Dawn News

The political power of social media

In most of the inhabited land, before the 12th Century A.D, political power resided with the King/Monarch. Power was exerted through local feudals, and collection of taxes each year. In 1215 A.D, the Magna Carta was signed by the King of England, giving away some of those powers to the aristocracy. This initiative was replicated in Europe till the 18th Century.

The American Revolution of 1775 and the French Revolution of 1789 were products of this period of enlightenment (of Europe mostly) in modern history known as the ‘Renaissance’. As a result of these revolutions and the wars preceding them, political power was transferred to the representatives of the people, i.e. the system of parliamentary democracy. After the demise of imperialism (or at least the ‘older/traditional’ form of it) in the 20th Century, democracy has been the preferred political system in most countries around the world.

There is a new kid on the block though. In 2007, the US Presidential campaign for Barack Obama utilised and benefitted tremendously from the massive number of people using social media outlets such as MySpace, Facebook and Twitter. Obama’s presidential campaign raised a record-breaking $745 million. Apart from charisma and prowess in public speaking, Barack Obama and his campaign reaped the reward for engaging people on social media. The following graph demonstrates a clear contrast in the policies of the two contestants (McCain and Obama) during the presidential elections.

According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 60 per cent of Internet users went online for news about politics or campaigns in the 2008 election.

In the book, “Communicator-In-Chief: How Barack Obama used new media technology to win the White House”, the authors mention that, “approximately 2.4 Million people ‘friended’ Obama on Facebook. Approximately four hundred thousand Facebook friends were gained by Obama in the last two weeks of the campaign. McCain ended with 6,20,000 Friends on Facebook. The Obama campaign spent $643000 of his $16 Million Internet budget to advertise on Facebook.

The Obama campaign did not focus exclusively on Facebook and MySpace; they maintained profiles on 15 different social networking sites, and even created their own social network on Obama’s website, Barackobama.com. On that website, over two million profiles were created, two hundred thousand offline events were planned, four hundred thousand blog posts were written, four hundred thousand pro-Obama videos were posted on YouTube through the site and thirty five thousand volunteer groups were created.” (pages 57,58).

Eric E. Otenyo mentioned a new and unique method of reaching out to potential voters. In his essay, “Game ON: Games and Obama’s Race to the White House” he wrote, “Obama’s presidential campaign became the first to apply the immense potential of advertising in the gaming world, interfaced through the Internet to engage a large section of potential and previously untapped voters”

Obama, though, wasn’t the first US based politician to harness the power of the Internet and social media. In 1998, for example, Jesse Ventura, a former professional wrestler, known as “The Body” had harnessed technology to mobilise supporters via the Internet to win the gubernatorial election in Minnesota.

Likewise, Governor Howard Dean in 2000, and Senator John Kerry in 2004, were also highly successful in recruiting hundreds of campaign volunteers through the Internet media.

The Obama campaign was the first of many International events that have been shaped by social media and its users.

It was another presidential election, albeit in another part of the world, that highlighted the increasing role of social media. It was in the aftermath of the Iranian presidential election of 2009 that the ‘Green Movement’ started. It was started by young supporters of the losing candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi. The colour green was used as the symbol of Mir Hossein Mousavi's campaign, but after the elections it became a symbol of unity and hope for those asking for annulment of what they regarded as a fraudulent election. The Washington Post and Al-Jazeera English called it the biggest protest in Iran after the 1979 Revolution. The movement gained worldwide sympathy after 26-year-old Neda Agha Soltan was shot during a protest, her death was live-tweeted and picked up by media around the world. She became the symbol of the movement after her tragic death.

In January 2011, Downtown Cairo’s Tahrir Square became the focus of news, courtesy social media involvement. It ultimately led to the ousting of Egypt’s depot, Hosni Mubarak. On September 17, 2011 in Zuccotti Park, located in New York City's Wall Street financial district, the Canadian activist group Adbusters initiated a protest, which led to the Occupy protests and movements around the world. Both the Tahrir Square protests and the Occupy Movement signified the momentous political power of social media and a rising trend among mostly disenfranchised youth to participate in political activities.

This image from The Guardian shows places where the Occupy movement spread, from Oakland to Quebec, Barcelona to Chicago, Wall Street to Moscow and Frankfurt.

Another example of the explosive power of social media was demonstrated on March 5, 2012, when a video was posted on the popular video sharing website, YouTube (which is banned in Pakistan these days due to Blasphemous content) named “KONY 2012” by a group named “Invisible Children Inc”. The film's purpose was to make Ugandan militia leader, and indicted war criminal and International Criminal Court fugitive, Joseph Kony globally known and subsequently arrested by December 2012, the time when the campaign expires. By March 8, 2012, the video had garnered 50 million views on YouTube and by 12 March, the video had 71 million views, apart from being shared by 7.6 million Facebook users. A number of celebrities endorsed the film inlcuding Rihanna, Christina Milian, Nicki Minaj, Bill Gates and Kim Kardashian.

On March 21, 2012, a resolution "condemning Joseph Kony and his ruthless guerrilla group for a 26-year campaign of terror" was put forward by United States Senators’ Jim Inhofe and Chris Coons. The resolution stated that it would back "the effort of Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and the newest country, South Sudan, to stop Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army", along with an official statement of support "for the US effort to help regional forces pursue commanders of the militia group." The resolution has received support from 37 bipartisan US senators.

In Pakistan’s context, the political role of social media was first realised and harnessed by former president, Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf’s Facebook page has 454,016 likes. In 2010, The Telegraph reported that Musharraf was feeling confident about coming back to Pakistan to take part in active politics, being spurred on by his massive following on social media. The next social media darling from Pakistan’s political arena is Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s leader, Imran Khan. He has 436,695 likes on his official Facebook page and his official twitter account is followed by 366,080 people. According to Pankaj Mishra’s profile of Imran Khan, “social media is changing Pakistan,” the PTI leader said. Most Pakistanis have mobile phones. They sign up for Twitter and Facebook in millions. Direct access to voters meant that the PTI could ignore the old constituency politics of appeasing the middlemen.”

Translating this social media potential into political action was the next big step. Musharraf failed in that endeavor, Imran Khan, after initial problems (Garmi main Kharabi), managed to gather hundreds of thousand people at his Jalsa at Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore last October, followed by another successful rally in Karachi. According to Raheel Khurshid, director of communications at Change.org, “change through digital routes begins with ‘clicktivism’, where a number of people who care about a particular social issue are brought together online and consolidate pressure on important societal actors. This is only just the very first step, you have to follow this up by going out of your home. That is how to bring about a change.”

In response to the rising popularity of Imran Khan, other political parties took notice and have been using social media to interact with their followers and to project their own image.

PML(N)’s official facebook page is liked by 33,655 people and they actively advertise on Facebook. Punjab’s Chief Minister has his own social media team and he himself interacts with people on Facebook and Twitter. According to available figures, the official PTI website gets more than 100,000 hits daily from across the country and abroad. The PML(N) website gets around 1,200 hits per day. Even Jamaat-e-Islami is maintaining a web presence through its 3,000 visitors daily.

Elections in 2013 will give a more clear view about the actual role of social media in changing the political landscape in the country. It goes without saying that the days of traditional door to door electioneering are going to end in the next 10 to 15 years. Social media is the next big thing in politics, and this “trend” is most likely to last.


The writer is a medical student with an interest in History, Political Economy and Literature. He blogs here.


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

The writer is a medical student with an interest in History, Political Economy and Literature. He blogs here.

You can follow him @abdulmajeedabid.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (3) Closed

Sep 28, 2012 06:17am
One correction. PTI website was launched in the year 2006. Moreover, their IK facebook page too was created earlier than Mushrraf which you can confirm by visiting facebook. Having said that, Musharraf got amazing response on FB. His page was created much later but convincgly surpassed IK fan following. In my opinion, the real strenth of PTI website is his discussion forums and its fairly open moderation policy. Apparantly, they allow a lot of critcism on its leadership, including IK, which I doubt any other political party has stomach to digest it.
M Ali Khan
Sep 26, 2012 04:24pm
Social media also helped get Maya Khan's infamous show chasing 'daters' in a Karachi park get canned when a lot of anger was felt on facebook, youtube, twitter, and blogs here. Also special mention to many Baloch twitter activists seemingly making the US State Department do a Congressional hearing on Balochistan earlier this year after inundating twitter feeds on the @AskState account
Sep 27, 2012 09:54am
Interesting! I recall one more incident i.e. Iran Elections . The Internet/Social Media had helped Obama Administration to the extent the State Department had to request social-networking site Twitter to delay scheduled maintenance. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/discussion/2009/06/17/DI2009061702232.html)