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How politicians use media to win elections?

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Samra Saeed |

2018 General Elections of Pakistan are round the corner. All political parties have started to decorate their stalls to sell dreams called “manifestoes”. They will do whatever it takes to gain maximum votes. The role of media, whether it’s online social networks or the mainstream television news channels, is undeniable in how it can alter viewer perceptions and opinions about political parties and contesting candidates.

Statistics are created on fake or altered data, user data is sold and purchased without user consent, and this stolen data is recycled and used for public opinion forming.

This power that the media carries comes with a huge responsibility to ensure that people are informed and not brainwashed based on political bias based on personal interests of some hidden entity. In short, media regulations must be enforced by the concerned body while the media and the political parties must also strive to remain within the code of conduct on utilizing this powerful medium.

It is no hidden fact that media has the power to drastically influence the masses. With its attention grabbing qualities, media can inject ideas and thoughts that can manipulate viewer’s concepts and perceptions. While the more educated and well informed viewers would challenge and analyze the information disseminated by the media sources, majority of the people will “digest” what is being thrown at them. Trending keywords and hash tags work as indicators of what the people are interested in. Online networks use Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) and complex algorithms to detect how the online users are interacting with news, what new statuses and tweets are about and how new trends are getting formed.

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This is the unified global human conscience that is materializing right in front of our eyes. Where thoughts, ideas, emotions and cultures are not bound by geographical borders and can flow free without restrictions. But all is not perfect in this new world of ones and zeroes.

A.I. can be used to collect extremely valuable human data. This data is becoming the most powerful ingredient in recipe for re-engineering and reconditioning human views and opinions to achieve objectives once inconceivable. Media is the new weapon of choice to initiate and win the “Fifth Generation War”.

As being trapped in online network of social media tools, with a desire to share what comes our way and greed for “likes” and “peer comments”, we get more and more hooked to this orgy of information abuse. A technology that is supposed to erase borders perhaps divides us even more.

The 2013 Elections in Pakistan saw the first true wave online social media campaigning. From organized online media cells to individuals working out of pure personal will to outdo others in backing their favorite political party or candidates, the country saw a storm of political change. A new platform was given to the common man to voice their views and opinions.

Political parties have engaged professional social media marketing companies and well known bloggers to help them with their political campaigns.

All political parties, specifically Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) have utilized the social media to attract the youth’s attention since 2006. They introduced the significance of Social Media for political campaigns by installing a dedicated social media desk. Approximately, less than 100 PTI volunteers are working worldwide. The need for social media desk was evident as PTI’s events failed to receive proper coverage as compared to other more established political parties such as Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) or Pakistan People Party (PPP).

Following the PTI’s approach, PML-N launched their social media desk. In which, they not only use social media networks but also incorporated telecom based services like SMS to propagate their political agendas. This was a clever move as it allowed PML-N to reach out to every mobile phone owner using the “push” method. Compared to online social media where the user has to make an effort to go online and access the network, direct SMS lands in every mobile active mobile phone. It was a great way to reach out to common man and help secure favorable opinions.

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Why social media campaign has become substantial?

AlphaPro, Pakistan’s Digital & Social Media Agency reported that in June 2018, 44.6 million out of a population of 198.9 million are internet users in Pakistan. Only 22% of population has access to internet which means active social media users’ figures is up to 35 million users. The 35 million users belong to upper and middle class segment of the society.

These people form an untapped vote bank as they mostly belong to urban areas where they are not living under the influence of local landlords and sardars. Such people have a free will and can vote for whoever they choose to. Unfortunately, this segment of society has also been the least active in political participation.  But with social media, political parties have been able to change their attitude with great success.

In 2013 elections, the voter’s turnover was 55.07% highest since 80s. The credit is given to social media which modified the view of major part of population and divulged them to use their democratic right. PTI considered as a pioneer, not only invoked political debates on social media but also managed to call out people on Election Day.

The influence of social media is global. Its impact in the 2016 US Presidential elections was phenomenal. The two presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald trump demonstrated to the world the actual power of social media.

In short, media regulations must be enforced by the concerned body while the media and the political parties must also strive to remain within the code of conduct on utilizing this powerful medium.

Both of them electrified their campaigns through tweets and their supporters kept indulging in powerful discussions, at times crossing the lines of decency, to support their respective candidate(s). More than 1 billion tweets related to US Presidential campaign were sent only in August 2016, according to a report. This demonstrates the power of social media to formulate likes and dislikes in the minds of the people.

Code of Conduct & Media

There is no doubt that the impact of social media along with the traditional print & electronic media has been rapidly growing. The various media types are gradually merging and interacting and complimenting each other. The result is an even more powerful mind altering tool that can seriously affect humanity on a global level.

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In April 2018, Facebook data theft scandal was unearthed when more than 50 million Facebook’s accounts were compromised to manipulate polls related to the 2016 U.S elections. A similar fear looms in Pakistan’s political circles for the coming General Elections. Political parties have engaged professional social media marketing companies and well known bloggers to help them with their political campaigns. Such tactics often involve fake social media accounts spreading distorted facts and fake content to damage political opponents.

In order to regulate political parties’ use of social media, Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) should collaborate with Ministry of Information & Technology (IT).

Expert of digital communication technologies view Ministry of IT as an inefficient and incapable body that lacks the skills, will and intent to actually perform their duties of protecting user data rights. Despite there being laws, not much is expected from the concerned quarters. Technically speaking, the related ministry should be working with Facebook and twitter to identify and close fake accounts which can be used to distort and manipulate public opinion and in turn damage the entire electoral process.

In mainstream media, the advertising cost is extremely high. Bigger political parties with massive campaigning funds have a huge unfair advantage over smaller political parties. This creates an unfair playing field. It is extremely important that ECP enforces strict terms of campaigning where political parties cannot buy media houses to further their political agendas.

ECP & PEMRA

In 2018, a candidate for provincial assembly seat is permitted to spend up to two million rupees and four million rupees for National Assembly seat. This amount is quite unrealistic as not much can be achieved in it. Political parties campaign by holding rallies, posting posters, banners and stickers.

The need for social media desk was evident as PTI’s events failed to receive proper coverage as compared to other more established political parties such as Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) or Pakistan People Party (PPP).

All this cannot be done in Rs. 20 million. In addition to these more traditional means, now the use of social media and electronic media has added to the cost of political campaigning. None of these can flawlessly be monitored by ECP for the thousands candidates and the hundreds constituencies.

Pakistan Electronic Media Regularity Authority (PEMRA) should redesign their policy on political campaigning. ECP and PEMRA need to work together to form new set of rules that would minimize irregularities in the use of allowed funds.

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National Elections are the most important aspect in nation building. Its impact is immense and far reaching. Today’s elections have become a complex mix of data manipulation, dramatics and information morphing. Statistics are created on fake or altered data, user data is sold and purchased without user consent, and this stolen data is recycled and used for public opinion forming. It is now becoming critical to examine electronic data usage and formulate strict policies on user data protection.

Online and offline media entities not only need to be regulated by capable bodies but media houses need to form self-monitoring mechanism to ensure professionalism. Media awareness campaigns should also be conducted to educate the people on responsible use of modern communication technologies. It will have to be a combined effort at many levels to ensure we, the human race, learn to evolve with the rapidly evolving technology.

Samra Saeed is a political analyst. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 

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