Instagram makes it possible for political leaders to reveal more than just their political fidelity; if used properly, the app allows them to humanise or soften their very stoic public images
Aseefa Bhutto-Zardari and I have never met. But if ever I was to run into her, I’d know exactly how to get an interview. I’d bring up animal rights, Ralph and Russo shoes, or Game of Thrones. If none of this worked, I’d lie and say I run a cat rescue centre, and I’d watch her give me 30 minutes of her time.
I’m clued in about Aseefa without making a concerted effort to accumulate facts about her life because I follow her personally curated Instagram profile. She has invested time and effort in her Insta profile because she thinks, "Instagram is a great way to reach and interact with people".
We all know the basics about our political leaders. Even apolitical Pakistanis, and that’s an oxymoron, know the Bhuttos are passionate about the Pakistan People’s Party, or that the Nawaz family is forever loyal to the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, but Instagram makes it possible for political leaders to reveal more than just their political fidelity; if used properly, the app allows them to illustrate multiple shades of their personality, show that they have likes and dislikes in fashion and food that may be relatable or aspirational for their voters, humanise or soften their very stoic public images.
The leaders --- Aseefa; Bakhtawar; Bilawal; Maryam Nawaz; her uncle, Shahbaz Sharif; his brother, the former PM, Nawaz Sharif; and of course, Imran Khan -- realise the power of Instagram enough to be present on it. But how many of these leaders are using Instagram in the way it was meant to be used versus those who have made their own rules for the Gram?
Fundamentally, Instagram is a photo sharing app, and what users really like about it are the filters it provides. Got a good selfie but your pimple is too focused? Use Reyes. Made a great video but the lighting was too soft? Apply Nashville. So in a country where words are inaccessible for millions and where there’s always facts and fictions needing to be ‘filtered’, it’s a wonder that Instagram isn’t more popular than it is.
As of January 2018, Pakistan has 5.2 million Instagram users, this number may pale in comparison to the country’s Facebook users (35 million) but it still constitutes almost 3 per cent of the total population, and is significant enough for politicians and leaders to take notice and curate profiles.
Everyone’s profile tells their own story, using their own creativity, or the creativity of their social media team. The way Bilawal, Bakhtawar and Aseefa’s Instagrams are populated with aged shots of Benazir and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Khan’s feed is littered with his own vintage photos. There are throwbacks to his early fundraising days; Khan walking alongside Princess Diana; and of course Khan bringing home the World Cup in 1992. These memories are constantly invoked in his followers’ imaginations.
Instagram is also a way to let the public know that Khan is keeping up with pop culture. On Twitter he may upset the liberals, but on Instagram he stands with the cast of Cake and posts that he is "impressed by both the acting and quality of the film". His followers like this side of him -- 8,060 likes to be exact, which is a great number for someone who posts as distantly as he does.
By distantly, I mean that Khan is not a part of his profile. His Gram is filled with photos of him, not by him. We are never allowed to see the world through his eyes, in fact Khan’s Insta account is run by one Aaqib Mughal, a graduate of communication studies and a photographer. Mughal is proud of the fact that the account is only two years old and already has 442K followers. He tells The News on Sunday that "dream work comes with teamwork" and Khan’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram managers all work together. Many posts are shared between the three mediums, which explains the numerous posts that defy the philosophy of Instagram and rely on words rather than images.
Images that do appear throughout the day are rarely taken from clever or exciting angles. They are dull photos of men sitting around tables, gesticulating at the air around them.
One interesting Instagram campaign being run is #KnowYourKhan. It comprises a milieu of quote cards that show the awards Khan has received, the institutions he’s studied at, and the many hats he dons: father, philanthropist, etc. It’s not personal per se, but does encourage us to think of Khan as someone other than a desirous leader.
While Twitter was conceived to attract intellectuals, Instagram was meant to pull in the creative crowd. The similarity between both mediums is that they only cater to a specific subsection of society. But leaders don’t always only want to attract the masses, they also need to influence the elites who then shape public discourse. And a lot of the elite are active on Instagram. Additionally, "Currently, Instagram is dominated by the urban middle class in Pakistan, but that doesn’t mean that the lower or middle income classes won’t be joining it soon or that they are absent from it," says Umair Javed, political analyst.
It’s also pivotal to take into account the gender dynamics of the Gram. Social media in Pakistan is heavily dominated by men, but disparity between genders is far less on Instagram than on Facebook -- with 31 per cent of Insta users being female as compared to only 23 per cent of Facebook users being female, it can be said that Insta is a preferred medium for females, though men are dominating both mediums.
The combination of these class and gender markers helps understand the thought behind Maryam Nawaz’s Instagram profile. Delicately showered in pearls and colour-coordinated to the hilt, Maryam’s outfits on Insta, often accompanied with an old-school punctuated smile, are on point. Additionally, her shoe collection, which is difficult to miss if you follow her on Instagram, will give you some serious #shoegoals. "When Maryam was coming to power in the real world, brands like Elan were sharing her photos on their Insta pages and her virtual image as a fashionista helped solidify her political power," recounts a political commentator, who wishes to remain anonymous.
By cultivating this look of the beautiful, powerful Muslim woman, Maryam stirs two varieties of heartstrings. Those that already have the money to look like her, but turn to her for trends, and those that aspire the money in order to own what she owns, or at least a Chinese copy of it. After all, people look to celebrities as aspirational figures, and their possessions and habits become markers of affluence and pride, be it Khan’s red leather jacket, Hina Rabbani Khar’s Birkin or Bilawal’s Oxford degree.
Conversely, though, sometimes the aspirations set are more achievable. For instance, an official from Shahbaz Sharif’s social media team tells TNS that the younger Sharif makes it a point to wear inexpensive watches so as to appear relatable to the common man. Similarly, Maryam recently uploaded an Instagram video where she eats chanay pathooray that she procured from a roadside stall in NA-120. She turns to the camera and says, "They are the best channay I’ve ever tried". In less than a minute, her loyalty to her party, its constituency, and her country’s love for food, is conveyed to almost 30,000 viewers, and all it cost her was Rs120, the price of the channay.
However, Maryam does so much more with her Instagram than make a statement about fashion or food. However opaque, at least she offers a glimpse into her personal life outside visits to the courtroom, or campaigning for her father.
She allows us to peek at what she does in her tower at Jati Umra. There’s a photo of her youngest daughter, Mano, cutting a birthday cake. Another of her son graduating from a university in London. There’s even a few off-duty photos in which her dupatta is not perched on her head at that perfect, seemingly impossible-to-hold angle where only female Pakistani political figures fix it. Is it a signal? That she too wishes she didn’t have to always be the daughter of the nation?
Despite being far more personal than Khan’s profile, Maryam’s Instagram still keeps her veiled. Last year, Kate Imbach, a filmmaker who writes about photography, analysed 470 photos that Melania Trump, former model and first lady of the US, had tweeted. She concluded that Melania was a "princess trapped in a tower of her own volition". To reach this thesis, Imbach first set a premise: "what we choose to photograph and how we frame subjects always reveals how we perceive the world".
The problem with applying that premise to our leaders’ Instagram accounts is that they rarely place themselves behind the camera.
Pakistani leaders are far more comfortable being in the public eye, than behind the camera -- even when Maryam tells her followers about her father’s penchant for photography (which is a heartwarming detail) she chooses to do so by taking a photograph of him taking a photograph, rather than showcasing his photographs to her followers.
There are a few instances though in which we get to see the world from Maryam’s eyes. In one delightful video, Maryam and her father are exiting a jalsa in Sahiwal. The camera, in Maryam’s hands, is pointed to ‘Mian Sahab’ which is how she addresses her father when she puts forward her request: "For a few seconds, forget I am your daughter, instead imagine I am journalist and tell me your feelings about the jalsa". Sharif begins to respond without turning around to face his daughter. "Mian Sahab, please turn around so your social media supporters can see you". He turns a quarter of an inch and says something clichéd about being overwhelmed by love and support. She profusely thanks him. In this one-minute, we see a daughter, a political worker, working hard to garner support. Instagram gave us access to a relationship we might never have caught on mainstream media.
"I’m on Instagram just to express myself… It’s a great way to follow some of my favourite Pakistani designers… and inspirational people. Like most 25-year-olds today, you will find me fairly attached to my Instagram," says Aseefa to me, via social media.
And it’s true, age may be a factor in maintaining a personable presence on Instagram. Younger leaders such as Aseefa or Bakhtawar are known for taking care of their own accounts; while older leaders have hired social media managers, who despite being young and innovative inadvertently create barriers between the voters and the leaders.
Take the example of Shahbaz Sharif’s page. It has many positives. Unlike Khan’s Instagram page which does not miss an opportunity to take shots at fallen politician, Shahbaz’s media team claims that they never stoop low to attack other parties on social media, but simply use Instagram as a means of spreading awareness about the younger Sharif brother’s developmental achievements. This is a great tactic because research shows that positivity spreads a lot faster on Instagram than negativity (this is not true for other social media platforms).
Another way in which Shahbaz’s team uses Instagram is to quell rumours. "Recently, there were baseless rumours about his ill health, so we posted a photo of him looking fresh and healthy after a full day of campaigning in the heat to prove that he is the best man for the job," says an official from his social media team who wished to maintain anonymity.
At the end of the day, Bakhtawar’s latest and deeply personal Gram about receiving a bouquet of red roses for getting through a full day of clean eating is bound to generate much more engagement on Instagram than the overabundant pictures of our leaders at jalsas, because we already have apps such as Facebook disseminating the latter message.
Political analyst Javed says that "local leaders don’t usually pioneer new formats, they just co-opt existing ones". Picking up Facebook or Twitter’s format and blindly applying it on Instagram may get these leaders swathes of followers but these numbers will never translate into anything other than just digits on a screen until they make these forums personal, engaging and interactive.