Social media and changing politics

Spearhead Analysis – 02.10.2014

By Saman Tariq
Research Analyst,
Spearhead Research

Social Media Users

In a democratic world, media is widely used as a tool for election campaigns and since the usage of internet is ever increasing with new media becoming a rising phenomenon, it is not surprising that politicians are utilizing this space to maintain their presence. Indian Prime Minister Narender Modi recently made his debut on Instagram, with a follower count of 144K in just two weeks. While tech-savy Modi already has significant social media presence with 8.14 million followers on his Twitter account, President Obama being the most followed politician on Twitter has over 50 million followers.

In Pakistan, the initial impact of social media was evident during lawyer’s movement after traditional media was curbed; lawyers and civil society mobilized through social networking sites and came out to protest against former president Pervez Musharraf. Interestingly, the political role of social media was first realized by Pervez Musharraf himself, who used his Facebook page to launch his political party and gather a substantial amount of supporters for his return. He felt confident to come back to Pakistan based on his popularity on Facebook, to take part in active politics; however, he failed in that endeavor. On the contrary, Imran Khan, the second political leader to resort to social media was rather successful in gathering thousands of people at the political rally on October 30, 2011 at Minar-e-Pakistan, followed by another successful rally in Karachi.

What led PTI to translate this social media potential into political action? PTI through a heavy online presence and active role in mainstream politics creates a balance, translating it into actual street power. Another advantage the party has is its youth centric approach, as 70 percent of the total population in Pakistan is under 30, PTI gains from the demographic dividend. The recent sit-in by PTI against the government is another case in point where despite crossing 100 days, the movement has not died down, attributed not only to mainstream media coverage but also because of substantial follow-up and motivational messages circulating on social media.

This rising popularity of Imran Khan made other parties to take notice, resorting to social media for image projection and interacting with the public. Hence, the general elections 2013 witnessed a new wave of social media campaigns by parties such as PTI, MQM, PML N and PPP.  These parties formed social media cells to manage their online campaigns, PTI’s cell being the most dynamic. The mobility of PPP, MQM and ANP was limited due to terrorist threats; therefore these parties also focused on extensive political campaigns on social media.

PTI’s online popularity however, failed to translate in general elections, raising various questions on the limited influence of social media. The answer lies in the number of internet users in Pakistan; 30 million- 16 percent of the total population with only 4 percent presence on social media. Moreover, two thirds of country’s Facebook users (most popular social networking site in Pakistan) are below the age of 25 and more than half of them come from the richest 10 percent of households. Therefore, most of the users on social media as of now are not only highly polarized but also extremely young, perhaps not eligible to vote yet.

Post election, prominent political leaders still maintain a presence on social media to issue different statements and interact with the public. Imran Khan leads Twitter with 1.74 million followers, Maryam Nawaz with 783K followers and Bilawal Bhutto with 606K followers.  There are other accessible politicians on Twitter like Sheikh Rashid, Sherry Rehman and Rehman Malik who not only post updates on regular basis but also engage in discussions with their followers.

While the political use of internet in Pakistan is still in its early phase, there are others ways as well through which social media is playing a key role in politics. One such function is disseminating of news, as these days mainstream news channels pick up news from Twitter and other networking sites. Amid recent political crisis, a tweet by DG ISPR Asim Bajwa with reference to COAS being asked by the PM to play the role of facilitator created waves in the country, becoming the most retweeted tweet in Pakistan, 22,132 times.

Moreover, social media has not only made political figures easily accessible but it has also become an alternate public sphere where it is being used for greater public participation. It has instilled a sense of political empowerment among the youth with something as simple as sharing a photo or video online. Since there is no gate keeping or state control over social media, it opens up new avenues of debate and political discussions.

The recent amateur videos captured from mobile phones on an Islamabad bound PIA flight started circulating online, clearly showing how Senator Rehman Malik and MNA Dr. Ramesh Kumar faced public ire for allegedly causing delay. The videos sparked a movement against VIP culture in Pakistan and the news was picked up on both national and international media. This incident highlights two interesting trends reinforced by social media which also reflect on its growing power. One is the escalating global reach of online citizen journalism; the other is functioning of public pressure groups on social media and their significant influence on the outside world.

However, digital divide within Pakistan is still a pertinent issue with 4 percent social media penetration rate next to only Laos, Bangladesh and Myanmar. The influence remains largely limited to urban areas and certain sections of the society. This proliferation is hindered by deficit in education and infrastructure yet with increasing number of mobile users; Pakistan has a significant scope for user growth of internet. According to a report by World Bank, Pakistan’s growth rate of internet users is second highest in SAARC countries in accordance with its population. Therefore, in the coming 10-15 years, traditional door to door political campaign is likely to take a backseat. In changing times, social media will possibly takeover and change the discourse and course of the elections in Pakistan.