With the advent of social media in Pakistan in recent years, parliamentarians are now also joining the bandwagon and creating a direct connection with their constituencies using platforms like Twitter and Facebook.
Although the usage of Facebook has been more for personal reasons, Twitter has become the favorite amongst the different parliamentarians spoken to, for understanding public discourse. Be it the ruling regime – the PPP, its coalition partners like the MQM and the ANP, or even the opposition, PML-N, most of them are engaging in debates, monitoring trends and propagating party agendas on Twitter.
Government and its allies
Farahnaz Ispahani, one of the most active users with over 14,000 followers currently, joined Twitter in 2010 “to use social media for its ability to open intellectual space,” which, she says, is much needed in Pakistani society that is becoming increasingly conservative.
“There was no room for youngsters, especially those who support the Pakistan Peoples Party, to communicate with the party leadership,” says Ispahani, who was elected to the National Assembly on a reserved seat and is the media adviser to the president. “But now, they are reaching out to us with their problems,” she says, adding that Twitter made this possible.
According to Ispahani, Twitter has also helped her in getting feedback for bills proposed in the assembly. Being on the committee for Human Rights in NA, she engaged in debates about the recent Human Rights Commission bill. “The suggestions I get help me improve the legislations,” she adds.
While the PPP MNA has been using social media for feedback, Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s Haider Abbas Rizvi says Twitter has helped him understand and analyse political trends. He currently has two twitter accounts with more than 7,000 followers combined, but actively uses @HaiderRizviMQM.
Being the media head of the party, Rizvi has subordinates working around the clock. “We have a cyber-response team, and our network goes up to 8,000 people on Twitter, whom we use to engage in party agenda. For example, we created the hash tag for Lyari recently, to see what people had to say about the violence,” he says.
Rizvi also organised a party workshop where MNAs and MPAs from the MQM were given training for social media usage. Since the MQM has a large urban voter-base, Rizvi feels they need effective social media presence.
“We want 30 seconds from each party member, to establish the virtual existence of MQM,” he adds, stressing on how he also wants MQM supporters to become ‘e-workers’.
When voters aren’t on Twitter
The other coalition partner of the government, the Awami National Party (ANP), has been quite inactive on the platform though.
ANP’s Bushra Gohar, who has almost 2,000 followers, says she joined the network after a friend’s daughter told her she was being discussed there.
“When I started, someone tweeted to me saying – Thank God someone from ANP has joined,” she says.
But Gohar finds the 140 characters limit difficult to express. And she feels she has to be really careful when she tweets, since her words can be misinterpreted. “We have to be very cautious and think a 100 times before [tweeting],” the parliamentarian adds.
According to Gohar, the majority of their voters, especially rural voters, are not Twitter users. “I personally find radio discussions very effective in reaching out to people in remote areas and for communication of party policies,” she adds.
Opposition not convinced
The opposition in parliament also feels that their party supporters are not on Twitter. “Those active on social media are electorally irrelevant,” says Khurram Dastagir Khan, another active parliamentarian on Twitter, who belongs to the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N). “But I feel the web presence of the PTI has made us realise the importance of social media,” he adds.
Khan joined Twitter in 2009 and has almost 4,500 followers. The parliamentarian says Twitter has actually helped in sharpening his thoughts. “It has made me put my arguments in order,” he says. He also feels social media helps him kill ‘dead’ time where he cannot do anything else. “While traveling, waiting for a party meeting to start or sitting during political jalsas and speeches, I find Twitter as the best thing to pass time,” says Khan.
Politicians tweeting vs tweeting politics
Observing the timelines of the above parliamentarians, another trend that appears is the reflection of their mood swings, and their corresponding tweets.
With Haider Abbas Rizvi and Bushra Gohar, tweeting poetry is a regular feature and a form of expression to comment on current affairs. “Sometimes when I am sad, I tweet shairs (couplets) reflecting my mood,” says Rizvi. Gohar, on the other hand, is seen tweeting verses by Rehman Baba and Ghani Khan, which comment on terrorism, something she says her province is a victim of.
Meanwhile, Farahnaz Ispahani and Khurram Dastagir Khan tweet about art and culture.
“My tweets about music etc. reflect what I am feeling about the country,” explains Ispahani.
Khan further shed light on this, saying he recently tweeted about a painting of the harvest season, since he knows the farmers in Pakistan are engaged in that nowadays.
While the parliamentarians highlighted the positive aspects of using Twitter, one common element they all discussed was harassment on the social media – especially by supporters of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and ‘hyper-nationalists’.
“I have a hard time engaging and debating with two groups. Firstly, the PTI trolls who seem to be incapable of listening or engaging without threats and foul language. The other group is the Zaid Hamid acolytes, who are using social media to spread their hyper-nationalism and militant views,” Ispahani complains, saying many likeminded people she knows on Twitter are targeted regularly. She has even been threatened of physical violence, and usually ends up blocking such people.
Gohar also feels the same, saying she sees a lot of PTI supporters on Twitter who are abusive and she blocks them too for their offensive behavior.
But PML-N’s Khan has a different approach to the harassment, saying he usually does respond to such trolling, especially when they are factually incorrect.
“I get attacked by PTI supporters in cyberspace all the time – but I usually ignore them. Only if they are lying, I respond by straightening the facts,” he says. On the other hand, MQM’s Rizvi also feels there is a “certain” large group which uses the platform for hate speech and feels that is one of the biggest negatives of Twitter.
“I will not take names but the quality of engagement on social media is not on a level where there’s a balanced approach,” he says, adding that he usually blocks these individuals too.
Farahnaz Ispahani (@fispahani)
True reach: 4,628
Haider Abbas Rizvi (@HaiderRizviMQM)
True reach: 2,316
Bushra Gohar (@BushraGohar)
True reach: 1,728
Khurram Dastgir-Khan (@Kdastgirkhan)
True reach: 5,035
Sharmila Faruqui (@sharmilafaruqi)
True reach: 17,679
Marvi Memon (@marvi_memon)
True reach: 14,986
Maryam Nawaz Sharif (@MaryamNSharif)
True reach: 20,006
Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI)
True reach: 37,028
Syed Mustafa Kamal (@MayorKamal)
True reach: 761
Pervez Musharraf (@PMPakistan)
True reach: 988
Rehman Malik (@SenRehmanMalik)
True reach: 5,031
Sherry Rehman (@sherryrehman)
True reach: 3,144
Shahbaz Sharif (@CMshehbaz)
True reach: 8,637
(With additional input by Jahanzaib Haque and Shaheryar Popalzai)
Published in The Express Tribune, May 19th, 2012.