JESSICA GADOMSKI WRITES – Candidates running in next month’s election are obviously vying for votes. But some candidates, like Imran Khan, are bringing the competition into the 21st century. Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) political party recognized early on that social media could influence the election. PTI began reaching out to voters through Facebook, Twitter and its own website. Khan’s jump has left other parties, like President Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), playing social media catch up. But in a country where only 10 percent of the population is online, will it be a deciding factor?
Some background on Pakistani Internet users may be helpful. Though just a small fraction of the country uses the Internet, those online have similar habits as others around the world. Facebook is the country’s most visited website and YouTube, although technically banned, ironically remains the country’s 10th most visited site. Moreover, it’s believed Pakistani social media users will continue to increase by an average 7 percent a year. In a country where the majority of the population is under 36 years old, these trends can be expected.
Also unsurprising is that many of the younger population identify with Imran Khan, a former cricket player. Khan says the PPP failed the country during its time in power and that his platform is one of change. PTI recently published its platform in detail, the first political party to do so before coming into power. Disenfranchised youth seem to identify with Khan’s message and the Internet makes that message readily available.
Despite many Pakistani Internet users identifying themselves as apolitical, social media is causing some to prick up their ears. Simply put, “It is now easier for them to evaluate a political party or candidate,” notes Rasool Bakhsh Rais, of the Lahore University of Management Sciences. Internet users are also participating in online forums to discuss politicians’ messages.
In today’s technology-driven world, it should come as no surprise that some candidates are turning to social media to help promote their opinions. But how this will ultimately affect the elections remains uncertain. Political analyst Dr. Hasan Askari Rizvi warns that social media “can supplement political campaigning but cannot bring about decisive change.” More conservative political parties, such as Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, reject social media completely, saying, “We did not need social media to bring people to the gathering. Our voters don’t use social networking sites.”
Be that as it may, social media is a powerful tool and should not be underestimated. Political parties who ignore social media run the risk of becoming irrelevant to the youthful population.