KARACHI: In the hours before Karachi's much anticipated NA-246 by-election, competing parties continue to battle it out on social media even while street campaigning has come to an end.
Azizabad may be dubbed a bastion of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) by observers (and a ‘no-go area’ by opponents), but on Facebook and Twitter, the playing field is open with hashtag generators blistering to be on top of Twitter trends.
Social media teams of the parties gunning for NA-246 — MQM, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) — are burning the midnight oil to promote their organisations' politics and dominate the online space.
Unsurprisingly, only PTI’s Imran Ismail is active on social media, with the accounts of MQM’s Kunwar Naveed and JI’s Rashid Nasim only doing the odd tweet.
The social media team of MQM, the predictable frontrunner in the by-election, works out of party headquarters Nine Zero. In the Cyber Communication Department, which is a stone’s throw from the Khursheed Begum Secretariat, the watchful team works in shifts; the first clocking in at 8am and the last at midnight.
The party’s communications department credits the party’s best Twitter hashtags and taglines to the young people that make the team. “We can thank these devious minds for the hashtags,” says one member, gesturing to the team with a smile.
Speaking on behalf of Ali Raza Abidi, he adds that credit must also be given to Rabita Committee members as well as party chief Altaf Hussain himself, who has developed a remarkable curiosity for Twitter.
According to Abidi, the MQM’s international digital team has nearly 2,000 members, with people from the US, UK, Canada and South Africa joining the core team’s efforts to marshal support in cyber space.
Far from the constituency in question, the PTI’s media office is in the bustling Khadda Market in DHA's Phase V. Team member Imran Ghazali says being in an office in the age of mobile phones is no longer de rigueur. “We meet here physically for events or on rally days. Mostly we coordinate on WhatsApp chat or email,” he says.
Ghazali says that while PTI’s online following around the world is massive, about 100 workers are officially part of the online team. “They have signed a code of conduct and action can be taken against these people if there is a violation. The rest are volunteers and supporters.”
Ghazali says that the PTI’s immense youth following is an advantage for its social media presence, and that leader Imran Khan’s charisma only adds to that swelling number.
The JI team, which sits at the party office Idara Noor-i-Haq in Quaideen Colony, is not one to be left behind in the race for NA-246. Team leader Kashif Hafeez claims that as compared to the official MQM and PTI Karachi Facebook pages, the JI’s Karachi page is far ahead in terms of likes and is the “fastest growing page”.
“During events and jalsas we do real-time coverage on Twitter and Facebook,” says Hafeez, adding that about 25-30 people work together at one time during an important event.
He is dismissive of the perception that JI is not social media savvy. “Our advantage is that our supporters are highly educated. This concept that religious parties are ‘hardcore’ is misplaced. Our team is made of professionals — even our NA-246 candidate is highly educated as you may know,” he says, adding that he holds a Masters degree.
Other than the JI team, part of which Hafeez says is paid for software and hardware work, the MQM and PTI teams say they are working pro bono. All are quick to say that they have plenty of volunteers and do not spam, troll or use fake accounts to gain online clout.
What separates the PTI team from the rest, however, is that it is self-governing. While the MQM and JI teams promote the parties’ respective ideologies online under a set of codified instructions, the PTI says it is autonomous.
“The advantage of not using party funds is that it gives us autonomy. We act according to party policy but there is no micro-management,” says Ghazali.
How the MQM supremo learnt about Twitter
Back at the party headquarters, a jovial Haider Abbas Rizvi relates the story of Altaf Hussain’s discovery of the micro-blogging platform.
“Sometime back, someone misinformed Altaf bhai that the ‘youth is disgruntled with MQM’,” Rizvi recalls.
“He wondered what the young people of his beloved Karachi are doing to pass their time now. ‘Do they not play football and cricket on the roads?’ he asked, perplexed.”
When told that they spend their time engrossed in their mobile phones, the MQM supremo wondered aloud: “Doing what?”
“Browsing Facebook and Twitter, of course.”
It was only a matter of time before the party chief was familiarised with the platforms that had taken the online community by storm, albeit several years ago.
He is hooked to application Tweet deck which he views on a desktop computer, Rizvi says.
Rabita Committee member Wasay Jalil says Altaf Hussain is “very aware of how social media is running today”.
“He wants to know what is the topic, what is the hashtag on Twitter, how many hits are on the MQM official page, how many followers on Twitter, what the saathis are up to,” says Jalil, adding that a statement lauding the social media team had been issued by the MQM chief just Tuesday morning.
Jalil’s sons were an integral part of Altaf Hussain’s social media lessons, becoming the first to take a selfie with the self-exiled leader.
Imran Khan, his team says, acknowledges social media as the biggest agent of change. “He tracks hashtags and sometimes forwards us videos and says ‘make this go viral’ if the content is good,” says Ghazali .
He adds that the PTI chairman operates his own Twitter account and uses his Blackberry — for privacy concerns — to check updates.
Sirajul Haq’s Twitter account, however, is operated by party workers with his consent and under his supervision. Hafeez says Siraj uses an iPhone to read Tweets when free and adds with a smile: “JI Karachi is contesting elections with the determination to win. Whatever the results, we know we didn't do any half-hearted activity at any level.”
Proud of their hashtags
“The impression is that the PTI social media is the best. But can I ask them; where was their hashtag during the jalsa this weekend?” asks one member of MQM’s social media team.
He asserted that MQM’s trend #DhokhaybazPTI was at the top that day, and shared a screenshot of the trends page as evidence.
Especially for this by-election, the tag #NA246BelongsToMQM was coined, he related. “But on the day of the jalsa at around 8pm, Altaf bhai was about to go live and at the last minute, someone said, "we need to change this hashtag"”.
The support against the hashtag gathered and someone suggested #MainHoonMQM as an alternative. “The idea was to be on top of trends before Altaf bhai speaks, and we were successful,” he says, adding with a laugh that there was a minor scuffle over the spelling of the word ‘main’.
The PTI, however, shares multiple screenshots from the day of its jalsa last Sunday when PTI trends were all one could see on Twitter.
“We brainstorm and discuss minute by minute updates on Whatsapp and take that to social media accordingly,” says Ghazali.
He rebuffs the gibe that PTI is a “Facebook party”.
“All of us initially started on PTI fora online by participating in discussions and debates. Then we started to volunteer for the party. Now we are officially a part of the media team. People should see how we went from being online to supporting the party on the ground,” Ghazali adds.
A special site has been created by the PTI for NA-246, which contains the candidate’s profile, the issues of the constituency, how to address them as well as forms for polling agents.
“We will have a Whatsapp group through which people can report any threats or challenges they may face on election day,” Ghazali says.
“We like to keep our trending hashtags specific to important causes and events. So we don't do this daily. The ones you see are unofficial activists,” he adds.
JI’s Hafeez says preparations in the run-up to the NA-246 by-election include daily updates of the activities of the leadership as well as posts about what he called "positive aspects" of the party and what it can bring to its voters.
“Our focus is problems and issues. Not hashtags,” he says. “It is easy to share a photo or play with sentiments online, but the important thing is the narrative and perception of the party.”