Even though traditional politics still reigns supreme in Pakistan, thanks to cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (Pakistan movement for justice/PTI) almost all the mainstream political parties realized this year that they stood to neglect a significant number of young voters if they too did not maintain an active online presence.
PTI’s campaigning to the youth made other parties step back and revamp their own approach towards approach towards garnering votes for last year’s general election. Almost all mainstream parties quickly caught up, especially the PTI’s archrival Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) whose supporters gave a hard time to PTI supporters both on ground and in cyberspace.
It seemed that the new avenue for political campaigning paid off as well. The social media helped people find their lost enthusiasm for politics. The voters’ turn out this year was 55 per cent as compared to 44 per cent in the 2008 elections, according to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP).
Out of total 85.42 million registered voters in the country, 16.88 million — slightly more than the total 15 million internet users in Pakistan — are less than 26 years old. Moreover, around 12.73 million are between 26 and 30 years old, according to figures obtained from the ECP.
Of grand narratives and service delivery
On the social media, the online campaigns of all the parties made for an interesting concoction of rhetoric, promises, accusations, arguments and even propaganda. But did its effects trickle down to a practical display of strength on ground?
The effects began surfacing from the election day itself when a large number of urban youth came out in droves to cast their vote.
But perhaps the best example was of the controversial constituency NA-250 when the uproar on social media caused an on-ground protest on Teen Talwar, consequently prompting the authorities to take action, said Raza Rumi, director of Jinnah Institute and editor of The Friday Times.
“Social media helped most with regards to allegations of rigging voters’ fraud, such as in NA-250,” he said. “If it wasn’t for that then the authorities might have probably ignored the matter and not bother investigating it.”
The playing field
For the young urban voters perhaps, most of their information (or inspiration) came from the social media. It was the ‘debate’ on Facebook and Twitter which help direct their thoughts to voter for a certain leader or a party and made them go through — or at least glance — at their manifestoes.
The most vocal in their presence on Twitter and Facebook was the PTI and then the PML-N quickly caught up to it. But together these two parties had the strongest and the most vindictive online muscle and both, but separately, tried to include the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) into a spat-match but the Karachi-based party refused to take the bait.
Though the MQM was one of the first parties to embrace technology and use it for party activities, it ran a quiet but tactful campaign which only picked up pace during the last 10 days in the run up to May 11.
The Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) too ran an organized cyber campaign but it seemed to be drowned under the countless Twitter and Facebook updates by PTI and PML-N.
Meanwhile, the leaders of Awami National Party (ANP) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) were observed to be active on Twitter, both parties lacked organized online muscle. The PPP because of their indecisive leadership and the ANP was in tethers due to terrorist attacks.
Here is a brief overview at strategies and logistics involved in campaigns of various parties.
The ‘Naya’ Pakistan and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf
Young professionals in the ranks of PTI gave them the edge of being the most creative and innovative in their campaigning – both on ground and on the internet.
Ironically, in many ways PTI’s campaign was similar to Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2008. Social media and technology were integral parts of its marketing and campaigning strategy and helped develop a support base of zealous Imran Khan supporters who believed they would be able to being a marked change in the country. Since the party had no baggage like the others, it was easier to build a narrative for change.
“For PTI the social media campaign was significant because it helped focus the party’s narrative and acted as an electioneering machine,” said Rumi. “Their presence on the social media had a lot to do with consolidating their voter base.”
He said that though PTI’s campaign didn’t have a significant impact on field campaigning, it did make people from urban areas — especially first-time voters and those belonging to the upper-middle class with ready access to internet — come out to vote. “The campaign got volunteers involved,” said Rumi.
That was exactly what the campaign aimed for, said Imran Ghazali, who left his bank job to go manage PTI’s cyber campaign.
He said that the party’s main focus during the campaign was to use its online muscle to keep reminding the audience, especially first-time, voters of the promise of Naya Pakistan.
The social media team across the country comprised of about 55 people, led by an eight-member core team based in Lahore. Four members of the core team were expats who flew in from Chicago, Saudi Arabia and Finland — where they worked or studied and left it to participate in the campaign.
When asked if the social media workers were rewarded or compensated by the party in return for their hectic efforts, Ghazali said that besides transportation from the party for travelling with Imran Khan for last leg of the campaign, all services rendered were voluntary and without any compensation.
The campaign did work to an extent in big cities such as Karachi, where despite the violence in the run up to May 11 a large number of people came out in droves to vote.
Rumi believed that PTI’s contributed to garnering enthusiasm for politics and elections which had not been seen in Pakistan on a widespread scale. He said that though the party’s online campaign didn’t have any major effect in the field, but the PTI succeeded in getting the voters out.
Talking about ‘PTI trolls’ Ghazali said that they might have supported the party but neither were they a part of the official team nor they were owned by the leadership. “Our team had a strict code of conduct,” he said, adding that trolling was done by supporters in their own capacity.
“Maybe if there was less condescension and enthusiasm from PTI’s social media presence, perhaps they would have had some more people voting for them,” said Rumi.
Tiger, laptops, performance and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz
Unlike PTI’s haphazard support from various parts of the globe, PML-N’s online campaign was in tandem with its field activities. As the PTI supporters seemed to be swept away by their own Tsunami, PML-N workers made sure that they consolidated their voter base both off and on the social media.
“People underestimated the party’s vote bank and the importance of service delivery versus grand narratives of hope and change,” Rumi said, alluding to the PTI. “The PML-N made sure that they consolidated their vote. It didn’t really need social media to get its message or vote out.”
A societal critic and a columnist for Dawn, Nadeem F Paracha, agreed. “The PTI campaign did affect the voter turnout in urban areas,” he said. “But while targeting the youth they made a slight miscalculation. They overlooked the fact that a large number of youth belonged to families who were already pro-PML-N and the influence manifested itself on the election day.”
In fact, all of 2012 Shahbaz Sharif practised his version of youth politics and handed laptops, cash prizes and solar lamps to students across Punjab. The Punjab government spent close to Rs4 billion to distribute about 200,000 laptops among matric and intermediate students who received more than 70 per cent marks. After that he launched another Rs4.4 billion scheme of distributing 250,000 solar lamps among top matric students in Punjab.
Though the chief minister never actually sought the youth’s support but he did ask them at a students’ convention to oust Asif Ali Zardari.
Meanwhile, the PML-N’s online campaign was a means to supplement their field campaign. It was the second most vocal party on the social media and the campaign focused on the party’s achievements during its previous two tenures in the federal government and ongoing tenures of the Punjab government.
At the same time, it was ensured that party leaders and supporters interacted with potential voters, said PML-N’s central media chief Asim Niazi.
A member of the social media team, Mian Akhtar Ali, said that he took three weeks off work for working in the campaign right before the election. “On Facebook and Twitter we talked about how fiber optics network was laid during the last tenure of PML-N and other similar achievements.”
He said that there used to be at least 50 to 60 people at central media cell at a given time who were quick to come up with their own Android application by the name of Roshan Pakistan along side the use of Google ads.
Throughout the campaign PML-N and PTI supporters were seen bickering, trading barbs and hurling all sorts of accusations at each other. “And since it is politics after all, if any of our opponents one made a public faux pas our supporters grabbed the opportunity,” said Mr Niazi.
In the last leg of the campaign when both Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif were touring and holding rallies aggressively, supporters of both parties outdid each other in trying to prove their leader’s rally had more people.
When asked about compensation or payment of stipends to members of social media team, the PML-N’s media chief denied it.
Bilawal, Social media and the Pakistan Peoples Party
Though PPP leaders, including Sherry Rehman, Hussain Haqqani, Raza Rabbani, Sharmila Farooqi, Sharjil Inam Memon and its chairman and patrons — Bilawal, Aseefa and Bhakhtawar Bhutto-Zardari — are active twitter users, the party’s online presence lacked both strength and luster and also seemed to be scattered all over the place.
The PPP’s social media cell was based at Bilawal House and comprised of 10 to 12 people who usually got to work during the ‘hot’ hours — after 8pm, said members of the social media team Faysal Sami and Saeed Jamsa.
“Some of the members worked full-time and were paid a stipend of Rs15,000,” PPP secretary information Karachi Lateef Mughal said.
Focus of the campaign which was limping behind on Twitter but more visible on Facebook, was to highlight the achievements during the past five years’ tenure of the PPP, such as the Benazir Income Support Programme and housing scheme, constitutional reforms, Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline project, waseela and land distribution programmes and others.
The party known for its organization — Jamaat-i-Islami
The JI was more organized and had a bigger online presence than the PPP and at times even the MQM.
The campaign was run in four basic phases, explained Shamsuddin Amjad, chief of JI’s IT and social media department. “In the first phase our members promoted the party’s manifesto on Facebook and Twitter,” he said.
“The second phase involved the promotion of all JI candidates by local teams and as well as the national team. This was followed by promotion of the three big candidates of the party, Munawar Hassan, Muhammad Hussain Mehanti and Sirajul Haq and then the final step was image building of the party.”
The party also used Google ads to its advantage like the PTI and PML-N and paid between Rs1.5 and Rs3 per click for it, said Mr Amjad.
Mr Amjad said that every district also had its own online team and they worked in tandem with the local candidates. He said that he conducted trainings in many districts of Punjab, Sindh and also Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa before election campaigning officially began.
He said it was very difficult to estimate the number of online team members since a large chunk of them were volunteers and not official members of the JI or its student wings.
Defending the rumours — Muttahida Qaumi Movement
The MQM is no stranger to the internet. Its web tv was launched around one-and-a-half years ago. However, for this year’s election, the party ran a quiet but tactful campaign. Its online presence wasn’t of its supporters as such, but leaders who engaged in discussions and debates with opinion makers.
He said that MQM leaders and members of the party’s cyber force aimed to target media persons, leaders and opinion leaders for interaction and political debate. “We only began campaigning aggressively in the last 10 days before the election,” Abidi said. “Before that the cber force provided a cushion for leaders who were in the field and on the media. The leaders in return provided information for steering the campaign. Information was shared both ways.”
However, he said, the party’s first priority remained clarifying rumours which were circulating regarding the MQM and form a first line of defense against criticism. “But, eventually MQM bashing turned out to be beneficial for us since it gave us a chance to clarify a lot of things.”
He shared that every sector and unit of the party had its cyber team. “There are around 8,000 MQM supporters across the world,” said Mr Abidi.
When asked about stipends or rewards for team members he joked, “My party made me an MNA what more could I ask for?” while adding that all the team members were volunteers since the party didn’t have the resources to hire professionals to run its campaign.
“The MQM online campaign sprang into action after the PTI protest on Teen Talwar,” said Nadeem F. Paracha a columnist for Dawn.
Before the election they had little online presence owing to terrorist threats. “Their officers were being attacked almost every other day and they couldn’t organize a rally in Karachi and had to do it in Nawabshah. Obviously they were in a disarray.”
No time for the virtual world – Awami National Party
Though leaders such as Bushra Gohar, who is an avid Twitter user, were present the party itself did not have an organized campaign owing to an extremely brutal time it faced at the hands of terrorist attacks, especially in Karachi and KPK.
“I think one should consider the threats ANP was facing on the ground,” said Raza Rumi. “If a party can engage in electioneering and is seeing its grassroots machinery dismantled by attacks, having an online presence isn’t going to do much. I think the part ultimately had far bigger fish to fry than campaigning online though a greater online presence would have alerted more people to the incredible injustice that the ANP faced in the lead-up to the elections.”
Was it enough?
It was the first time social media was used as a medium to reach out to potential voters in the country and most of the online discourse was about out-tweeting the other party, inventing the most hashtags and having the last word in the latest spat match. But if one took the trouble of filtering out all of the above, there lied there a smattering of enlightening debate which eventually made social media users keep abreast of the chain of events and form thier own opinions on it.
Could more have been done? Definitely. Social media was used widely but probably not in its full capacity. “I think all parties should have used the social media more, though less to harass or spam, and more to engage with pakistan voters and participate in forums and discussions,” said Rumi.
“Social media is so much more than just pictures and tweets. Parties could have used Google Hangout sessions and web chats with party leaders on their plans to tackle education or health policies. Social media can also be used constructively to impart messages and ideology. I don’t believe any party did that.”