A new avenue for political discussion
Social media has become the most powerful source of news updates through platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, Blogger, Myspace, Linkedin and many others. Social media has become an important resource for the mobilisation of collective action and the creation, organisation and implementation of social movements around the world. It has been instrumental in supporting political and social movements by providing opportunities for political expression, symbolic identification for collective action, and information exchange.
In the political realm, social media has played a significant role in the revolutions that has struck the Arab world since 2010. It introduced a novel resource that provided swiftness in receiving and disseminating information; helped to build and strengthen ties among activists; and increased interaction among protestors and between protestors and the rest of the world. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that the uprising in the Arab World, Twitter revolution of Iran and Occupy Wall Street are all examples of major movements that were floated as ideas on the social media outlets, later discussed, criticised, promoted and then implemented as full-fledged movements.
Pakistan is also part of this international social media network and it has become a new avenue or means not only used by companies and individuals to promote businesses in Pakistan but also to generate opinions regarding social and political issues.
The pattern of social media use in Pakistan appears to be no different than the United States or the United Kingdom. The most popular social media website in Pakistan is Facebook, which has over 8 million users in the country out of a global total of more than 1 billion. Twitter and LinkedIn have 1.9 million and 1.2 million users in Pakistan respectively. Google Plus and Pinterest appear to have far fewer users in Pakistan, at approximately 64,000 and 115,000 respectively.
Fifty percent of people using Facebook in Pakistan are aged 18-24 years and 25 percent from age 25-34 and overall 70 percent Facebook users are male and 30 percent are females. An amazing fact is that the number of Facebook users has increased by 1 million from June-December 2012. Of all the online browsing and surfing, 27 percent of internet users in Pakistan are Facebook users. Social media is also more popular in Pakistan because of the accessibility of smartphones at reasonable prices. More and more people are using social media on their phones rather than desktops.
From a political perspective, social media forums are used in Pakistan by political parties to strengthen their vote bank. The idea is to target a young population aged 18-24 who have never cast votes in any elections to vote for their party in the upcoming elections in 2013 in Pakistan. This is in perspective of the fact that the World Population Foundation (WPF) reports that 34 percent of the Pakistani population comprises of youth (age 15-24 years). The exploration and exploitation of potential political opportunities is being realised by political parties using the social media networks.
Various political parties have also taken the lead and are using social media like Twitter and Facebook to enhance and expand on their party ideas as well as providing day to day news updates regarding their leadership and party efforts. For others, the social media has also become a tool to smear, charge and accuse politicians of other parties by uploading news items, videos and claims to discredit them.
The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) was one of the first parties to launch themselves on social media and specifically Facebook. PTI chief, Imran Khan capitalised on Facebook and YouTube to launch his political career and promote himself as a leader. Imran Khan’s popularity has increased manifold because of social media and how he has been able to convey his viewpoint and party agenda effectively via the social media.
Following the PTI, the PPP, PML-N, MQM and most other political parties have started using the social media as an effective tool for getting prospective voters on board. These pages are very actively updated and monitored. There are number of resources that suggest that most of the main political parties have taken to task to get ahead of the PTI, who they fear might decrease their vote bank, at least in the urban areas.
Aside from outright hacking, PTI opponents and impersonators have been known to carry out mass online attacks on journalists and media groups, particularly using spamming of Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and email inboxes as a means to register their protest against the party or its chairman Imran Khan.
The Pakistani government banned YouTube in the aftermath of the controversial film regarding the Holy Prophet and demanded that Google removed and apologised for uploading the blasphemous video. A lot of people are also of the view that it was an attempt to stop PTI whose meetings and other political material can be seen on the site.
Active participation on the social media has become a norm for the political parties in Pakistan. It is a positive development from the political perspective but still far behind in the sense that only a miniscule percentage has access to the internet and social media but the trends do show an increasing popularity. It is also a positive trend from the perspective of the growth of the political system in Pakistan as it would provide forums to new parties who are unable to get a fair chance to be part of the political system through conventional means.
The writer is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies (ISS), Islamabad. The views expressed in the article are her own and do not in any way represent those of the ISS.