The use of social media is rising in Pakistan. Over a six-month period from late 2010 to early 2011, the number of Facebook users doubled from 1.8 to 3.6 million, while between August 2011 and January 2012 the number of new Facebook accounts increased by a million.
Facebook, according to internet traffic monitoring data, is currently the most popular website in Pakistan. Pakistanis are also increasingly found on Twitter. The micro-blogging platform was the tenth-most visited website in Pakistan in June 2010, compared to 14th the previous year. Additionally, growing numbers of people have the means to access social media in Pakistan. The number of internet users has increased by at least several million since 2009.
In 2010, mobile internet usage soared by 161% – this in a country where every other resident uses a cell phone (Pakistan has one of the highest rates of cell phone ownership in South Asia).
Social media has enabled prompt circulation of news stories which may otherwise be overlooked by traditional media. Furthermore, it facilitates group mobilization, primarily by disseminating information about protests or gatherings quickly. Third, it allows greater communication between politicians and their constituents at minimal cost.
Rasul Baksh Rais, a well known academic and commentator, recently stated in an interview that due to the expansion of social media, Pakistanis were taking a greater interest in politics. According to him, social media allows for an informed assessment of political parties and their candidates.
Social media forums are used in Pakistan by political parties to strengthen their vote bank. The idea is to target a young populace, aged 18-24, who have never cast votes in any elections, to vote for their party in the upcoming elections, especially in the cities and towns where internet access is available.
While some conservative groups refuse to interact with liberals on Twitter and block their tweets, others participate in spirited, although reasoned, discussions – interactions that rarely happen offline in Pakistan, where hardliners and liberals are loath to share the same room, much less a conversation.
Twitter has managed to become a favourite of different parliamentarians and politicians, as it allows them to understand public discourse. Similarly, Twitter has given potential voters a platform to engage directly with party leadership.
Farahnaz Ispahani, one of the most active users with over 14,000 followers, joined Twitter in 2010 as an“open intellectual space,” which, according to her, was much needed in a Pakistani society that is becoming increasingly conservative.
Amongst the political parties operating in Pakistan, PTI has the most prominent online presence. Express Tribune reported that the digital media campaigns for PTI - which has more than 87,000 followers on Twitter and more than 522,000 ‘likes’ on Facebook - are run by more than 50 volunteers, based all around the world.
A sample tweet, which mobilizes Imran Khan’s young supporters is as follows: @ImranKhanPTI: “I told r youth that 2day they r seeing history being made & will be able 2 tell their children they were present at start of #NayaPakistan!”
Maryam Nawaz Sharif, daughter of PML-N head Mian Nawaz Sharif, has emerged as a strong political activist, engaging Twitter by replying personally to everyone who contacts her. PML-N has also made a cell for closely monitoring internet and SMS messages.
This is how she bridges the communication gaps between elite leaders and their supporters: @MaryamNSharif Am a proud PMLN worker :)"@IrfanPMLN: @votepmln Ur speech was so good really impressive we want to see you as a chief minister Punjab."
Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s Haider Abbas Rizvi says Twitter has helped him understand and analyse political trends. He currently has two twitter accounts with more than 7,000 followers combined. Being the media head of the party, Rizvi has subordinates working around the clock. He takes Twitter and social media very seriously and the MQM is now expanding its presence on Twitter as well as other platforms.
Bakhtawar and Asifa Bhutto-Zardari also have a considerable presence on the social media network. Bakhtawar is the most active and engages with her followers and posts animated tweets which generate immense discussion. The positions that the three children of President Zardari take indicate their political stances and the courage they have inherited from a family of “martyrs”. Using her handle @BakhtawarBZ, the 23-year old tweeted the following in recent days:
Fight b/w those who support terrorists +those who oppose them. Parties hold jalsas risking lives vs those who hold concerts with no fear.
Terrorism MUST be condemned by every1 -sick 2 c ppl value party affiliation above human life. Attack on one is an attack on all #Pakistan
Of late, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) faction, headed by Fazlur Rehman, have also joined the bandwagon. After their initial contempt, they have been swayed by the lure of the medium and its far reaching influence.