TikTok: The new frontier for political info-wars

TikTok has silently become a forum for serious debate on some of the most contentious issues of our times.
Published May 22, 2023

Violent protests broke out in the country on May 9, hours after PTI Chairman Imran Khan was arrested from the premises of the Islamabad High Court (IHC). Within moments of these protests, videos of people vandalising public and private properties, torching buildings, and clashing with police started circulating on social media.

The authorities quickly pulled the plug on mobile internet and blocked public access to Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. The rationale was to not allow the protesters — and in some cases, genuine miscreants — to mobilise using the reach of social media.

The government, clearly wary of PTI’s social media prowess, seems to have been satisfied with blocking the three platforms, likely believing that it had blunted its main rival’s most potent tool. The PTI is, after all, a juggernaut on the three aforementioned platforms, with a cumulative following of over 17.6 million. However, the government left a flank unguarded: TikTok. They either did not take the platform seriously, or were totally clueless about its potential in narrative warfare.

TikTok is uncharted territory in the social media landscape of Pakistani politics. Only two parties — the PTI and PML-N — have official TikTok accounts. Between the two, the PTI is far ahead in the game. The traction PTI enjoys is overwhelming. Its official TikTok account has three million followers and has accumulated over 167.4m likes on its video content. Meanwhile, the PML-N’s follower count stands at a measly 41,300, and it has just over 770,000 likes on its content.

With Twitter inaccessible, the PTI and its social media team checked the government’s move by leveraging TikTok. It went full throttle on the platform. In four days — from May 9, when Mr Khan was arrested, to May 12, when the Supreme Court ordered his release — 164 videos were posted on PTI’s official account; an average of 41 videos per day. These videos were viewed by over 100 million people, garnered over 62 million likes and 191,000 comments. They were shared by around 260,000 people. The average engagement on each video was: over 618,000 views, 378,000 likes, 1,165 comments and 1,583 shares.

The PTI shared messages from PTI leaders and montages of Mr Khan in action. While TV screens dedicated themselves to scenes depicting violence, the PTI posted videos showing ‘peaceful’ demonstrations. It also effectively used the platform to mobilise workers with calls to gather at specific locations in various cities.

To put the PTI’s feverish activity into perspective over the period of Mr Khan’s incarceration, consider the analytics of its account for the preceding seven days. From May 1 to May 8, only 95 videos were posted on PTI’s TikTok account — an average of around 14 videos per day. These were viewed by around 24.4m people. The total engagement was around 41.8m likes, 51,400 comments and 73,800 shares. On average, each video had 257,000 views, 44,000 likes, 541 comments and 776 shares.

Radio silence

The numbers show that the PTI enjoyed an open field on TikTok; its narrative went unchallenged. While the party was churning out video after video over those four days, the only other political account — the PML-N’s — posted only two, which were viewed for a total of around 134,000 times. Their cumulative engagement was around 9,400 likes, 348 comments and 908 shares. The PML-N posted videos after Mr Khan’s arrest with the hashtag #fitnaarrested. The total number of views on videos with a particular hashtag in its description is a good metric to contextualise the reach of the message. Videos with the hashtag #fitnaarrested — including those posted by the PML-N official account and its followers — had only about 2.7m views. Compare that with the hashtag #ReleaseImranKhan used by PTI and its followers, which had a total of over 233.6m views.

The efficacy of the government’s move to shut down three major social media platforms was debatable, as most people easily bypassed the gag by using a VPN. As for the objective behind the move — to curb the PTI’s power to mobilise — the numbers from TikTok show that it failed to achieve it. These numbers also showed the futility of attempts to curb the spread of information in a time when there’s a vast range of social media platforms available. Whether governments — the incumbent and subsequent — learn that lesson is yet to be seen.

PTI’s TikTok juggernaut

On the face of it, TikTok and political discourse do not seem to go hand-in-hand. ‘Fun videos’ is the phrase generally associated with the platform. However, it is a lot more than that. The place is populated by Gen Z — those born between 1997 and 2013 — who make up almost 39 per cent of its total users. However, TikTok has silently become a forum for serious debate on some of the most contentious issues of our times: from racial justice, climate change and politics, to gender-based violence, etc.

For the youth, it is their window to the world around them. They get their daily news from simple-to-understand ‘explainer’ videos. According to a 2022 report by the Reuters Institute, usage of TikTok for news has increased fivefold among youth between 18 and 24 years across all markets: from three per cent in 2020, to 15pc in 2022.

There are obvious reasons why TikTok is the new frontier in political warfare. It has over a billion active monthly users and is available in more than 150 countries. It is the most downloaded app, and the second-most visited website after Google. The platform’s presentation as a raw and unfiltered mode of communication negates the need for highly choreographed and meticulously edited videos. Just add a song over a few catchy visuals, superimpose filters, piece them together with inbuilt editing tools and throw them out there.

Political parties and politicians have set up their bases on the platform to woo young voters, who hold the power to swing elections if they can be persuaded to come to polling booths. After Facebook and Twitter, the impact of TikTok on global elections is being felt. The 2022 elections in Malaysia were dubbed as the ‘TikTok elections’; almost 30pc of the major party candidates eyeing a Senate seat during last year’s US midterm elections had a TikTok account; and the leader of one of the largest political parties in Canada, Jagmeet Singh, has a boisterous TikTok account, making him immensely popular among youth.

While explaining the mass appeal of short-video platforms like TikTok, digital media expert Talha Ahad said these types of platforms are more prevalent among users from rural or underprivileged areas as they allow them to explore their creativity.

“Over the last few years, [people’s consumption] behaviour has changed. Back then, if you were politically active in a rural area, you’d want to be on Facebook or Twitter,” said Mr Ahad, adding that campaigns on those platforms were orchestrated in nature.

“But now, there is more choice. People are choosing platforms where they are more comfortable and creative.”

TikTok’s ‘tight screws’ on political content

With the spurt of political content on TikTok, the scrutiny surrounding the platform increased. Its developers faced a new headache: how could they steer clear of a scandal like the one involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica? For them, the solution was restrictive policies and rigorous monitoring of political content. TikTok now has an explicit ‘no political advertisement’ policy. These include branded ads and paid promotions. Any account flagged for taking money to create political content is permanently banished from the platform.

TikTok classifies political accounts as GPPPA, or Government, Politician, and Political Party Accounts. These include accounts operated by government entities, officials, political candidates, official spokespersons, political parties, royals, youth bodies and former heads of state. GPPPAs can neither place ads on the platform nor are eligible for monetisation. They cannot promote any content on the platform other than in select situations of public importance, like the Covid-19 pandemic. But in those cases, these accounts will have to work with a TikTok representative. GPPPAs cannot raise funds or solicit donations on the platform.

The ‘social side’ of Pakistani politics

Pakistan was never an early adapter when it came to technology, and the same was reflected in its political messaging. The pivot away from traditional ways of political campaigning has been slow. A look at the social media presence of political parties shows that they are yet to accept it as an effective mode of communication. Of the 15 parties that have at least one seat in the current parliament, 12 have an active Facebook page, 11 have a Twitter account, eight have an Instagram account, and five have YouTube channels. PPP, PML-N JUI-F, PTI, ANP and Jamaat-i-Islami are the only parties with an active presence on all these platforms.

The PTI, for all obvious reasons, has the largest and the most active presence on these platforms. The party is also credited with being the pioneer in using social media for narrative building. The book, Pakistan’s Political Parties: Surviving between Dictatorship and Democracy, co-authored by Niloufer Siddiqui, Mariam Mufti and Sahar Shafqat, describes PTI as an “early mover” on the social media front “when it turned to Twitter and Facebook in order to mobilise the coveted youth vote.”

A 2014 research report on PTI’s use of Twitter by Saifuddin Ahmed and Marko M. Skoric found that its use of Twitter was “the most distinctive as it involved greater interaction with the public, more campaign updates and greater mobilisation of citizens to vote.” PTI started becoming a social media juggernaut at the turn of the last century, and a lot of it was due to the cohort of supporters it managed to attract through its messaging: the tech-savvy younger generation, whose default mode of expression and organisation was through the internet, says political scientist Tabinda Khan, who was a part of PTI before she quit in 2016.

‘Master TikTokers’

It is important to try and understand how the PTI and PML-N differ in their use of TikTok and what their content tells us about their strategy, narrative and messaging. As part of our research, we analysed the content published on both accounts. We took a sample of 144 videos from PTI’s account and 100 videos from PML-N’s account. Since PTI publishes several videos every day, we restricted our sample to videos posted across five dates: March 8, March 14 to 16, and March 18. These dates were chosen as the account witnessed the most activity on these days. On March 8, PTI workers came face to face with the police and a supporter, Ali Bilal, aka Zille Shah, died. From March 14 to 16, police laid a siege at the PTI chairman’s Zaman Park residence to arrest him, leading to another face-off with police. On March 18, Mr Khan arrived in Islamabad to appear before a court, resulting in a new standoff between the police and PTI workers.

On the face of it, PTI’s TikTok works like a well-oiled machine. The 144 videos were posted over a period of five days — almost 29 videos per day on average. Given that most of them needed to be pieced together and edited for music and graphics, it appeared to be the work of a dedicated team of social media specialists. The PML-N’s 100 videos spanned over 82 days — from January 1 to March 25 — at an average of 1.2 videos per day.

The art of narrative-building

Niloufer Siddiqui explains that in the political context, a narrative is an idea of a political party’s ideology and what it stands for. ‘Narrative-building’ is a buzzword in politics these days as political parties want to take the lead in setting the discourse. For Ms Siddiqui, who teaches political science at the University of Albany, PTI is clear in what its narrative is. “It stands as anti-corruption, anti-status quo and anti-elite.”

Our analysis showed that PTI used TikTok to effectively take the lead in setting the narrative. Across the five days, the account consistently posted videos showing how authorities “targeted” the party’s workers. Of the 31 videos posted on March 8, 10 accused the police of torturing, tear gassing and killing a party worker. Out of the 77 videos posted between March 14 and 16, a total of 18 were about the alleged torture of PTI workers, teargassing at Mr Khan’s house, police’s attempt to breach the Zaman Park’s door, and claims about the use of chemicals in water cannons and expired tear gas canisters. On March 18, the account posted 34 videos, of which 10 accused the government and security agencies of torturing and teargassing PTI workers and conducting an “illegal” search operation at Zaman Park.

The PMLN apparently failed to counter this narrative on the three dates. In fact, only two videos were posted on the party’s official account between March 10 to March 24. They both featured Maryam Nawaz Sharif.

The analysis showed that the PTI used TikTok as an effective tool to mobilise its workers and demonstrate ‘public support’ for its chairman. In 22 of the analysed videos, PTI leaders directly addressed the workers and urged them to reach Zaman Park. These were in addition to the use of hashtag #ZamanParkPohancho** in the description of the analysed videos. Till April 7, the videos under the said hashtag — not all of them posted by the official PTI account — had over 242m views. There were also 41 videos on the apparent ‘public support’ for Mr Khan, showing the crowd gathered outside Zaman Park and during his court appearance.

For Ms Siddiqui, a big reason for the clarity in PTI’s messaging is Mr Khan being the party’s face. “The fact is that whatever Imran Khan says becomes what PTI says. So, the PTI and Imran Khan are really synonymous.”

This contrasts with the PML-N, whose narrative, like the house of Sharifs, appears to be divided between Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and Ms Nawaz. Of the 100 analysed videos, the narrative of 40 videos centred around PM Shehbaz. These were clips of his meeting, interviews, media talks and governance. Ms Sharif was the focus of 23 videos. Most of these videos were her addresses, rallies, and ‘public support’.

The PML-N strategy witnessed an apparent shift after January 28 — the day Ms Sharif returned to Pakistan. All but one of the 23 videos featuring Ms Sharif were posted after this date. Before the PML-N leader’s return, the party’s narrative was focused on PM Shehbaz’s governance. Out of the 40, 33 videos featuring the prime minister were posted before this date.

The ‘Imran factor’

The analysis showed that the PTI is clear in its approach: centre the entire narrative around Chairman Imran Khan — his popularity, supporters’ willingness to “sacrifice their lives for him”, his “fight for people’s rights”, and him being a “one-man army against the state’s oppression”. Of the 144 videos analysed, the narrative in 62 centred around Mr Khan, ranging from the conspiracy to kill him, reasons for his attempted arrest, the gag on his speeches, the cases against him, etc. In 36 out of 144 videos, Mr Khan was the sole appearance.

These were clips of his speeches and his messages to PTI supporters. This ‘Imran-centric’ content did yield results for PTI. Nine of the 14 videos on PTI’s account that crossed over a million views featured Mr Khan. Not only for his party, but the PTI chairman also fetched eyeballs for the rival PML-N. Of the ten most-viewed videos on the PML-N’s account during the period in consideration, four were directly critical of Mr Khan.

Narrative amplification

Like other social media platforms, hashtags are the lynchpin of every content amplification strategy on TikTok as they increase the reach of a video. All videos under one hashtag are categorised together, thus making relevant content easy to find. Populating a hashtag with videos turns it into a trend which appears on TikTok’s Discover tab.

One of the reasons PML-N’s content failed to get good traction was its inconsistent use of hashtags. Since her return, Ms Sharif has become a regular feature on PML-N’s TikTok account, with attempts to portray her as a future leader. The party propagated the hashtag #Umeed_e_Seher_Maryam_Nawaz with videos featuring her.

However, only six of the 22 videos posted since her return had this hashtag in the description. The hashtag has only 6.3m views. Compare this with PTI, whose every video featuring IK had, among other hashtags, #Imran_Khan_Hamari_Redline in the description. All videos under this hashtag had a combined 281m views.

Every video on the PML-N’s account has, on average, three hashtags, while the average for PTI videos was four. Of the 144 analysed videos posted by PTI, only four had no hashtags, compared to nine out of 100 for PML-N, while five PTI videos were missing a description, in comparison to seven by PML-N.

The ‘perfect’ TikTok

For quantitative analysis, we developed a scale based on Hootsuite’s description of an ideal TikTok video. According to Hootsuite, one of the most widely used social media management platforms, for a TikTok video to go viral and have massive reach, it must have at least 15 elements.

These include participation in trends, creating duets of viral videos, good editing, a soundtrack, etc. For our analysis, we based the scale on eight elements relevant to our content. They were: hashtags, editing, music, animations, short length, caption, originality and engagement. Using this scale, the videos were rated from one to eight, with one being the lowest and eight being the highest score.

One PTI video had the perfect score of 8; 38 each had scores of 7 and 6; 42 had a score of 5; 15 had a score of 4, and four had a score of 3. In comparison, five of the PML-N’s 100 videos had the perfect score of 8, 33 scored 7, 35 scored 6, 18 scored 5, 8 scored 4, and one video scored 3. One reason why PML-N had more videos with a perfect or near-perfect score was the time duration. The average length of a PTI video was around 61 sec, and that of PML-N was 47sec. Around 42pc of all videos posted on PML-N’s account were under 30 sec — the ideal video length on the platform. In comparison, only 29pc of all PTI videos were under 30sec.

‘The voter is changing’

While political campaigns run on Pakistani social media leave a lot to be desired, the presence of the two biggest political parties on TikTok indicates an effort to reach out to voters where they’re concentrated. In surveys conducted by Asfandyar Mir and Niloufer Siddiqui to understand what platforms people use to access news and determine its trustworthiness, the numbers were 58pc for Facebook, 63pc WhatsApp, 47pc YouTube, 17pc Twitter and 30pc TikTok.

This change is not limited to how people consume news; it has a wider implication for Pakistan’s political landscape. “The voter is changing,” Ms Siddiqui said while explaining this trend.

While political parties with inherently weak organisational systems have relied on electables and patronage to attract votes, things have started to change. “Social media and urbanisation, severing feudal and biradri ties are changing party affiliations.”

And the PTI has capitalised on this.

Ms Siddiqui said the PTI also relied on electables, but it simultaneously managed to capture people’s attention with its anti-status quo and anti-corruption narrative. “The PML-N and PPP, the other two major parties, failed to catch up. They are still stuck in electable maths.”

This was helped by PTI’s openness to exploring new platforms to amplify its message. As Mr Ahad explained, the party has always been more conducive to experimenting with social media, while their rivals fear the backlash their leaders might receive on these places.

“The PTI has been dominating the narrative so much, and for so long, other parties are apprehensive in countering it,” he said.

The number of likes, shares, comments and views are approximation as TikTok rounds off the figure after it reaches five digits

All hashtags originally in Urdu script have been rewritten in Roman Urdu.

This story has been done in collaboration with Media Matters for Democracy.

An abridged version of this story was published in Dawn on May 22, 2023.