Such is the pull of social media that the religio-political party, Jamiat Ulema-i-Islami-Fazal (JUI-F), held two province-wide conventions recently in Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to mobilise its workers to use this medium to promote its politics.
Despite a late start, the JUI-F leaders are hoping to catch up fast with political parties that have already made use of social media to spread their message, defend their policies and to castigate rivals.
Though the party head Maulana Fazlur Rahman had been advised rest by his doctor after falling ill, he said at the convention in Peshawar on April 15 that he could not miss this important event. He had also attended the JUI-F Sindh chapter’s social media convention in Karachi on February 23.
Apart from JUI-F leaders, the organisers of both social media conventions also invited senior journalists and technical experts to give talks to the party’s bloggers and to provide them with guidelines. It was a serious effort to motivate and train JUI-F activists and encourage them to make use of social media to put their message across.
Though the JUI-F leadership argued that the main reason for the party to mobilise its workers to make good use of social media was the non-cooperative attitude of the mainstream media and the lack of coverage of the party’s activities, it is obvious the JUI-F could no longer afford to stay away from this increasingly effective medium. As some of the JUI-F leaders noted, their party had lagged behind other political parties in the use of social media and this was affecting their cause. In particular, the youth who are the biggest users of social media could be best reached through this medium.
At the JUI-F’s Karachi social media convention, 10 party bloggers each were invited from the 29 districts of Sindh. At the convention in Peshawar, JUI-F information secretary for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Abdul Jalil Jan, said 5,000 party activists from the 34 districts in the province had evinced interest in attending the event. He said they had to keep the numbers down due to logistical reasons.
It was an interesting sight to see young, bearded JUI-F workers busy using social media even during the convention and sending out live pictures and comments from the event. They were all armed with mobile phones and were also enthusiastically taking selfies with party leaders and other invitees. When reminded by a senior party leader that taking selfies in JUI-F gatherings had been banned, the young bloggers replied that the ban was limited to inside and not outside the venue of the events.
One recurring message by the JUI-F leaders who spoke at the Karachi and Peshawar social media conventions was that its activists must adhere to Islamic principles and refrain from the use of bad language. They were reminded that the JUI-F stood for a higher cause and its bloggers ought to be tolerant and civilised while using social media even if others resort to the use of provocative comments. However, it remains to be seen if the JUI-F activists would follow this advice in case their political rivals use abusive language. The faceless bloggers using social media and the numerous fake accounts currently in use have turned this medium into a battleground of offensive and abusive comments. This is the reason there is currently a global push to make social media platforms and owners accountable, as their misuse has caused irreparable harm.
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) was certainly the first mainstream political party in Pakistan to make good use of this medium. Drawing support mostly from the youth, it had to use the medium most popular with the young people and mobilise them to support PTI and take part in its activities. Even after coming to power by winning the July 2018 general election and having at its disposal the government’s information infrastructure, the PTI has continued to use social media and is still ahead of other parties on this score.
Other parties too are trying to make better use of social media. The two other major parties — Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) — are now quite active on this front and their activists are quick to retaliate when their leaders are ridiculed by rivals. Other smaller parties too have realised the importance and utility of the social media and are putting it to good use to highlight their policies.
However, the decision by the JUI-F to finally take the plunge and make use of social media for promotion of its cause is interesting. It is the largest religio-political party in Pakistan as proved by the outcome of every general election. It has been winning more assembly seats, particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan than other Islamic parties such as the Jamaat-i-Islami. In the 2002 polls, six religio-political parties made an alliance, Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), and ran its campaign on anti-US and pro-Taliban platform to bag 11 percent of the vote countrywide to form the provincial government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and become an important part of the ruling coalition in Balochistan. It was the best electoral performance to-date of Islamic parties, which normally polled about five percent of the total vote in the country.
Other Islamic parties, particularly the Jamaat-i-Islami, too would follow suit. The Jamaat-i-Islami, the second biggest religio-political party after the JUI-F, is better suited to make effective use of social media as its workers are educated, disciplined and motivated.
As both the mainstream media, particularly television channels, and social media are now playing a key role in impacting public opinion and setting the political agenda, the parties will ignore them at a cost. Getting good crowds at public meetings and attracting voters at polling stations won’t happen without a strong presence in the media, more so social media. The technology-driven social media has made an impact in Pakistan in a relatively short time and it is bound to become more effective even though this medium sometimes lacks credibility.