December 16, 2018

Polls & social media

Published in: Dawn

Writer: Usama Khilji

THE ‘drawing room’ discussions on politics have shifted to the palm of our hands through smartphones that connect us to social media, and political activity has taken a fresh turn onto the digital realm in Pakistan, as elsewhere.?

The 2018 elections come at a time when the role of social media in politics and elections is much greater than even five years ago when we first witnessed the use of social media for political purposes. This year, a generation of youth whose primary source of awareness regarding politics has been social media are voting for the first time.

The vote of young people is significant; according to UNDP data, 64 per cent of the population is under 30. Some 56 million Pakistanis, 27pc of the total population, use mobile internet. A vast majority of them are active on social media platforms, according to PTA data. The impact of social media on their voting choices cannot be understated considering the large following political personalities and parties garner online in the absence of alternative political spaces for the youth ever since the ban on student unions on campuses.

The nature of social media is far more democratic than other forms of media: users are free to express their views, share information and updates, and upload photos and videos without the editorial control that traditional media is subjected to. This enables greater participation, promoting the idea of citizen journalism. This also means greater accountability of poll candidates whose statements from past years published on social media are archived and accessible, and videos and photographs are easily available for circulation. Hence, there is greater scrutiny, and graver consequences for false promises, which is disrupting traditional politics significantly.

However, this also means that social media is susceptible to the circulation of false information. The fake news phenomenon is especially rife during election time. Images edited to exaggerate a rally’s attendance, screenshots of tweets edited to wrongly attribute a statement to a leader, and detailed rumours of personal details as well as financial corruption are widely circulated without much verification. At the same time, social media offers a platform for those being slandered to set the record straight.

The extent to which social media can impact poll results in a constituency-based first-past-the-post polling system, however, is more complex. Just like large political rallies in urban centres, social media hashtags and trends bring together a geographically diverse population and amplify their voice. But it is much more difficult to translate this impact into maximum constituency wins that all political parties aspire to.

In urban areas where internet use is more widespread, there are several politically active migrants present for purposes of education or employment but with votes registered in their hometowns or villages. For residents of urban areas, however, the impact of social media is much greater in the more individualised culture of cities where unlike the rural parts, personal interaction with poll candidates and their patronage is not a significant prerequisite for voting choice.

But in Pakistan’s rural constituencies, factors such as caste, family background and patronage are significant. Candidates have to have attended weddings and funerals of key constituents who then promise votes on behalf of the entire extended family. Social media activity can potentially augment these traditions, but the impact of party-specific campaigning is more difficult in the face of precedents where the same candidate has successfully contested a parliament seat from the platform of various political parties.

Social media has also been an important source of information for the public, especially in times of a heavily censored TV and print media. Circum­ven­ting censorship, such as the blockage of the Awami Workers Party website two months before elections is made possible by publishing material on social media pages which are harder to censor by an oppressive state machinery as compared to websites. Circulation of information regarding censorship itself is routine, with columnists taking to social media to publish articles rejected by newspapers.

Hence, it is clear to see several ways in which citizens’ rights are upheld through social media where the right to freedom of speech and association, and right to information are upheld to a greater extent, though there is always the looming threat of abuse of the draconian sections of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, as well as consequences for criticising certain state institutions. At the same time, it is important to steer clear of gullibility when coming across information online, as false information can easily be appropriated. The benefits of social media, however, outweigh the challenges it poses for elections in Pakistan.

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