Shahbaz Sharif- @CMShehbaz We are all about the people - whatever makes them happy. #VotersChoice

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:

Since the interior ministry has given IK security (..from his own supporters) - can they now protect #PPP + #ANP from extremists?

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.

The Awami National Party (ANP) has also joined the platform and increased its presence. ANP’s Bushra Gohar, with almost 12,000 followers, has emerged as a powerful voice of the Pakhtun population and its rights. She displays exemplary courage and is not afraid of calling a spade a spade. Not unlike other bold politicians, Gohar has been viciously attacked and even threatened. But this does not deter her from speaking her mind and engaging in vital debates on national and local issues.

Despite the popularity of social media as a campaign tool for the upcoming elections, it alone cannot guarantee success. There are about 8 million Facebook users in the country, of which a great majority are under the age of 36. Similarly, some two million Pakistanis use Twitter and just over a million are LinkedIn users. Experts say that the number of social media users in Pakistan is increasing by an average of 7 percent a year. However, outreach is still limited as a majority of the 80 million registered voters live in rural areas of the country and do not have internet access. Currently, only about 15-20% of the total population has access to social media networks, which indicates a rather low penetration rate. Nevertheless, social media still manages to inform the electronic media and other debates.

There is additionally the risk of manipulation of social media by traditional media outlets for their own gain. Pakistan’s major television channels all boast Facebook and Twitter accounts with tens of thousands of likes and hundreds of thousands of followers.

Other risks posed by social media in Pakistan include their succumbing to the same ideological divisions that afflict Pakistani society, and even becoming a haven for extremist online communication. Yet another risk is that the lack of regulation supports unethical content.

Many events in Pakistan spark much noise within the social mediasphere – yet the outrage rarely leads to protests, much less actual change. On so many occasions, in the words of one Pakistani blogger, “Twitter was clogged with dissident discourse and Facebook statuses sprung up to register protests and yet it all resulted in absolutely nothing”.

Some argue that the country’s shrinking liberal sphere is retreating to Twitter and Facebook to promote its views, leaving hardliners to shape debate on offline venues such as television news shows and the streets. As a result, social media may create another wedge between Pakistan’s liberals and conservatives. On a positive note however, it may also serve as a platform for dialogue and debate, bringing different points of view together.

In the immediate term, the outcomes of the forthcoming elections will be influenced by the media at large: electronic, print and social, perhaps in that order. However, in the urban areas and with respect to the new voters, internet and mobile telephones are likely to play a major role. The real challenge in urban Pakistan, especially Punjab, is to increase the voter turnout. The influence of social media in doing that must not be underestimated.

Raza Rumi is a policy analyst and a journalist. His writings are archived at www.razarumi.com. He can be reached via Twitter @razarumi.

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