election interference.

“Glad to know that Zuckerberg has realized it. Facebook must restore its integrity,” Pervez Malik, a former Pakistani federal minister said.

Two main political parties in the country – the Pakistan Muslim League-N and Pakistan Tehreek Insaf – have tasked thousands of their social media activists to generate public opinion in their party’s favor.

“Over a 1,000-member social media team is busy day and night making public opinion in favor of PML-N,” Atif Rauf, head of social media team of former ruling party the PML-N told Al Arabiya English.

Considered to be a “social media party”, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) which is the main opposition to former ruling party the PML-N has launched its election strategy with a social media summit.