The brave new digital world of Pakistani politics


February 25, 2024


Traditional politicians and powerbrokers in Pakistan have had a love-hate relationship with the Internet and social media. Where they were quick to board the online hype train to amplify their communications, they have also, every now and then betrayed a disdain for the average Pakistani user. The latter has been the case especially when web-savvy Pakistanis have caught them flat-footed.

When things go south, Internet platforms and services become easy targets, irrespective of the costs involved, whether financial or to Pakistan’s image before the world. Meanwhile, online Pakistanis, most of them young, have been dismissed as mere keyboard-warriors or your choice of disparaging adjective. The prevailing perception among traditional political powerhouses was that online support would not translate to street power and vote banks, the two cornerstones of Pakistani political strategy.

Indeed, as the country head towards the most consequential elections in recent decades, all save for one out-of-favour faction relied on the ‘tried and tested’ methods for political canvassing. Front-page ads in print, round the clock spots on TV and the old public rally remained their preferred tools of the trade.

But under the din of campaign speeches, the winds of digital change were whispering. And as the unlikely outcome of the polls mired in controversy became apparent, one thing became crystal clear: politics in Pakistan are never going to be the same again. Political parties and stakeholders will ignore technology at their own their own peril. As the oft-repeated Darwinian refrain in the tech sector goes, it is time to adapt or perish. Far being on the fringes, the digital space may have just become the central arena for politics in the country.

In the run up to the polls

The 2024 Pakistani general elections marked a turning point, fuelled by the growing influence of technology and social media in shaping political landscapes. As parties like the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) geared up for the pivotal moment, only one of them fully understood that digital tools held the key to voter engagement and electoral success.

Although all major political parties proactively embraced technology in their pre-election preparations, the social media team of the PTI had to make the best use of technology quickly under the restrictions in faced – stripped of its iconic ‘cricket bat’ symbol with its charismatic chief Imran Khan in jail.

Speaking to The Express Tribune, a software engineer who closely monitored the technology and innovations used by political parties in the elections, shed light on the proactive use of technology, noting, “There were several strategies employed during the PTI campaign, making it one of the most economical. Firstly, when the symbol was removed, they quickly launched a website called “PTI Candidate.” When it was blocked by the PTA within three to four hours, the social media team overcame this by making the PTI Candidate website a subdomain of GitHub. GitHub is a source code hub that cannot be easily taken down, ensuring accessibility to our campaign material.”

Another member of the PTI digital team who requested anonymity, explained that their team also utilised Imran Khan’s Facebook channel, which has tens of millions of followers. “We leveraged a feature allowing auto-reply to set up responses to specific questions. All candidate information supporting PTI was integrated into the message option of Imran Khan’s Facebook channel. Users could input their constituency number and instantly receive the symbol and name of the PTI candidate. This message was further shared across all social media platforms, not only by the digital team but also by the supporters of PTI on their friends and family WhatsApp groups, TikTok and Instagram. This helped the people even in the rural areas find out about the PTI-backed independent candidate and their symbol,” said the PTI digital worker.

The software engineer gave the example of Lodhra constituency, where Jahangir Tareen was contesting the elections. “A number of candidates who were nominated for this constituency [by PTI] withdrew their nominations again and again. The final [PTI-backed] candidate was nominated just three days before the elections eventually and had the symbol of a donkey cart. Despite the short notice, this candidate garnered more votes than Jahangir Tareen,” he shared.

Furthermore, the use of hashtags emerged as a powerful tool in shaping online discourse and driving conversations around key campaign themes. The engineer explained the process: “PTI actively used social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to indirectly promote the independent candidates. They strategically utilised relevant hashtags and trends to increase visibility and connect with potential voters. These hashtags often combined the names of individual candidates with broader PTI slogans or campaign themes.”

While PML-N and PPP tried to follow the footsteps of PTI, they were not effective as much as the PTI was. For experts and observers, this was for a large part due to the popularity of Imran Khan as a leader. “The core demographic of PTI comprises mostly youngsters, specifically those aged 30 or younger,” the software expert said. “These individuals grew up watching cricket, particularly during the 1992 World Cup when Imran Khan was in his prime. Over the years, many of them were inspired by him and have become actively involved in PTI, particularly through social media channels.”

Pre-empting misinformation

Amidst the fervour of digital campaigning, challenges and controversies cast a shadow of uncertainty over the fairness and transparency of the electoral process. Concerns about the spread of misinformation and the need for stronger regulations and oversight mechanisms loomed large, underscoring the delicate balance between leveraging technologies for political gain and ensuring the integrity of democratic processes.

To counter these challenges, social media platforms introduced features and guidelines for the users. For example, TikTok shared its efforts to combat misinformation and uphold election integrity on its platform. The platform collaborated with Agence France-Presse (AFP) on fact checking to specifically address election-related developments in Pakistan. Additionally, TikTok also worked closely with local community partner organisations in Pakistan to ensure platform integrity. These partnerships enabled TikTok to identify potential misinformation, take action on it, and share accurate information with its community around important events. TikTok’s fact-checking partners do not moderate content on the platform, but their assessments provide valuable input, which helped TikTok take the appropriate action that upholds its Community Guidelines.

Campaigning in the Digital Age

As parties and platforms navigated these challenges, the pre-election period emerged as a crucible of innovation and adaptation, where technology became not just a tool, but also a strategic imperative in the pursuit of electoral success. As the stage was set for the electoral showdown, the proactive use of technology laid the foundation for a dynamic and fiercely contested campaign, setting the tone for a watershed moment in Pakistan’s political history.

While PML-N and PPP relied on traditional campaigning, through TV and newspaper Ads and physical political rallies, the PTI pioneered the concept of virtual rallies, AI-powered addresses and targeted advertising, leveraging technology to transcend restrictions and connect with voters on a deeper level. Live streaming of rallies and events a hallmark of its digital campaigning, allowing PTI to connect with voters in real-time and across geographical barriers.

A digital expert who worked closely with the party underscored the significance of social media in the campaign strategy, noting, “PTI organised daily digital jalsas on Twitter, which continue to this day. These live streams attract millions of viewers worldwide. This approach eliminates the need for physical infrastructure like chairs and lights, making participation as easy as tuning in with a phone. Additionally, when the Internet was blocked, numerous VPNs were shared through various channels, allowing people to join the jalsas seamlessly.”

He further explained that the virtual rallies involved AI-generated videos featuring Imran Khan’s voice and image, delivering messages regularly at specific times. Additionally, previous speeches by Imran Khan were played daily via live stream, garnering millions of viewers. Surprisingly, this virtual engagement surpassed the attendance of any physical rally in a single venue.

“The effectiveness of these virtual events was remarkable. For instance, I could be at home with guests, working in the kitchen while having the live stream on my phone, effectively participating in the rally. Even when I was out somewhere, I could keep the live stream playing on my phone, staying connected to the rally. This level of engagement spread widely, with people accessing the rallies from various locations, including the US. The PTI social media team played a crucial role in organising these events,” the digital expert elaborated.

For PTI’s digital canvassing, two platforms stood out – and – along with Imran Khan’s Facebook page. “Despite restrictions on displaying flags or making noise about PTI’s support, everyone in the areas knew which symbol represented the PTI candidate. PTI wasn’t allowed to openly promote its candidates, but this restriction inadvertently became their saving grace,” the expert explained, adding that the party didn’t need to spend anything. Instead, PTI focused on keeping the social media channels active. “This tactic proved effective in turning the tide because PTI’s opponents didn’t have as many followers as Imran Khan. Consequently, they couldn’t utilise social media tools as effectively as PTI did.”

The website epitomised the power of grassroots initiatives fuelled by community collaboration and open-source ethos. Spearheaded by an enigmatic volunteer developer, identified as @clynergy on Twitter, this mini Election Management System (EMS) emerged rapidly in the days leading up to the election. Despite its humble beginnings with what seems like a small team, the project swiftly gained traction due to its adept utilisation of open-source and cloud technologies. “What’s remarkable about this endeavour is not only its speed of development but also its seamless integration with the wider community. Leveraging platforms like Twitter and Slack, the developer fostered an environment of collaboration, harnessing the collective efforts to collect and digitise crucial election data,” said the expert.

The project’s success relied on an exemplary user interface (UI) and user experience (UX), coupled with insightful data visualisation. As the project evolved, the developer established connections with similar initiatives, facilitating data interchange and interoperability, as evidenced by the collaboration with projects like

Beyond its immediate political context, the project offers valuable insights into the resilience and adaptability of brands in the face of identity challenges. “The ability of brands to operate effectively even after losing their visual identity is a significant case study in the realm of Marketing Technology (MarTech). By navigating through such challenges with agility and creativity, brands can not only survive but also thrive in an ever-evolving landscape, leveraging alternative strategies and channels to maintain their presence and relevance,” the expert noted.

Election Day and beyond

As the dawn of Election Day broke across Pakistan, the nation braced itself for a momentous chapter in its democratic journey. The culmination of months of campaigning and preparations, it marked the pinnacle of the digital age of politics in Pakistan. However, the government’s decision to restrict mobile Internet connectivity cast a shadow of uncertainty over the dissemination of information and communication on this critical day.

The expert who worked with PTI on its digital efforts recalled the challenges, stating, “On Election Day, despite having our phones in hand, communication was impossible. We resorted to recording videos at the site and then returning home to send them via a wired connection to everyone. We repeated this process multiple times.”

He shared that the people’s minds were made up before the polling day. “The concern was that people might be afraid to vote. Despite this, on the actual day, people quietly went to the polling stations. Even though they didn’t display PTI flags, if you asked them, they quietly admitted to voting for PTI. It was clear that the message was delivered successfully as people knew about which candidate of the restricted party to vote for.”

Despite these challenges, technology persisted as a vital conduit for the exchange of information and discourse surrounding the electoral process. Social media platforms buzzed with activity as citizens shared updates, allegations of irregularities, and expressions of political allegiance in real-time. “It was only when we started watching the results on TV channels that we realised there was a discrepancy in the polling process,” the expert reflected.

In the aftermath of the polls, the role of technology extended beyond Election Day, as parties and stakeholders grappled with the implications of the results and allegations of rigging. Technology served as a platform for continued political discourse and engagement, with social media becoming a battleground for competing narratives and perspectives.

Political analyst and columnist Barrister Asad Rahim commented on the significance of technology in shaping post-election dynamics, calling the ‘state’s attempts’ to throttle any stream of unfiltered information ‘self-defeating’. “It damages the democratic process, drives away the sort of investment our caretakers otherwise claim to be desperate for, and is a malicious attempt to obstruct the population from the political process,” he said.

“Yet even after the shutting down of cellular networks on Election Day, the electorate demonstrated an extraordinary awareness of symbols and polling stations. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the 2024 polls saw the most consequential and wide-ranging role for social media yet. Some of this is inexorable, yet a fair bit of it is also a vote of disillusionment in conventional media and rising censorship over the past five to six years,” Rahim added.

The future of politics

As the dust settles on the 2024 Pakistani general elections, a new chapter in the nation’s political history has unfolded — one defined by the transformative power of technology. On the road to the polls, digital tools emerged as double-edged swords, offering unprecedented opportunities for engagement, mobilisation, and discourse, while also posing significant challenges to the integrity and fairness of the electoral process.

Looking ahead, the future of democracy in Pakistan certainly lies at this intersection of emerging technologies like AI and social media. But even in the digital age of politics, the fate of Pakistan lies not in the hands of algorithms or data analytics, but in the hearts and minds of its people.

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