THINK politicking, Pakistan-style, and most people would think: loud — and long drawn-out. It’s traditionally been about people travelling long distances, a canopied platform faced with serried ranks of chairs, blood-stirring speeches and thundering denunciations.
Few would have thought that a time might come when a politician desirous of speaking up might choose to not just do so quietly, but also restrict it to text messages of 140 characters or less.
That time may have come.
Where Facebook rules the roost amongst much of the citizenry — admittedly, those that have literacy and internet connectivity — several members of the political elite have turned to Twitter. It might just be the newest arrow in several politicians’ quiver.
Many of those that figure amongst the Twitterati are of the age or background where the internet is a familiar means of communication. PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is often found commenting here, as is Maryam Nawaz Sharif of the PML-N. But politicians’ use of the site is far from restricted to any one generation or party.
People who tweet regularly include Sherry Rehman, Hussain Haqqani and Rehman Malik of the PPP, as well as Asad Omar of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf; Sheikh Rashid Ahmed puts in a comment from time to time, as does Mushahid Husain.
So does Twitter actually make constituents feel closer to the politicians whose attention and concern is vital to the smooth functioning of everyday life? One person that is a frequent presence on Twitter commented that “in speeches and in pressers, you get something that’s been prepared. On Twitter, they each have a distinctive voice, and you can tell who manages their own account. Rehman Malik, for example, is frequently diverting, while Nabil Gabol had this to say recently: ‘breaking sindh means breaking Pakistan so im a Patriot Pakistani nd wil remain so and no 1 is in favor of dividing Sindh [sic].’”
Politicians wouldn’t be using this platform — and tens of thousands of people wouldn’t be following them — if there were no benefits. There are many examples of person-to-politician interactions, one of which is Maryam Nawaz who is these days tweeting often in response to queries about the Youth Business Loan Scheme. Bilawal Bhutto responds frequently to direct comments, too.
“I find it very useful since there’s instant feedback and you can talk directly to followers,” said Asad Omar of the PTI. “But it depends on the kind of politician one is. There’s a very high penetration of social media in my constituency, for example, but obviously people contesting from rural constituencies would find it different.”
For this reason, he added, Twitter is not replacing the traditional methods of reaching out to voters; it’s simply a new tool.
Does instant feedback have an effect on policy, though? In Mr Omar’s view, no, “because it’s just a small fraction of people — it’s not what Pakistan is thinking but a fraction of Pakistan.” With cheap phones becoming Twitter-capable too and with people using the Urdu font, though, “if it keeps going this way virtually every educated Pakistani will be connected through the medium,” he said.
“In the last couple of weeks even TV channels have been picking up Twitter feeds.”
As the former editor of a newspaper, and a regular on Twitter, put it, “political parties and leaders have realised that social media has now become a news source for media organisations. Politicians — or those who run their accounts — sometimes, but not always, also respond when they are tagged to queries. This helps them raise their profile and, in a very, very small measure, may also contribute to better governance and decisions.”
On the downside, he added, “the ease of tweeting doesn’t allow those using Twitter to reflect on what they are saying. There have been many political controversies when a leader has tweeted or retweeted someone else without really thinking through the possible reaction.”
As with each new tool, time will no doubt bring proficiency. But meanwhile, large sections of Pakistan’s educated, internet-connected citizenry seem to be enjoying being atwitter about a politician might say next.