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Changing face of campaigns in internet-driven polls

Updated July 07, 2018

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MEMBERS of the PPP’s media monitoring response team working at the cell at Bilawal House in Karachi.— Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
MEMBERS of the PPP’s media monitoring response team working at the cell at Bilawal House in Karachi.— Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

THE clustered room serving as the election cell in Bilawal House Karachi has more technological gadgets than people as the party ramps up its activities in the run-up to the crucial July 25 polls.

“Our post about your comments on chairman’s Lyari trip received more than 4,000 views on the website,” a man tells Taj Haider, who is heading the Pakistan Peoples Party’s central election cell.

The use of social media in 2013 general elections was primarily limited to mass level dissemination of information vis-à-vis activities of the political parties. “This time though, there is more competition. It’s all about how innovative and effective your communication strategy is. It’s an internet election!” a member of the digital cell tells Dawn.

The party has established a database of over 2.5 million members and operates 190 WhatsApp groups to keep everyone in the loop, he shares.

In a separate room, a group of young members are assembled in a row facing multiple TV screens airing updates on news channels. “This is our media monitoring response cell. Their task is to monitor content on media and get the leadership to release statements/posts on whatever is trending [online],” explains Usman Ghazi, who is leading the cell.

Speaking about the party’s communication strategy, Mr Haider says that the purpose is to transform politics of mud-slinging into an issue-based conversation. “Our digital content is therefore focused on the party’s manifesto and communicating our [projects] to the people. We are not in for the electables… we are invested in solutions,” he jibes.

An analysis of content generated [online] on the election space by political parties as well as independent candidates contesting the polls reveals that the social media teams are tasked with sharing campaign updates, linking surveys that are in favour of the party, uploading a large selection of campaign photos and videos and providing real-time updates of campaign activities from the ground, and criticism — of opponents and performance of previous governments.

Given the ever-increasing role of social media in electioneering, a lack of an online presence can very well mean that a candidate or cause does not exist in the eyes of a voter. “Canvassing is incomplete without social media now. Till a month ago, Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP) was not invested in technology. But now in the election month, our efforts are concentrated to boosting Mustafa Kamal’s online presence and interaction with the public,” says Daniyal Allah Ditta, who operates the PSP chairman’s social media accounts.

Since most voters — particularly young voters — rely on social networks for news consumption, controlling their perception now requires dominating online spaces. Hence, candidates are covering their bases by creating WhatsApp groups to send their word across to constituents.

Despite PSP’s recent formation as a party, the team has expanded its digital team to a network of 300 registered volunteers and over 120 WhatsApp groups which are further multiplied into district-wise groups. “WhatsApp messages are personal. They make the voters feel important,” adds Mr Ditta.

For veteran digital warriors like the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI)—the party which launched the country’s first internet campaign in 2013 — the entry of other parties on the cyber-battlefield is a cause for concern.

“Other parties are spending millions on sponsored posts and their digital campaign. Facebook has restricted organic reach recently which requires one to pay to reach a wider audience. This is growing a concern for us [PTI] since we have not allocated a budget to social media,” PTI’s social media secretary Arslan Khalid concedes.

The party, he is quick to add, is instead turning to digital apps to reach out to voters. Since PTI’s social media content is personality-politics driven where its chairman is the focus of all conversation, the party is soon to launch an initiative which allows users to directly interact with Imran Khan. “The ‘one click to Imran Khan’ app will allow voters to [directly] send a message to the leader about key issues in their area. Every day, the best five to six questions will be shortlisted and Imran Khan will call the selected users to address their concerns,” the party’s social media secretary explains.

Another recent addition to PTI’s election campaign is the Insafian App. “Through this app, the candidates can access their registered constituents via GPS. It enables the leaders to reach out to the relevant people based on their locality and update them about an upcoming political meeting or rally in the area,” shares Mr Khalid.

With the internet’s potential to span boundaries, political parties can cast their election messaging nets further afield, targeting rural voters who now enjoy better 3G/4G coverage than in 2013. “For a minimum of Rs1,500, a post [on Facebook] can reach over 6,000 people. But since, most parties already have upto 50k likes on their official pages, they don’t need to spend for a wide reach,” reveals Shaheer Ahmed, a social media marketing expert, adding that most of the [political] traffic on Facebook is rural-originated while Twitter is urban-driven.

It is perhaps for the rural voters, that political leaders are now turning to regional languages for conversation on social media. Besides official region-based party accounts, PML-N president has set-up Twitter accounts in Urdu, Pushto, Seraiki, Punjabi, Sindhi and Brahui. PTI chairman Imran Khan also until recently started tweeting in Urdu.

With the rise in digital politics, it seems that those most capable of manoeuvring these shifting sands will have an edge in the upcoming polls, although it remains questionable if an online advantage will translate into real victories.

Published in Dawn, July 7th, 2018