Ignore the influence of social media at your own peril
Gone are the days when we used to wait for the morning paper to know about national and international affairs - because of social media, we get the information as it happens. In today’s interconnected world, text messages, emails, Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other social media tools have replaced traditional media like radio, print and television.
The internet has been perhaps the most outstanding innovation in the field of communications and research. Today, a big chunk of the world population uses the internet for multiple purposes. Internet World Stats (IWS) estimated that there are around 2,267,233,742 internet users in the world which is 32.7% of the total world population. A regional breakup suggests that 44.8% of total internet users are Asians. Interestingly, among the world’s top 20 internet user states, China stands at number one, India at number three and Pakistan at twenty.
According to the study, in December 2011, there were about 30 million internet users in Pakistan which amounts to 15.5 percent of the total population. Facebook is the most visited Internet site in Pakistan, followed by Google, YouTube, Wikipedia, Twitter, LinkedIn and others. Pakistan is at 26th in the world ranking of Facebook users; currently, there are more than 6 million Facebook users in Pakistan. 51 per cent of the 6 million Facebook users from Pakistan belong to the 18-24 age bracket. Twitter is said to have around more than 3 million users in Pakistan (more than the population of our capital city, Islamabad) and this rate is increasing rapidly. Thus, a Twitter post of 140 characters is powerful beyond its size.
Internet penetration is dramatically increasing in our country as Pakistan Telecommunication Ltd (PTCL) and other telecommunications are now offering affordable and speedy internet services now. Our involvement and interest in social networking can be judged when the government, particularly the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) was vastly criticised by people from every walk of life when it blocked Twitter for more than eight hours on May 20. Next day, it was a front page story on mainstream papers with editorials and opinions.
This new media is effective in many ways. It provides a platform to the people where they can write, share and express their ideas without any fear and compulsion and gives them an opportunity to get together and united for a purpose. It also gives people the sense of being empowered since they can raise social issues, agitate about them, forward their opinions to the requisite authorities through these channels. Since it is an excellent source of connectivity, not only is it a catalyst for collective social action but also makes organising the same easier. Thus, social media channels can have an effect on public opinion and influence policy making in a number of ways.
It is well know that almost all American politicians employ social media to full effect in their elections campaign. Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande too used social media very effectively in the French presidential elections held in April-May this year. Not so surprisingly, social media played an important role in helping Hollande to win the presidential elections.
Today, political parties in Pakistan are also making good use of social media; most of the political parties have official websites, Facebook and Twitter pages. This shows that they have now recognised the power and significance of these new media. Social networks are the best medium for our political parties to attract and engage their followers and voters, especially their younger, urban demographic. Most political parties such as the PPP, PTI, PML-N, MQM manage their online presence to communicate with their workers and engage and inform people about their events and policies.
Politicians too have their individual accounts. Imran Khan, Marvi Memon, Bilawal Bhutto, Shahbaz Sharif, Pervez Musharraf and others have a sizable fan following on social forums. This shows their interest to defend their party and engage with people via social media. However; Imran Khan and his PTI is using social media more effectively and strategically than others. Diplomats are not behind in this race; they are actively engaged with their followers on social media forums. Pakistan ambassador to US Sherry Rehman, former ambassador Hussain Haqqani are but two examples of diplomats active on Twitter.
It won’t be a stretch to claim that these forums are playing an effective and constructive role in our society and in the politics of the country. According to reports, 50 per cent of the registered voters are between eighteen to thirty five years of age; political parties cannot ignore the fact that this segment of population uses the internet and social networks the most. The one who will attract and engage the followers on social forums will definitely reap the benefits in the near future.
Social media is challenging traditional political patterns and it is introducing new political paradigms. Our political parties have to own and adopt these new practices because the influence of online social networks will definitely make a difference in future elections, and those who will ignore this will do so at their own peril.
The writer is a political research analyst based in Islamabad and tweets @shafiqsolangi