Politicians’ social media use driving the digitalization of Pakistan’s democracy
Social media is now the mainstay of political discourse everywhere in the world where constitutional democracy is practiced. In recent years, Pakistan has caught up to this global trend in a major way. The use of social media is having a sweeping impact on how politics is changing in Pakistan, with its leading politicians radically reshaping the communication landscape in the parliamentary elections held in July.
While a multi-party polity in Pakistan has traditionally depended heavily on political parties driving the political narrative, individual politicians now have more followers on their personal social media accounts than even the official social media accounts of their parties. Twitter and Facebook have become the preferred platforms for outreach by politicians, who seem to be increasingly relying on them to bypass the traditional media.
Before and after the recent national and provincial elections in Pakistan, politicians, particularly from the three top parties — Imran Khan’s PTI, Bilawal Bhutto’s PPP and Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N — expressed their satisfaction or outrage at the election results through social media, rather than press conferences. The mainstream media, comprising Pakistan’s 43 current affairs TV channels, 172 FM radio stations and dozens of newspapers, routinely get their news cues from the aggressively active social media accounts of political actors.
But which Pakistani politicians and political parties are the most efficient and popular users of social media? A research study — “Parties Online: Political Communications and Digital Democracy in Pakistan” — on the digital footprint of Pakistan’s political elites released just days before the elections revealed some startling data and findings. For example, it lists at least eight Pakistani politicians with more than 1 million followers on Twitter, and four with more than 1 million followers on Facebook. Several of these are female politicians.
The study shows that the PTI, PML-N and PPP leaders are the most efficient users of Twitter for political communication in Pakistan, while the PTI and PML-N are the most resourceful users of Facebook. Prime Minister Khan, jailed former PM Sharif’s daughter Maryam Nawaz and his brother Shehbaz Sharif are the most prolific and most-followed Pakistani politicians on both Facebook and Twitter, with their combined fans from these two social media platforms running to between 5 and 10 million each. Bhutto and his younger sister Aseefa Bhutto Zardari also perform well, with more than 2 million followers on Twitter alone.
The aggressively proactive online lives of politicians are clearly in response to the corresponding growing population of Pakistani cyberspace.
The aggressively proactive online lives of politicians are clearly in response to the corresponding growing population of Pakistani cyberspace. According to the latest report of “We are Social,” an international internet and social media research organization that publishes reliable annual global and individual country data on cyberspace and social media users, on Jan. 31, 2018, there were 44.6 million internet users in Pakistan — every fourth citizen and nearly half of the 106 million voters. Of these, 35 million (18 percent of the population) were “active social media users.” Pakistan also has 109.5 million “unique mobile users,” of which 32 million use social media through their phones.
The expanding political communications domain is not restricted to individual politicians, but also their parties. Almost all political parties in Pakistan are active on social media and maintain official Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. Browsing through their social media platforms, it is clear these parties prefer to use the highly interactive social media as their primary tool to communicate with the electorate instead of their mostly static websites.
The key leaders of most parties are already heavily relying on social media platforms to drive both their party’s agendas and personal political communication. This has taken Pakistan’s political discourse online like never before and made the nation one of the world’s most digitalized in terms of political communications.
• Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science. Twitter: @adnanrehmat1