64% of Pakistan’s population is under 30 and this age bracket is increasingly using social and digital media to consume news.
Gone are the days when TV, radio or print newspapers exclusively dominated the news landscape. Now everyone has a TV, radio and newspaper on their mobile phones accessible for free with minimal to no advertisements.
News has become much more interactive too, where consumers of news can easily share their own views on social media, a luxury not offered by traditional, mainstream news distribution methods.
Technology has empowered the average news consumer who wants information free and fast.
One party in Pakistan has not only understood the changing dynamics of the news landscape but has also capitalised on an evolving world in which fake news and sustained disinformation campaigns via social media can fundamentally influence a sizeable population.
Pakistan’s National Security Committee of the cabinet which includes the PM, army chief and senior civilian and military leaders has twice stated that there was no foreign conspiracy against Imran Khan’s government yet, Imran Khan’s followers continue to believe in a fantasy without sufficient evidence.
Logic would entail that the combined wisdom of the senior civil and military leadership would have more credibility than the claim of a single politician who doesn’t offer evidence but human beings, particularly voters are not only swayed by logic.
Through optimal use of social and digital media, the Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf (PTI) has been successful in convincing a sizeable population that Imran Khan is like a demigod who can do no evil.
The cognitive dissonance prevalent in PTI supporters is a magnanimous success of Imran Khan who has made them believe that whatever he says is true and that whatever he does is good even if he contradicts himself.
So when Imran Khan said that he wouldn’t even hire Sheikh Rasheed as a ‘Chapraasi’, that was also good for PTI supporters, and when Imran Khan appointed Sheikh Rasheed as his Interior Minister, that was also good.
When Imran Khan claimed that Jahangir Tareen and Aleem Khan were honest politicians, that was true for PTI supporters but now when Imran Khan calls them corrupt crooks, that is also true for them.
Similar levels of support exist in every political party, but none take the moral high ground like PTI, which may now appear as a cult as much as a political party.
Using the Goebbelsian principle of repeating information until people believe it, Imran Khan has not only convinced a sizeable population that he is honest but he has also convinced them that all his enemies are corrupt, dishonest and more recently, puppets of western powers.
To this end, the PTI uses a combination of news outlets, journalists, celebrities, fake social media accounts and international commentators who work in unison to push the PTI’s narrative.
Consider the recent interview of Rebecca Grant on Fox News in which she says: “Pakistan needs to support Ukraine, stop looking for deals with Russia right now, limit their involvement with China, okay, and also stop the anti American policies which is part of the reason why Imran Khan got voted out of office a couple of weeks ago.”
Rebecca Grant never said that there was any conspiracy to remove Imran Khan but the entire PTI propaganda machine used a short clip of a right wing, Trump supporting commentator to claim that their narrative had been proven.
According to the Imran Khan’s followers, this short clip proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the US was actively involved in a regime change operation in Pakistan as if Rebecca Grant was not an unknown analyst on a fringe news network but a spokesperson of US President Joe Biden himself.
The PTI has also contracted various international influencers to add credibility to their frivolous claims.
Steve Hanke, an economist at John Hopkins has been actively promoting Imran Khan on his Twitter account, showing his followers that a lot of international support exists for Khan.
While some influencers are real, influential people, others are fake accounts presented as real people by PTI’s propaganda machine.
Twitter accounts claiming to be Russian citizens or Belarusian journalists have been pushing PTI’s narrative too, only to be exposed as fake accounts after using basic free tools like reverse image searches.
But despite being exposed as fake accounts, they add to the perception of PTI having an international following and Imran Khan’s narrative being accepted by global audiences.
Added with photoshopped images of Imran Khan’s Jalsas where it is claimed that each jalsa is the largest ever in the history of Pakistan, Imran Khan’s supporters experience an artificially created euphoria in which they are part of some kind of revolution.
Using disinformation tactics, PTI increases organic momentum with people sympathetic to their cause joining in hordes and supporting their leader.
So powerful is PTI’s propaganda machine that it has gotten away with the most malicious campaign against the Pakistani armed forces, something that would even put India’s R&W to shame.
Hashtags including #BajwaTraitor, #BajwaSurrender and #BajwaHasToGo have been openly promoted by PTI social media activists who Imran Khan calls his “keyboard warriors”.
Such a campaign against the army chief by a Pakistani political party has never been witnessed in the history of Pakistan, showing how much influence a propaganda machine based on social media can wield.
Abu Dhabi based PTI social media activist Mariam Shafat Malik who also ran the Naya Mazdoor program during PTI’s tenure has been openly instigating hatred towards the armed forces and the judiciary in hundreds of tweets.
When FIA sent her a notice, she leaked her own compromising picture on social media to gain public sympathy, initially accusing Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence but then backtracking and calling ISI “my baby”.
If one conducts a basic analysis of tweets by PTI supporters, it can easily be ascertained that their tweets get much more engagements on average compared to supporters of any other party.
Consider the Twitter account of Khadijah Shah, a fashion designer and the founder of Elan. With an unverified Twitter account with a small political following, one of her tweets today got over 3700 likes with around 900 retweets.
Compare this tweet to the current Information Minister, Marriyum Aurangzeb’s tweets. Compared to Khadijah Shah’s 29.3k followers, Marriyum Aurangzeb has a verified Twitter account with over 1 million followers. Yet her latest tweet has lesser engagements than Khadijah’s tweet quoted above.
Whilst Maryam Nawaz Sharif has exposed how the PTI uses bots to promote its hashtags and tweets, the average user is unaware of how tweets get promoted using nefarious ways.
For the average user, PTI is much more popular on social media than all other political parties combined.
This is also visible if you look at the Twitter accounts of PTI and PMLN. PTI has 6.6 million followers, PMLN has 2.2 million.
Imran Khan has 16.6 million Twitter followers compared to PM Shehbaz Sharif’s 5.9 million followers.
Mian Nawaz Sharif, who served as Pakistan’s Prime Minister thrice does not even have a verified Twitter account with a measly 770k followers comparable to a mid-tier PTI leader’s Twitter account.
While Nawaz Sharif is arguably a more popular leader than Imran Khan on the ground, this is not reflected on social and digital media, negatively impacting the PMLN’s chances of success in any future election.
Given that the majority of Pakistan’s population is under 30 years of age, it is becoming increasingly difficult for young voters to relate to older PMLN leaders whose average age is above 60.
Those leaders are less tech-savvy and seemingly unaware of the dynamics which shape the political ideologies and voting patterns of young voters who form the majority of voters.
Maryam Nawaz Sharif has made impressive efforts to build PMLN’s social media team. With activists like Zeeshan Malik, Rashid Nasrullah, Rashid Hashmi and Badar Shehbaz, the PMLN has dedicated social media activists but their combined efforts are still not at par with PTI’s propaganda machine which includes people from all walks of life from actors like Shaan to religious leaders like Moulana Tariq Jamil.
Imran Riaz Khan alone has more Twitter engagements than PMLN’s social media team combined, reflecting how badly PMLN is losing the social media war to PTI.
Despite the fact that the majority of mainstream news organisations are not supporting Imran Khan, it seems the former premier is still dominating the media landscape because mainstream media does not hold the influence it did 10 years ago.
And with ARY openly supporting PTI, the party’s narrative is pushed in mainstream news, making their followers believe that Imran Khan’s narrative has credibility.
PTI’s social media team embraces new forms of media like Twitter Spaces and podcasts, increasing their appeal to younger voters whose political worldviews have not yet been formed.
Imran Khan’s Twitter Space boasted 165k listeners, the largest ever according to PTI. Can we expect Nawaz Sharif or Shehbaz Sharif to engage with youthful audiences in such a way?
The same is the case with Youtubers like Muzzamil Hassan, Junaid Akram and Talha Ahad who recently held a podcast with Imran Khan.
Such tools massively increase the appeal of Imran Khan and his narrative for young voters who consume more digital and social media compared to mainstream news organisations.
If parties with democratic credentials refuse to evolve into more efficient organisations using digital and social media optimally to target younger voters, their support base will wane and parties, even with fascistic tendencies will capitalise on the market gap and make audiences believe whatever fairy tales suit their entry to the corridors of power.
Change is the only constant and those who do not embrace it today will fade away tomorrow.