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The New Face of Social Media-Driven Elections in Pakistan

After Russian meddling in U.S. presidential vote, Facebook is under greater scrutiny in other electoral bouts

[ISLAMABAD]—It’s midnight in Kot Sultan, a small town in the district of Layyah in Pakistan’s Punjab province. In the heart of the place is a small building lit up as bright as a supermoon. It is the campaign office of Sardar Sajan Khan Tangwani, a candidate running for Punjab’s Provincial Assembly.

Almost a dozen volunteers are crowded into a mid-sized room. They are busy on their computers interacting with voters through social media, especially Facebook.

In Pakistan, the majority of the population uses the internet at night. With this in mind, Tangwani’s small digital media team works until dawn to reach as many Internet users in his constituency.

Tangwani himself is busy interacting with his supporters through Facebook Live.

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,” Qasim Khan Tangwani, chief strategist of his father’s political campaign, told The Media Line. “Using Facebook for political campaigns has become the norm globally and we are just benefiting from it.”

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

There is no denying the power of social media, as it enables candidates to reach out to many more members of their base than they otherwise could. It also allows them to go beyond their traditional support network and target a broad audience.

Knowing the importance of social media, political parties in Pakistan have already established social media squads comprised of youthful, energetic and enthusiastic members tasked with disseminating a political candidate’s platform in order to attract backers. It also allows individuals to convey their concerns to their future leaders.

“There is a two-way conversation happening in which people share what they care about, and politicians as well as the political parties get honest, real-time feedback,” Omar Khan, a social media strategist, told The Media Line.

Off-the record conversations with government officials revealed that political parties, in addition to advertising on traditional media such as television and newspapers, are investing in digital marketing in a bid to compete with their rival parties.

In January 2018, the rate of Internet usage in Pakistan stood at 22 percent (44.6 million people). There are about 35 million active social media users in the country, most of whom are young and educated.

But not all is rosy, as there are concerns that Facebook could influence the general elections in Pakistan. In April, the company’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, told U.S. lawmakers that fake accounts could affect upcoming elections in Pakistan, India, Brazil and other countries. He vowed to do as much as possible to weed out bogus accounts created with the sole view of interfering in elections by spreading misinformation.

Zuckerberg’s statement prompted one Pakistani citizen to petition the courts to direct Pakistani authorities to regulate social media in order to ensure the democratic process is not harmed.
However, experts believe that regulating social media accounts will be an uphill battle.

The Pakistani government welcomed an announcement by Zuckerberg that “in a bid to curb outside election interference” his social media portal would require that those transmitting political ads clearly identify themselves as well as whoever is paying for the message.

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

Two main political parties in Pakistan—the former ruling Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) and former national cricket captain Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek Insaf (PTI)—have tasked thousands of social media activists with shifting public opinion in their favor.

“Our thousand-member social media team is busy day and night creating public opinion in favor of PML-N,” Atif Rauf, head of PML-N’s social media efforts, told The Media Line.