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Pakistanis Take Refuge in Social Media Campaigning Before Election

BY Jessica McKenzie | Wednesday, May 8 2013

Screengrab from the Official MQM Twitter page

In the days leading up to Pakistan’s general election on May 11, politicians from the three major secular parties have been forced, by violent attacks on political rallies that have caused more than a hundred deaths, to stop holding political events in public areas. Instead, they have come to rely on Facebook and Twitter as a campaign platform. But even as the political debate heats up on Facebook and candidates boast of record-breaking numbers of tweets per day, experts doubt that social media will prove an effective tool for change change come election day.

Over the past few weeks, after attacks on MQM (Muttahida Quami Movement) candidates and activists resulted in more than 40 deaths, the party boosted its communications team, adding 2,000 volunteers to their staff. "We try to minimize our appearances while optimizing our visibility through Twitter and Facebook," Faisal Sabzwari told France 24. Sabzwari is a MQM candidate who regularly receives death threats. In the same France 24 report, he boasts that in April the party tweeted up to 19,000 times a day — a record in Pakistan.

This is really the first time social media plays an active part in Pakistan politics. Shehzad Ahmed, country director of the Islamabad-based NGO Bytes for All in Pakistan told Central Asia Online, "Pakistanis started joining Twitter in 2007-2008, and it started to really catch on in 2010-2011." The number of Pakistani social media users is increasing by approximately 7 percent a year.

Some say this trend is driving an interest in politics. A professor of political science at Lahore University of Management Science told Deutsche Welle, "Because of the social media, people have started taking an interest in politics more . . . It is now easier for them to evaluate a political party or candidate."

“Facebook gave the Pakistani people a chance to express their opinions without getting shot at in return,” Shehzad Ghiaz, a standup comedian in Karachi, told Asia Society. He recently came under fire for posting a meme that compares Pakistani politicians to Game of Thrones characters.

Norbert Almeida, a security expert and prominent Pakistani Twitter personality, also spoke with Asia Society: "Facebook certainly allows you to use language that wouldn't be acceptable in a face-to-face conversation . . . but that doesn't necessarily translate into a different political landscape in the real world.”

Experts seem to agree that the impact of social media in the upcoming election will be minimal. Social media "can supplement political campaigning but cannot bring about decisive change," according to political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi.

An important factor is Internet access, which is almost exclusively a privilege of Pakistani elites. Although Facebook is the most frequently visited site in Pakistan, the Internet penetration rate is less than 10 percent — one of the lowest rates in the world. So while there are 80 million registered voters in Pakistan, there are only eight million Facebook users (and two or three million Twitter users). Then there is the threat of violence on election day itself, which could keep many elite social media users at home.

For more general information, the Guardian has posted a thorough guide to the Pakistan election that covers the primary personalities and possible game changers in the running, the challenges they face and the issues at stake.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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