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Catalyst in polls: social media or political gimmick

March 09, 2012

-File Photo

ISLAMABAD: In Pakistan, we have yet to witness a revolution a la Arab Spring, however, that has not stopped social media users from rattling about the impact the medium has and would have on politics. With the general elections round the corner, some analysts have gone to the extent of predicting that social media will influence public opinion more than on-the-ground campaigning, especially as Twitter announced starting a platform in Urdu.

"People have started taking interest in everyday politics and with availability of these modern gadgets, they would be able to determine which party and candidate deserves their votes," Prof Dr Rasool Bakhsh Rais, who teaches political science at Lahore University of Management Sciences (Lums), told Dawn .

"Communication technology in general and social media in particular would play a major role during next general elections. With well over 100 million cell users in the country and increasing availability of internet in far-flung areas of the country, it is bound to impact the elections," he commented.

So far, Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf (PTI) has truly tapped into social media to build its voter base. "PTI is heavily banking on social media to put across the party's messages among masses. There would be a significant increase in voter turnout in the next elections whose major beneficiary at the moment seems to be PTI, if other parties did not wake up to this reality," Prof Rais observed.

Mocked and consigned as a party of young internet users, the online popularity of PTI has now inspired other political parties to step up their games. While the older generation of politicians and the powerbrokers – PPP co-chairman and President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, former prime minister Mian Nawaz Sharif, and leader of the opposition Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan – are yet to register on social media, one can see their heirs apparent actively engaged on Twitter and Facebook.

Bakhtawar and Assefa Bhutto recently supported their beleaguered Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, who if convicted could face jail up to six months. On the other hand, Maryam Nawaz Sharif has aimed her guns at Imran Khan Khan's PTI, and is apparently giving the new party a tough time, challenging its mantra of change. With Marvi Memon joining the PML-N, the party's presence on Twitter and Facebook would further increase in coming days.

However, while the hype about the influence of social media is effective in rallying support and having people opine in public, the reality remains that it is a very urban-centric phenomenon. Expensive and limited internet access, high rates of illiteracy and little awareness mean that the gulf between the urban and rural youths have widened, and the youth in rural areas is disconnected from such forums of expression.

If one steps out of the cities, this reality hits head-on, and is one that older political parties in Pakistan are cognisant of. "Social media is an important tool of communication, but its impact is restricted to the higher strata of society," said young Engineer Khurram Dastigir, who is sitting member of the National Assembly and deputy information secretary of the PML-N.

A registered user on Twitter, Mr Khurram admits that majority of young voters in his home constituency of Gujranwala are not users of Twitter and Facebook, hence, if some would say that a political party such as PTI would sweep the next general elections based on the buzz created in cyberspace, he would not buy that argument.

"Political parties and politicians have to reach out to voters in their very own neighbourhoods in order to get their confidence instead of sitting in plush offices and by uploading professionally-cropped photo shoots," he said taking a dig at the pictures of Imran Khan on PTI's website.

Inter-party differences aside, in Pakistan, with this jarring rural-urban divide, the questions remain: Has power truly devolved to the lowest common denominator? Who all are empowered? And how will the bridge be filled between the youth from different areas?

Till we do not bring the rural youth on the table, any talk of social media change will ring hollow. In fact, even literature coming out from the West is re-thinking its evaluation of the impact of social media in non-Western societies.

Take for instance the Nato Review series on social media that was put up on the organisation's website a few months back. Even though it didn't create much of a ripple, some of the featured pieces in the series are worth reading. Very concise, they provide deep introspection about the true impact, if any, of social media in non-Western societies.

The piece "In Egypt and Facebook" by Will Heaven, Assistant Comment Editor and the Deputy Editor of Telegraph Blogs, concluded by saying while social media provided an impetus, there was significant bias in reporting about the events in the Middle East. "

The Western media has focused intently on the role of Western technology, but less so on the fact that active street protests, a strikingly familiar vehicle for revolution, brought down dictators," he stated and then quoted Hamid Tehrani, the Persian editor of Global Voices as saying: "The West was focused not on the Iranian people but on the role of Western technology.. Twitter was important in publicising what was happening, but its role was overemphasised."

Thus the comments by two American officials in "Social Media: Power to the People", part of the same series, were not surprising.

Alec Ross, senior adviser for innovation to the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and his colleague Ben Scott, did toe this popular line and wrote: "Che Guevara of the 21st century is the network.

It does not take a single, individual figure to organise and inspire the masses.." and then went on to add: "To a significant degree, power is being devolving from the nation state and large institutions to smaller institutions and individuals..As well as opening up new conversations, it also reflects the new profile and dynamics of voters - and it is up to politicians to respond."

In Pakistan, media houses and monitors have to be acutely aware of the pitfalls of falling for this kind of hype. True change will have to be on ground to inspire and empower the masses, both urban and rural.