All the Internet’s a Stage and all the Pakistanis Merely Voter Profiles

Illustration by Aniqa Haider

For the last decade, dystopian fiction has risen in popularity as a genre, indicating a growing awareness – and interest – in how the state gathers information through surveillance in order to expand its control. However, there is barely any popular coverage in media and entertainment to educate us on how, along with the state, corporations keep skilfully mining more and more data for free, as our lives transition to the digital realm. 

Companies have been using their users’ data to customise advertisements for many years now. Powerful near-monopolies such as Google and Facebook have now started to allow political parties use of this data to recruit supporters through commercial techniques. In an economy where getting an email address is easier and likelier than a home address, and where employees check social media as part of a background research, we are all passive subjects in a process that makes money off our personal information – often without clear consent – which is then used by political candidates to ask for our votes. This is not to fear-monger or spread a conspiracy, but to clarify that we do not possess full information about our present, let alone our future. Moreover, we are not having the conversations necessary to implement laws that protect us, both as consumers and as voters. 

The 2013 Pakistani general elections witnessed extensive use of technology and social media for political campaigning. Since it targeted the younger demographic heavily, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) led the use of digital platforms in political discourse to increase its reach and recruit more supporters. It appealed to their sensibilities by carrying out its campaign mainly over social media, focusing on Facebook and Twitter to reach its intended audience. 

A social media user I spoke to stated that PTI’s strategy resonated strongly with the country’s youth because of its uniqueness. No party had truly harnessed social media this way before, which made the teens and young adults feel recognised and specially catered to. PTI’s platform was mainly about distinguishing itself from other long-established  political parties by deeming itself the representative for those coming of age. 

This, compounded by their tech-savvy social media presence, felt like a sign that they were committed to representing the younger generations and their concerns on the national stage. Their ability to communicate simple, effective slogans, to weaponise something as tricky and nascent as social media to their advantage, indicated progressiveness to potential voters. For an entire segment of the population that had felt like their futures had been decided by the old and powerful for too long; this worked like a charm.

“I was young and naive and not especially politically aware. I didn’t care about actual policies. That’s why the strategy worked. It was all hollow political promises – no actual manifesto or plan of action. Like the Trump ‘Make America Great Again’ catchphrase but with Naya Pakistan. Simple slogans that get stuck in your head.” The aforementioned Twitter user, who wishes to remain anonymous, elaborated how his views changed after he learned about “troll farms” and the truth of PTI’s online presence. “The fact that they were the only party (I was aware of at that time) that started online campaigns naturally made them corner the market. My opinions have changed now though.”

Clearly, other players saw the mass favourable response to PTI’s strategy and came to the same observations as the Twitter user I spoke to. Since 2013, all other political parties have doubled down on curating their social media presence, with government departments, public officials and politicians issuing their statements on Twitter to build a support base, often responding to followers to create a sense of familiarity, and debunking other politicians’ claims, among other things. This was seen particularly during the Karachi rains this year, whereby a certain senator drove around the city to photograph and film the streets to insist that the city had not suffered urban flooding despite various testimonies of the residents who had to abandon their homes that were submerged in rainwater for days. Social media, thus, allows corporations and state machinery alike to spin their own narrative. Whether it is believable or not is a separate story. 

While Pakistan still does not have as strong an intersection of politics and technology as other countries do, it has delved enough into the introductory stage for questions about the future to be asked. The country has already drafted a Personal Data Protection Bill this year, which violates several constitutional protections granted on the basis of privacy. The conversation must be had before it is too late. 

But what happens when the authorities that are expected to protect us and kickstart the conversation are the ones running the show into the ground? As the Twitter user pointed out, political parties have an established history of resorting to dubious tactics to gain votes; the offline attempts to manipulate voters have now simply been partnered with equally questionable online strategies. The people are at a disadvantage because they are kept in the dark most times about the full extent of this behaviour, with no information or legal protection against these forms of manipulation. In fact, the Pakistani state usually goes out of its way to jeopardise people’s rights to free speech and free thought under the guise of protection and morality.

Zoya Rehman, a spokesperson for Media Matters for Democracy, a non-profit concerned with the impact of media and communications on Pakistani politics, states that the growing role of social media and technology in Pakistani politics cannot be understated, especially considering the rise in PTI’s popularity in the 2010s as a plausible case study. “However, we need to think more about how these political parties are using social media: the finances that go into the social media wings and online election campaigns of these parties, the companies hired to collect consumer data for political parties, the question of user and voters’ privacy, the presence of bots and/or trolls associated with political parties, misinformation, online harassment on part of politicians and their supporters alike, etc.” It is imperative for this conversation, then, that the use of social media by political parties is critically viewed and questioned.

The Global Situation

In March 2019, the Data and Politics team of Tactical Tech – an international NGO engaged in exploring impacts of technology on society – published their findings in a guidebook titled ‘Inside the Influence Industry’, exploring the ways in which the process of democracy had changed because of the application of commercial corporate marketing techniques. They studied an extensive range of the electoral techniques involved, from campaigning to voting, looking carefully at the impacts in countries such as Turkey, India and Kenya. Through discussing gamified apps, A/B strategising, and other such tactics, it laid the groundwork with which we can understand some of the techniques deployed in Pakistan. Of course, it must be noted that Pakistan’s population does not have the same internet access – let alone homes filled with digital appliances – which means the relationship between the internet and on-ground politics is more atypical than those studied by Tactical Tech.

Arguably, the biggest challenge to overcome is the lack of transparency in Pakistan, which manifests in several different ways. As Tactical Tech’s research demonstrates, political parties in the US are upfront about using data mined by corporations such as Facebook and Google to guide their targeted campaigns. Whether that transparency was a willing disclosure or forced by the Cambridge Analytica leak in 2018 is inconsequential when the impact is all one cares about. The fact that US-based researchers knew which party was collecting and using data made the process of knowing whom to contact and what to ask much easier. Often, it was only about accessing available public records because of how the legal system operates in those territories, how it demands transparency from the parties and then manages to extract it to some degree. This makes work for researchers and investigators much easier; it becomes a matter of following the trail. 

In Pakistan, things are… complicated. First, the lack of transparency is often witnessed by people and archived in their word-of-mouth testimonies, instead of being brought to account by institutional bodies, which means the proof only exists anecdotally: “My friend was there and saw everything.” It is an open secret that everyone knows but that no one can publish or broadcast for fear of extra-legal repercussions. To be identifiable in the chain of narrators is seen as an invitation to be made an example out of by the much feared authority figures and institutions, making it near impossible to hold those in power accountable. This is inevitable, given how institutions collaborate in Pakistan, whether willingly or due to coercion, to facilitate electoral corruption. The powers-that-be have been interfering in democratic elections since the country’s inception, working to install leaders friendly to their interests. Even in the General Elections of 2018, there were reports and firsthand accounts of ballots being taken away from the vote-counters, raising suspicions about the validity of the results being announced. Everyone knew the result announcement had been inordinately delayed; everyone knew what that signified. However, no one could translate the testimonies into print, much less demand an investigation.

Because elections in Pakistan are a complicated process with several parties involved behind-the-scenes, it only holds true that studying electoral processes becomes a complicated event, a goose chase where the documents that tell one story and people’s interviews tell another. Eyewitnesses initially willing to share their stories quickly backtrack as  institutions meant to protect citizens start intimidating them instead. Even researchers who manage to collect information may be unable to share it with the public due to the same lack of transparency. Because there are no measures in place to ensure the public is routinely informed about the ways social media is used to invade their privacy, there are no measures to protect whistle-blowers or ensure their anonymity, an aspect that is protected under the right to freedom of speech and public interest in economies like the US.

The Dilemma of Social Media

Another reason research around electoral meddling in Pakistan is harder is because it is about the intersection of the digital sphere and elections. Pakistan’s marginalised groups have a complex relationship with the online realm. On the one hand, it gives them a sense of freedom; queer people can talk openly about their struggles; women can communicate with each other and mobilise as a collective as seen in the planning of Aurat March every year. News that would be suppressed by media channels can be spread rapidly on these platforms, allowing alternate viewpoints. On the other hand, it often replicates the discrimination and abuse faced by minorities under a new set of rules. Many have their right to free speech policed by the draconian legal landscape, used to silence all forms of dissent. The same social media platforms that are used by predators to find victims are used by victims of domestic abuse to find help and shelter.

The anonymity that so many users find refuge in is what makes interviewing people online difficult. The participant may be hesitant to trust the researcher or vice versa, with few ways to verify who’s who. People are also afraid of leaving evidence or paper trails of their contrarian views: messages that might incriminate them, or calls that could be recorded. 

On-ground elections in Pakistan face several hurdles because all groups do not participate equally or have their demands equally respected. Women’s participation in Pakistani elections is so abysmal that the Election Commission of Pakistan, in an effort to encourage female participation in the electoral process, only considers the results of a constituency valid if women cast at least 10% of the total vote. 

In Pakistan, the vast majority of the country does not have access to the internet. This is further complicated by the reported prevalence of women only being able to access the digital space through technology owned and controlled by their male relatives.

The digital space replicates this invisibilisation in part. Many women are prevented from accessing phones and other such devices in the first place, obstructing access to the internet. In cases where women can own a mobile phone, for a variety of reasons, including observing purdah, or to avoid supposed inconvenience and hassle, male guardians often issue a sim card for women on their own CNICs. This means that any digital footprint that is generated by these women is assigned to the male relative who purchased their sim card. As the woman is rendered invisible, the man’s profile is also skewed.

Pakistan’s political parties already ignore women as an election-upending political force. It is rare, if not unbelievable, to see politicians appeal to women and recognise their demands or their personhood, outside of their connections to the men in their lives. Very little is heard about the policies that would benefit women and how those leaders would have them passed. It is only logical to assume that this digital invisibilisation feeds into the practice, erasing data that might compel parties to sit up and take notice of women’s demands.

Political Coercion

Lastly, there is the problem of political coercion. It crops up in a variety of ways, ranging from families dictating that all its members vote for the same candidate, to leaders collaborating with influential figures, who then issue statements in favour of them. Pakistan has a documented history of politicians having long-standing ties to religious leaders, such as pirs, who then instruct their followers to vote for them. Religion is at the heart of this nation-state’s founding, identity, and narrative, so these sort of statements should be seen as powerful enough to be coercive in nature. But there are less subtle types of coercion as well. Many landlords and industrialists weaponise their tenants’ and employees’ dependence and compel them to choose them as their leaders. 

The pandemic has changed human interaction for the long term, if not forever. Given that COVID-19 is here to stay, our traditional modes of organisation for political parties, such as rallies, could be affected. Pakistan has still not completely eradicated polio; it remains to be seen whether it will also be grappling with COVID-19 for the foreseeable future, long past other countries. It is only logical to assume that the pandemic has sped up the transition to the online sphere, as rallies and contact become more dangerous. That is why the conversation around the intersection of technology and politics must keep up; with the pace at which these events are unfolding. 

Presently, privacy is not even treated as a concept worthy of debate; it is an afterthought in most political or legal conversations. This is partly because social media has started playing a serious role only recently, but also because of the obstacles discussed above. When surveillance does not permit discussion, it is inevitable that online privacy is routinely violated, precisely because it is never defined or considered worthy of protection. The longer this mass ignorance of digital rights is deliberately sustained by the state, the longer the citizens will continue to be exploited and manipulated.

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