Will the 2018 Elections be decided on social media?

Originally published in: Daily Times

Writer:  Shakeel Ahmad Ramaya

The continuity of democracy, against all odds, is a good omen for the flourishing democratic system in Pakistan. Successive governments have completed their allocated terms.  Now, the stage is set for a third consecutive election without any interferences. A new wave of optimism is in the air and people are envisioning the dawn of a new era.

In this context, the 2018 elections are of the utmost importance. They promise new challenges and opportunities, with fresh faces entering the political arena for the first time. Conventional power structures are under strict scrutiny and the pressure is on to finally prove their worth to the public of Pakistan.  Most of the challenges that will have to be faced are based on the emergence of new means of communication, with social media and the use of big data becoming important aspects of the design and implementation of an election campaign.

Election 2018 will be a litmus test for the validity of these challenges and opportunities. It will also help to gauge voters’ behaviour, viability of conventional political actors, and the relevance of new technologies. It will also prove whether constituency politics or politics where personalities are given preference over policy still occurs, or if there is a shift in the political climate of the country.

Conventional politics in the country has usually revolved around the creation of slogans to create hype among citizens, like PPP’sfamous “Roti, Kapara, Makkan” of the 1970s. Even though these slogans remain the same for years to come, they continue to exert the same influence over voters. As citizens become ever more aware of their political freedoms and more assertive in their demands, the people in power also become warier of this increasing shift in the status quo, and are careful that this dissent doesn’t turn into a full blown protest.

Today, the media has acquired a prominent place in the political process. In the recent past, we have witnessed it play a leading role in influencing elections across the globe. The entire Brexit campaign took off using the platform of social media. Data from social media and other sources was used to devise a fierce campaign and the same methods were used in the 2016 US elections in which Donald Trump managed to defeat the favoured candidate Hillary Clinton by conducting an aggressive social media campaign.

In the context of Pakistan, social media has taken the driving seat during the last three or four years. Presently, social media is playing a three-fold role. First, it is being used to highlight the achievements of political leaders. Second, social networking platforms are being used to malign, defame, and abuse opponents. This trend has blurred the thin line between morality and political point scoring. It has become common to attack leaders on personal basis and not their actions or ideology.

The dilemma is not that political workers are flooding social media with questionable material but the real issue is encouragement by their leaders or party heads. Political leaders perceive that they are gaining points by maligning other political leaders but the reality is different, as everyone’s respect is at stake.

The third role of social media in a political campaign is the creation of fake news and alternative facts. This is one of the most recent and most dangerous aspects of social media, especially when it comes to politics. False stories are widely spread around social media, in order to reaffirm wild conspiracy theories or to discredit opponents, and have had a devastating effect on the public opinion. This has further digressed in to the manipulation of user data, collected by social media sites in order to target potential voters based on their preferences or likes and dislikes.

Like social media, telephone messages have also been used in a similar fashion and are used to gather information on users. This info has been used to create slogans and to attract supporters as well. Social media isalso posing a serious threat to the dominance usually enjoyed by traditional media.

Social media, cyberspace, and new technologies have also opened the gate for new challenges and threats. Foreign interference in national elections has become very common and it would be a challenge to control or minimise this threat in the upcoming elections. The US as was exceptionally affected by this problem, with evidence of Russian involvement in their elections growing as the investigation in to these claims continues.

It would be the real test of our security apparatus and national institutions to combat this challenge. They would have a fight on multiple fronts, with limited resources, as Pakistan currently does not sufficient control over cyberspace and social media.

The challenge becomes even more serious when the threat of foreign interference is considered. The USA is far more advanced in modern technology and online defences yet even they could not fight off this menace. Against this backdrop, the 2018 elections promise to be a contentious affair.

The writer is a Director of Research Uptake and Business Development and is the Head of Centre for Future Policy, Sustainable Development Policy Institute

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