As we continue to mull over the results of last Wednesday’s election and ponder the future consequences of this ballot, it’s important that Pakistan now reviews how it measured up to the requirements of the digital age.
This is Pakistan’s fourth election of the twenty-first century, but perhaps the first in which social media and digital technology have been effectively utilised by the electoral authorities. Locating your vote for example, was made as easy as pie — all you needed to do was text your ID card number to 8300 and you received all the details of your polling station. Facebook installed a feature which linked Pakistani voters to website of the Election Commission. And all sorts of advisory messages were sent out to people cautioning them about material received via Whatsapp, reminding them that much of this could be untrue (‘fake news’), and they should share nothing without verifying or checking its veracity.
In the run-up to this election social media was able to provide the sort of news coverage that TV news channels were refraining from broadcasting (due to ‘advice’, threats and financial pressures), and Twitter in particular played a vital role in reporting events and providing information. The saga of the donkey brutalised by PTI supporters who wrote ‘Nawaz’ on it for example, was highlighted and used to question society’s increasing lack of compassion or essential humanity. Similarly, reports like the discovery of ballot papers being stamped in the constituency of a former Sindh CM provided important information promptly, and the best thing was the questioning — the dissent if you will — on social media because people critiqued, disagreed and queried. Very little was taken at face value.
Internet activist Nighat Dad of the Digital Rights Foundation points out that even though this election was a first in the way that social media companies worked with and helped the Election Commission, there is still a lot of catching up to do with technology. For example, even though voters were able to locate their vote and polling stations easily or be directed to the ECP website promptly, no effective online system of reporting complaints was set up.
Dad points out that one way to do this would have been for ECP to create a Twitter handle quite early on so that irregularities could be flagged and located immediately. Indeed, there were many instances of candidates and parties acting in violation of electoral rules, but somehow ECP did not appear to be on top of these conduct issues at all. And the way they responded to widespread complaints on election night was very last century: the Chief Election Commissioner told the press that “complaints should be brought to him” whereas in effect they already had — through social media.
In the meantime, results continued to be mysteriously delayed and non PTI Polling Agents excluded. So, in view of all this, one understands Dad’s remarks that the ECP still does not have a proper understanding of online spaces — how they function or how they can be utilised.
Despite this limited comprehension of the digital world, the ECP has used some aspects of this media effectively. However, it still has a lot of catching up to do as technology is moving so fast that unless a proper project is put into place now, electoral processes will still lag behind digital innovation. In this respect, it is gratifying to see organisations like the Digital Rights Foundations — and Fafen — working to try to get ECP up to date.
Pakistan is a country where access to the Internet through phones is far cheaper and more flexible than in many western countries so if technology is harnessed to democratic and parliamentary process, great progress can be made: excesses can be highlighted, awareness can be raised and people can be mobilised. But the question is: how supportive will the new regime be of such digital liberties? The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill 2015 gives the state considerable leeway to prosecute those who express views the state doesn’t want articulated. Under the guise of ‘anti-state’ or ‘blasphemous’, dissent can be silenced and critics neutralised. We have before us not just the cases of the abducted bloggers but also of the way coverage of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) has been blacked out on the mainstream media and parties supporting it have been targeted — the Awami Workers Party’s website, for example, was blocked in the run-up to the election.
Conducting elections in the digital age is a huge challenge as one needs to harness new technology to the needs of the process while at the same time guarding against censorship and systems that can be hacked or corrupted. Thousands of tech-savvy young people voted for the very first time in this election, they should now step forward and try to be part of this process.