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Tweeting politicians

Updated Jan 09, 2017 11:32am


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THE internet revolution that came to Pakistan in 1996 has, 20 years on, had massive impact on all walks of life — academic, cultural, social, and economic. The rising popularity of the micro-blogging site Twitter has irrevocably changed the traditional ways in which politicians and government representatives communicate with their constituents. But is all this tweeting to the benefit or the detriment of our nation and its governance?

Twitter has been in existence since 2006; users can sign up for accounts in their real names or anonymously, and post short messages of 140 characters. In 10 short years, it has become the place for much political movement, first grass-roots actions like communication and organisation, as well as information dissemination. The Atlantic states: “Twitter has grown into a force that has bolstered grass-roots conversations, disrupted the top-down nature of political leadership and thought, and has given voice to groups long hidden on the political periphery.”

In the United States, President Barack Obama seized on the opportunity to use Twitter. For the first time, an American president was speaking directly to other Twitter users to send out short, punchy messages about his leadership vision, and his reactions to domestic and international events. Meanwhile, political parties and movements large and small began to harness the power of Twitter and its ability to amplify messages, as well as its challenge to mainstream media by giving everyone a voice and access to the public.

Pakistanis hope their leaders will favour them with a retweet.

World leaders and governments took some time to catch up to the American initiative, but today we see every nation’s leader has a Twitter account, including Sheikh Moham­med of Dubai (who tweets in Arabic and English), India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Queen Rania of Jordan, etc as well as the young members of the British royal family.

Twitter has become a necessary part of official government workings in many countries, with diplomats at home and abroad equipped with an iPad and an official Twitter account. The quick and powerful medium with direct connections to millions of people, can, if used right, increase individual or collective cachet, cause a politician’s popularity to skyrocket, and make government more effective in listening to the voice of the people.

In Pakistan, Twitter was slow to catch on at first, and still remains a tool of the somewhat elite and educated, the first people to gain access to the internet. But with the boom in cheap smartphones (13.5 million subscriptions to mobile broadband in 2015) and the advent of 3G in the country, 17.2m Facebook accounts and 280m connections to Twitter a day, Pakistani officials and political parties knew they had to join the trend or risk irrelevance.

As the site ProPakistani writes, the last three or so years has seen a proliferation of government officials and agencies take to Twitter and Facebook in order to announce their activities, solicit public feedback, and deliver pro-social messages to the Pakistani public. The Pakistan Army’s ISPR uses Twitter to make announcements about security situations and progress in national emergencies. Diplomats and bureaucrats are not up to speed yet with Twitter or Facebook, and while most Pakistani embassies around the world have official Twitter accounts, they aren’t very active.

On the other hand, Pakistani politicians have taken to Twitter like gasoline on a fire. Some of the most popular Twitter accounts belong to leaders like Imran Khan, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and Maryam Nawaz Sharif, who spend much of their time tweeting allegations at each other. Mavericks like Sheikh Rasheed and stalwarts like Dr Arif Alvi lend their personalities to their Twitter accounts, using Urdu and English to raise chuckles and deliver sober accountability respectively. It’s a lively arena with ordinary Pakistanis forming breathless fan clubs and fighting with each other in the hopes that their favourite politician-cum-celebrity will favour them with a ‘retweet’ or a ‘like’.

But our politicians and government representatives must bear in mind the weight of their office and their responsibility to the people when composing a tweet. Take the example of Defence Minister Khawaja Asif, who on Dec 23, 2016, reminded Israel of Pakistan’s nuclear ability in a tweet. He reacted to fake news that suggested Pakistan would send ground troops to Syria, with Israel purportedly threatening to retaliate with nuclear weapons if this happened. This tweet made it to the pages of international newspapers and turned Pakistan into a laughing stock.

The inventor of Twitter probably didn’t envision a nuclear incident resulting from an ill-thought-out tweet, but if anyone could make such a Stanley Kubrick-esque scenario a reality, it would be a Pakistani politician. With great Twitter power comes great Twitter responsibility; our leaders need to restrain themselves from abusing it to the detriment of the people they claim to serve.

The writer is an author.

Twitter: @binashah

Published in Dawn, January 9th, 2017

Author Image

Bina Shah is a writer and columnist in Karachi; she is the author of the novel Slum Child and A Season for Martyrs.

She tweets @binashah

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

Comments (8) Closed

khan Jan 09, 2017 10:09am

When was the last time a Pakistani or an Indian has used anything right?

Pakistani Hindu Jan 09, 2017 10:51am

All leaders across the world should learn from Sushma Swaraj (Minister of Foreign Affairs, India) about using Twitter for the betterment of the people. She was in hospital for kidney transplant but still she was helping people from the hospital bed. She is a true saviors for all Indian expats across the world. Our leaders should also learn from her.

THOUGHT PROVOKING Jan 09, 2017 11:12am

well Articulated !!!it is well Appreciated !!!The writer has deep analytical observation and Approach for understanding social Media revolution / The twitter has became strong source of public domain in social Media for Expressing your s views and communication. The Twitter has became a mainstream media by giving everyone a voice and access to the public with Freedom of Thoughts and Freedom of Expression with in the domain of provision of Law . The Twitter should be used as source of information or Medium in a [positive way for developing a healthy culture with in the society ethically and morally .it should not be misused for destructive purposes for creating any sort of political harassment in the public. The Twitter has been Recognized in all over the world as strong source of information .it has become the strong domain of political movements, first grass-roots actions like communications and for representing organization Leadership vision in the public.

Bilal Jan 09, 2017 12:16pm

Maryam Nawaz is one of the most active politician on Twitter...Her all tweets are against Imran Khan!

Dr. SalariA, Aamir Ahmad Jan 09, 2017 01:08pm

They are all "copy cats," as they say.

To depend so much on a product, service or technology that you have neither designed nor developed is nothing but lunatic, illogical, unwarranted and uncalled for, to say the least.

khanm Jan 09, 2017 01:16pm

Tweeting politicians.... indeed tweeting politicians.. what do they tweet someone else's tune. Can tweeter change the society.. probably it can, but can it change any thing in the society we live in ... absolutely.. provided the vast majority of the students are on the same platform, like a wave in the corn field all swayed in one direction. will it happen here in Pakistan... no cos we are ethnically, politically, and provincially divided. so keep on tweeting a good pass time hobby..

Skeptic Jan 09, 2017 02:40pm

They didn't do much hard work to start with. Now they won't even have to bother going to their offices. Stay in bed and tweet away. That's how government is going to be run from here on.

Will we even have to read Dawn, or should we all be glued to our Smart Phones and Twitter Accounts 24/7 to get any updates on events??

What a sorry state of affairs. Trump had single-handed destroyed the art of diplomacy with his uncouth style and twitter addiction.

venkob Jan 09, 2017 09:37pm

hahah. I would politely ask some sane minds proof-read Pakistani politicians message before hitting the button. We have seen some real dumb messages that will bring shame and trolls. remember the infamous nuclear threat message from an MP reacting to a fake news.