July 21, 2018

Social media and elections

By The Daily Times

With the rise of new media technologies especially the social networking platforms, citizens have found newer ways to communicate their concerns to political parties notorious for their expediency. The Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA) was inclined to give a ticket to Mian Mithoo, a Sindhi influential who has been in the news, for years, for all the wrong reasons. Forcible conversions of Hindu women in Sindh takes place with the intervention of powerful men such as Mithoo at the local level. Once the news of his GDA ticket broke, an activist took to Twitter and ran an active campaign against it. Within a day or so, the GDA reportedly decided against the idea of using Mian Mithoo as the electable-in-waiting.

This small but important victory comes at a time when the political parties are competing for electables regardless of their merit, ideology and potential to contribute to the cause of parliamentary democracy. While the mainstream media is covering the infighting within the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) and Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf (PTI) in a sensational manner, social media platforms are providing a unique opportunity to the party workers and ordinary voters to express their concerns and convey them to the respective leaderships in a timely manner. Granted that many such conversations are also engineered by noisy social media teams hired by political parties, there are countless other netizens whose voice is vital for the health of the democratic system.

After all, without citizen voice and its ability to influence public affairs, democracy cannot take root. This is why the case of Mian Mithoo, and many others, is instructive. During the election season, it is also clear that social media will play a vital role in influencing the undecided voters given the polarization in the TV channels for the past few years. In fact some of the TV channels have turned into echo chambers where the news programming and talk shows follow a partisan line and the viewers are already aware of them. A recent survey on polling conditions conducted by Pakistan Institute for Legislative Development has presented a sorry picture of declining trust in the mainstream media.

Yet, the influence of social media must not be overstated. Only thirty per cent of Pakistanis are online and have access to Twitter and/or Facebook. The rest still rely on newspapers and electronic media for information. This is why Pakistani media have a critical responsibility in the next few weeks of informing the citizenry and also playing an objective and neutral role in the elections. At the same time, media outlets need to remain united in the face of controls that are growing by the day. Social media with all its importance cannot fill in the need for a robust, independent and responsible mainstream media.

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