In 2001, Pakistan came on the world map across US university campuses, claimed to be host to a number of highly dangerous enemies of the ‘free world’. Over the next few years, it successfully gained the status of ‘World’s most Dangerous Country’ courtesy of Newsweek, as though before it existed it was not dangerous, let alone a country. This is the country I call home and have remained confused about because of the tragically negative image it has acquired over the last decade or so. This is changing, and I’d like to share why I think so.
In the PR world, there is a school of thought that believes any press is good because it gets you attention you may (or may not) need. While this remains a questionable strategy, it certainly did more harm than good to Pakistan – or at least that’s what everyone thought. While the West made their foreign policy position on Pakistan clear, steadily increasing presence and relevance in the country, a tremendous dilemma began to unfold where negative sentiment grew from within the country – mostly from the religious caucus. While this was happening, there was another beast beginning to introduce itself, slowly creeping in to societies and the lives of people across the world; known today as social media.
In the mid 2000’s, when social media began to mean something substantial in Pakistan, it did so by establishing importance as channel for previously supressed voices to gain independent presence and weight across the digital universe. Users matured and developed more strategic uses for their personal social networks by sharing their often unequivocal opinions and thoughts with the world, beyond just sharing pictures of their breakfast. With approximately 8 million reported (socialbakers.com) Facebook members in Pakistan, representing a mere 4% of the population, the role this small community has played resounds through many facets, including petitions by lawyers and judges to block the social network for hosting ‘blasphemous content’ and other questionable concerns that aggravated the composition of Pakistan’s delicate social fabric.
While many late bloomers eventually found a second (or in some cases a first) home online, many of the early adopters took advantage of their first mover advantage by establishing a strong foothold in the digital frontier, pioneering significant aspects of the things they individually represented. Examples such as politicians, tech bloggers, music aficionados and the media have some leaders that stuck to their guns, believing that digital will eventually replace the physical. While this may still be far from accurate, the transition is certainly more prominent now than ever before.
Zooming in on politicians, I’ve found a number of unsuspecting social profiles to gain relevance and purpose with their online identities. Some of these include the likes of highly politicized individuals such as the former interior minister, Mr. Rehman Malik, who while seen as a generally unappreciated individual, managed to gain a significant following as well as a verified account status on twitter. Go figure.
However, the focus of this story is not the current face of Pakistan’s effervescent government; it is an athlete who won glory and gold for us in the 90’s, a man who once was married to the daughter of the Marmite empire, a man who has maintained close affiliations with the likes of Lady Diana and other important global figures, while retaining popularity amongst various generations of infatuated females. The man, Imran Khan, was yesterday’s cricketing champion, who also took on the position of chief philanthropist by opening, Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital & Research Centre, Pakistan’s largest Cancer institution, credited with numerous achievements. However, after having served his country and people for so many years, while rightfully acquiring the prestige and fame that accompanied his many successful career milestones, he then decided his next venture would begin campaigning for an opportunity to lead the entire country once again, this time as a political leader – possibly the next prime minister of Pakistan. Now 15 years down the line, May 11th, 2013 will unveil the results of his parties (named PTI – Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf or Movement for Justice) campaigning effort dubbed ‘Tsunami of Change’. His principle mandate – to end corruption; his army – the massive youth of Pakistan, many of whom never considered a role in Pakistan’s political future, whether that included devoted belief in a leader or something as simple as casting a vote.
While Imran’s movement was subject to tremendous speculation and criticism from many, including myself, the last year has proven to be highly beneficial to his campaign. Incidentally, the key driving factor that appears to have united the youth army he has since mobilized was done by successfully embracing social media as a principle communication tool to connect with his constituents and followers, sharing his every move, thought and struggle. Although managed by young experts from within the digital realm of Pakistan, his mantra remained the pivot of his party’s presence online. Over 100,000 followers on twitter (@PTIofficial) and nearly 800,000 fans on facebook (facebook.com/PTIOfficial) with a staggering 47% engagement rate, his social media team not only maintained the basic rules of consistency, they also made sure it remained a key binding element for his political campaign.
When evaluating the successful use of social media to drive their political campaign, the biggest success in my apolitical mind is the age and variety of young first-time voters he has brought out of their ‘comfort zones’ by empowering them with the purpose of voice. Converting the online to the offline, PTI has brought a mammoth proportion of the country’s future leaders out on the streets, now more keen than ever to contribute and bring real change to Pakistan.
With interesting examples of how social media played a vital role in other politically unstable countries such as Iran, Tunisia and Egypt, reference to one of my previous articles comes to mind, in which I talked about the emergence of social girth in Pakistan, home to some 200 million poorly represented people, who lack access to basic rights, amenities, civil rights and education. Technology not only seems to have reduced these gaps, it might also be the single most important factor in bringing political change, irrespective of one's choice.
What May 11, 2013 brings to the political fate of Pakistan will be determined in some hours of having written this article. Whether that is a "Tsunami of Change" or a "Perception of Stagnation" with the same old leaders reclaiming the helm, we can be sure of the unprecedented role that social media has played in the lives of Pakistanis, hungry for a better, safer, financially stable and respected future in the eyes of the world remained pivotal.
Although I am unable to vote living overseas, I am happy to contribute in some shape or form to help identify the maturity and growth that my country has experienced since embracing digital today, possibly shaping its purpose tomorrow.
May the best candidate win. Good luck Pakistan. The volume of noise you’ve created online will only continue to grow, hopefully bringing good things for all. #PakVotes
Photo credit: www.siasat.pk