On 1st July, President of Balochistan National Party (BNP) Mengal and former Chief Minister of Balochistan Sardar Akhtar Mengal announced a twitter campaign by his party. Through a tweet, He urged his party supporters on Twitter to support #BNPhope4Balochistan hashtag campaign of BNP-Mengal. On 3rd July from 8 PM to 11 PM, BNP supporters flooded twitter with tweets in support of BNP. As a result the hashtag of BNP-Mengal easily made it into top-ten trends on twitter in Pakistan. This was first time in history of Balochistan when a political party leader planned, announced and carried out a twitter campaign. Indeed mechanics of political landscape are changing in Balochistan.
Earlier, on 28th June Twitter was once again center stage when Akhtar Mengal engaged in exchange of statements with Balochistan Awami Party Chief and Former State Minister Jam Kamal. It started when Akhtar Mengal warned of strong reaction from his party if polls were rigged in Balochistan. Jam Kamal tweeted in response to Mengal without naming him. However, Mengal responded by quoting the tweets of Jam Kamal and both traded allegations. The twitter debate between both leaders was reported on newspapers and website of TV channels. Once again, this was a new trend where leaders of political parties in Balochistan used Tweets, as opposed to newspaper statements, to trade allegations against one another.
Clearly, BNP-Mengal is taking the lead when it comes to using social media for election campaign in Balochistan. The election campaign on twitter was a success and so far no other party has successfully replicated that experience. BNP-Mengal has strong presence on social media particularly on Facebook and twitter. All political activities are highlighted on the social media accounts of the party which are managed by the activists and not by hired professionals. Therefore the conduct of social media accounts of BNP-Mengal is not professional all the time.
Balochistan Awami Party (BAP), the alleged party supported by establishment, is a close second when it comes to utilizing power of social media in elections to influence voters. BAP has professionally managed social media accounts where content is properly curated. There is a sense of organization in the way BAP accounts are managed which is missing in case of BNP-Mengal run social media accounts. Key BAP leaders like Jam Kamal, Sarfraz Bugti and Quddus Bizenjo amongst others use social media. BAP is actively and smartly using social media to promote the BAP brand.
Moreover, the former ruling National Party (NP) also has an active presence on social media. The accounts of NP are not as active as accounts of BAP and BNP-Mengal but the content is better organized. Lately, NP President and former Federal Minister Hasil Bizenjo took to twitter to highlight the challenges to democracy in Pakistan and announced to fight them. Apart from sporadic tweets by its chief, NP has not effectively used social media for election campaigning.
Pakistan Tehreek Insaf (PTI) was the pioneer of usage of social media in 2013 elections. The Balochistan chapter of PTI also has a strong presence on social media where all the political activities of the party are fully promoted. The way PTI Balochistan accounts are managed it gives a feeling that they are centrally controlled from PTI social media headquarters and not from Balochistan.
Qasim Khan Suri, candidate of PTI on NA-265 Quetta II and Secretary General of PTI Balochistan, is optimistic about the power of social media. “In last elections we [PTI] lost due to rigging and this time the 55 million social media users all over the country will prevent rigging from happening,” He told this scribe. Suri believes that social media has empowered people and now if they spotted rigging then they can record it on their cell phones and share it on social media which will become viral.
The right wing JUI-F has an active Facebook page for entire country but they lack active social media presence in Balochistan. Likewise, Mehmood Khan Achakzai led Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PKMAP) also has social media presence in Balochistan but it’s not very active and not being used proactively for election campaigning.
Arzak Khan, digital media expert, is not convinced that any political party has got the right social media strategy to convince voters to vote for them in this elections. “Most parties have not effectively been able to use social media to reach citizens on issues like energy, jobs, health, education and economic development,” He claimed. He believes that some political parties might be able to convince some voters but that is not going to be significant enough to affect the outcome of elections.
The marginalized Hazara community in Quetta is actively involved in election campaign of Hazara constituencies of PB-26 and PB-27. Electronic media in Quetta mostly covers political activity in city center where Hazaras could not come frequently due to security concerns. Therefore, the election activity of Hazara neighborhoods does not get coverage on media. Consequenlty, Hazara youth has come up with the alternative usage of social media to cover electoral campaigning in Hazara Town and Marriabad areas of Quetta. Scores of Facebook pages cover political activities which can be viewed by people not only in Pakistan but also by the Hazara diaspora all over the world.
Yasin Nadir, a Hazara content researcher, told this scribe that social media has presented Hazara community a platform where they can question political parties about their manifestos and stances on different issues. “Hazara diaspora follows election in Hazara areas through social media and observe the conduct of different political parties,” said Nadir. He added that the diaspora members form their opinion based on what they see on social media and then they support political parties in elections. “Many Hazara diaspora members have huge following in Hazara areas of Quetta and they influence their support for a political party matters,” concluded Nadir.
Not just Hazara but the Baloch diasporic community living in different parts of world use social media to connect to elections in Balochistan. Although Baloch diaspora cannot influence the elections the way Hazara diaspora does but still their opinion matters. They use social media to share their option about political parties in Balochistan which is often critical.
In Balochistan social media usage is prevalent in urban areas but in rural areas its penetration is still low. Due to absence of publically available data about urban and rural social media users in Balochistan, it’s not possible to ascertain the exact influence social media can make in elections. However, by safe estimates, enough number of people in urban areas of Balochistan use social media to make it influential in elections.
Moreover, journalistic fraternity in Balochistan also follows social media keenly to get news content for their media organizations. Most of the times announcements about political alliances and latest political developments appear on social media which are picked up by news organizations. In Fact, WhatsApp groups have become a parallel universe in terms of communication where a lot of information is shared which is useful for journalists. Social media has made the job of journalists easy but they still can’t fully trust social media sources and usually double-check any information shared on social media.
With the example of Cambridge Analytica in mind, the usage of social media for manipulation of elections is possible even in Balochistan. Arzak Khan also agrees with such concerns and believes that common citizens are unaware about the power of algorithms of social media platforms in distorting and shaping public opinion. He lamented that Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has no cyber monitoring team effectively watching out for social media manipulation through Bots, Targeted campaigning and Artificial Intelligence tools. “ECP has to take necessary action and ensure social media platforms don’t manipulate our already fragile democracy,” He urged.
Forthcoming elections are first elections where social media is an influential stakeholder. Not only it has made it easy for political parties to reach their voters but also made it possible for voters to directly question and challenge political leaders. This is an example of empowerment of people using technology.
At the same time social media in Balochistan has also opened up unchecked doors of abuse and character assassination which need to be discouraged. Ultimately, the responsibility lies with political parties to educated their supporters and ensure that they behave respectfully on social media.
Adnan Aamir is a journalist and researcher based in Quetta.
Follow him on twitter iAdnanAamir.