To the point and 'pointed' is what Twitter is all about. One hundred and forty characters on it may seem too little to express yourself but these characters have the power to make or break many 'characters'. While social media is largely recognised by the Facebook epidemic, the Twitter virus is also spreading at good speed.
It has become popular as it is easy to use, cost-free and simply a click away. It is a great way of connecting to the masses and is also interactive with instant responses. Twitter competes with Facebook by developing 'trends' on the most tweeted topics of the time, which are then followed by electronic and print media.
Donald Trump definitely gets the credit for making Twitter one of the biggest channels of “political posturing” in the world. His election campaign was a mastery of using free publicity from social media platforms and making his tweets the talk of global media. Trends on Twitter are normally formed if the tweet is about something wonderful or something awful. Trump perfected the art of the outrageous. He would deliberately raise controversies and let the media report, discuss, debate, analyse and reject his opinions. This gave him a much larger media presence at a lower cost than Hillary Clinton, who used the more traditional and expensive medium, TV.
While Twitter users are not as large as Facebook, it mostly comprises opinion makers. Reporters, writers, analysts, critics, columnists, anchors and presenters are all waiting for juicy tweets to write, break news, retweet and debate. Nothing gets more attention than a fight, feud or a punch line that gets bashed and dissected. In Pakistan, there are almost 40 million smartphone users and most of them are young and social media users. Twitter usage has increased as politicians, anchors and celebrities have started using it. Most politicians have social media teams handling their accounts, who are trend analysts and rebuttal specialists. However, some politicians manage their own accounts or at least the messages that need to be sent on these accounts.
After Trump, Narendra Modi set a trend on using social media to reach his voters. Modi has the third largest followers on twitter in India with around 13.7 million followers. The unexpected success of BJP in the recent elections in Uttar Pradesh is a master class on using social media platforms. To promote the UP campaign of UP ke Munn ki baat at state level, it formed a 25-member team of IT experts. The assembly constituencies had a team of 10 members each, who formed a whopping 10,344 WhatsApp groups to circulate audio and video content and tweet links to them.
The ease of tweeting is its strength but its flaw as well. The recent Twitter war amongst the Pakistani political twitteratis is an example of how it can easily become a strategic weapon of self-destruction. The Panama case has been fought more on the social media than in the Supreme Court, where politicians from both main parties and their followers tweet on every issue. The storm built up when DG ISPR tweeted that Dawn Leaks notification issued by PM office was rejected. That became a hot topic for the twitteratis who immediately rejected the tweet for being an improper channel of such sensitive communication.
Then came the actual storm. Maryam Nawaz tweeted that the Panama case against her family was crap and should be trashed. The tweet was in retaliation to the opposition parties’ attack on the case and to pacify their own vote bank. But Twitter is Twitter, and it doesn’t only reach the targeted audience. Every word written in those 140 characters attracts a free follower. The Panama Leaks is an international scandal exposed by ICIJ, where 300 journalists after painstaking work of over a year unearthed mountains of stashed money. There are almost 150 investigations in 80 countries and 6,500 enquiries in the world being conducted due to it. Hence, the progress on these cases is followed by every journalist involved.
The two main journalists, who broke this scandal working for a German newspaper, are Pulitzer Prize winners Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier. In response to Maryam’s tweets they sent tweets showing her passports and pictures, etc. The storm could have ended in the teacup had Maryam not been so Twitter itchy. Her tweet blaming them for a conspiracy against the Sharifs and Pakistan created an uncontrollable storm. The ICIJ journalists have been asking her a number of questions and tweeting regularly for counter evidence, which she has not been able to provide. What could have been a local squabble, has now become an international sparring match, creating even more questions on the already dubious case of the Sharif family.
Social media is free and easy and thus, liable for misuse and abuse. While it is praised for connecting people, it is also a huge cause of relationship havoc. According to family law firm McKinley Irvin’s, one in three marriages fail due to online affairs. For public figures its injudicious use maybe self-destructive. It is imperative to understand that it is another tool in the overall strategic communication toolkit. Thus, for effective impact, just as we do for brand building and promotion, use of social media also needs to be planned by first defining the goals and then choosing the relevant actions that enable reaching a target audience in this frenetic race for winning over shares.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 7th, 2017.
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