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The Politics of Communication

Published in May-Jun 2022

How PTI has nailed social media as part of their communications strategy.

In the run up to the PTI’s long march to Islamabad, the government launched a late night crackdown on the party. The timing was perhaps chosen deliberately – for the surprise element – and to keep the matter from becoming breaking news.

Yet, despite the late hour, the news made it way across the country because the party took to social media – videos of officials or men in plainclothes entering homes; testimonies of people who experienced the raids, and even hastily recorded moments of arguments or tussles with the people who entered homes, were seen by anyone with a smartphone. Some saw them on Twitter, some on WhatsApp and others may have caught them on Facebook. And the news wasn’t just out there; it had PTI’s spin on it. Journalists; their cameras and their account of the event got there much later, and by then the story had already been told.

This came as no surprise because PTI is the party which dominates social media, an aspect which also earns it considerable criticism. Indeed, the party’s aggressive social media presence is not welcomed by everyone, especially journalists, who accuse the party of bullying and harassment on Twitter. All the other parties have been struggling to catch up since. The PMLN is not shy to admit that the 2014 dharna (sit-in) forced the party to realise its absence from social media. It was then that Maryam Nawaz Sharif stepped forward and took charge of the social media side of the party – she put the team together and carved out a space on the new platforms. While the party’s presence is now obvious on social media, there is no doubt that the PTI is far ahead, something that is evidenced by the fact that some PMLN members concede this at times, openly.

The PPP is far behind and undisputedly so. Consider this Tweet by a netizen: “Honestly, @MediaCellPPP is so weak. The PPP just held an amazing conference on the importance of the 18th amendment in Lahore, where @FarhatullahB in particular spoke fantastically. However, I’ve seen little to no media and social media coverage.”

The other parties may be behind too, but not a single one is without a social media presence, not even the religio-political parties, such as the JUIF or the TLP – and their party’s leadership presence is now also a constant – be it Maryam Nawaz, Fazlur Rehman or Nawaz Sharif – communicating through their Twitter accounts.

No one can ignore the new mediums, especially because of their prevalence among the young; a generation more comfortable getting their news and views from the newer platforms, ignoring traditional means such as newspapers or even TV. The PTI, more than any other party, is aware of this, because of its youthful support base.

Recently, Imran Khan stated in an interaction that he didn’t read newspapers, a response which earned him considerable flak from many politicians and journalists, who felt it reflected his lack of understanding about issues. His young supporters, however, don’t think so. One such supporter tweeted that he too got his news from Twitter rather than by reading a newspaper in the morning. This approach is working for the PTI, be it when it was in government or now. The party uses short videos of Imran Khan to send messages to its supporters, as do the other party leaders – and the mainstream media simply picks them up later. And if Khan was the first Pakistani party head to use his Twitter account effectively, he was also the first to recently hold a live session on Twitter Spaces to interact with people – the party spent days crowing about the record-breaking numbers that turned up.

That the party feels its social media policy is working is perhaps one reason why the PTI spent (comparatively) less energy winning over the mainstream media with which it shared a rather hostile relationship while in power. It appeared as if the PTI preferred to bypass the mainstream media and work with new platforms. Imran Khan was perhaps the first and only prime minister to invite YouTubers (as they are called) for interactions and background discussions. The party, which has made no secret of its uneasy relationship with the mainstream media, has felt more comfortable with younger journalists on new platforms – and perhaps also because, more than other parties, it was aware of their reach. After Twitter Spaces, Imran Khan did a podcast interview, earning him rave reviews from his supporters.

The party claims its social media team mostly comprises volunteers. Azhar Mashwani, the focal person on digital media to Usman Buzdar, says that apart from a couple of graphic designers, the rest of the work is done by about 400 volunteers across the world and who are not necessarily actively involved all the time.  

Perhaps the only other leader who has shown a similar inclination for social media is Maryam Nawaz Sharif. However, this appears to be a personal choice rather than PMLN’s, because the party structure is still focused on traditional media. Consider that there has been a noticeably heavier presence of government advertising in print and on TV since the PMLN came to power and, pertinently, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s press interactions are limited to the mainstream media.

This difference in approach also reveals the difference in ‘age’ between the two parties. PMLN’s ascendancy took place at a time when only the traditional media existed and it learnt the importance of winning it over. It didn’t, however, realise the power of new media until the first real challenge came from the PTI in 2014.

The PTI, on the other hand, was the proverbial outsider, trying to break into the power equation and hence willing to innovate to attract people. Furthermore, the fact that it ended up appealing to the young, who perhaps felt little affinity with the more established parties, also compelled the party to work with media used by younger citizens. In other words, one party was comfortable with the status quo and the other eager to break in.

The PPP has always been slow to work with the media, ever since the Zia years when the party imbibed the notion that its support base was immune to negative or no press coverage at all – which was what happened during the martial law years. In Sindh, however, the party is not immune to press coverage, but at the national level, it maintains a casual disregard for public perceptions and the role of the media.

Occasionally, the PMLN has made innovative use of the new platforms. It was the first to use Twitter Spaces for serious discussions on economic issues and where people such as Ahsan Iqbal, Miftah Ismail and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi spoke about the challenges faced by the economy in a less partisan manner.

However, this battle of social media is not just about official messaging and toxic arguments on Twitter and TV. The political competition now extends to memes, TikTok videos and short videos to showcase a party’s achievement as well as the contradictions or the shortcomings of their rivals. The methods of communication are as varied as the messages sent out. Humorous TikTok videos or memes are equally effective, and their popularity has forced politicians to pay attention. Fawad Chaudhry once said that even the then prime minister Imran Khan sent him memes. Hassan Khawar, who worked with the Punjab Government, says Usman Buzdar enjoyed the memes about himself.

Party leaders such as Khawar and Bilal Kiyani say that such memes and videos are not necessarily their work; they are made by ordinary people and supporters to express their views. For instance, after the inflation that followed PTI’s ascent to power, videos highlighting rising prices did the rounds. Similarly, after the vote of no confidence, many memes about lotas were circulated, poking fun at the turncoat politicians who left PTI.

It is not just the top party leaders who have been impacted by the changing media scene. For individual constituency politicians, social media has both eased and complicated their lives. Phones, WhatsApp and Facebook have made communication with their voters and workers far easier, but also raised expectations. Constituents expect the social media accounts of politicians to document and highlight their political activities; every visit and activity in the constituency has to be recorded through pictures and then uploaded on various platforms.

“It is not enough to attend a wedding; the photos have to be tweeted or put on Facebook,” says Bilal Kiyani. His words explain why many constituency politicians’ social media accounts are dominated by visuals of their local activities. Smartphones have made it easier for politicians to manage their obligations while away from the constituency. Indeed, considerable communication and local political work are carried out on smartphones, and in the process, it is reshaping politics at the national level as well as the constituency level. The change is bigger than the medium. 

Arifa Noor is a journalist and the lead anchor for NewsWise on DawnNews.