December issue 2011
Follow the Leader: Politicians Take On Social Media
social networking site in early November, Haqqani responded, “I am a little busy in Islamabad right now. Normal tweeting will resume soon.” This exchange took place in the midst of the infamous Memogate scandal, and at the time Haqqani was more than just a “little busy” fending off the salvos being fired in his direction.
The former ambassador might have broken down in tears on national television, but he maintained a faÃ§ade of dignity in cyberspace where he could carefully craft his messages and sift through myriad comments to find his supporters. When he wasn’t quoting nationalistic Urdu poetry, he was quoting tweets from his followers who insisted on his innocence. He refrained from making direct references to Mansoor Ijaz or the memo and instead, congratulated Sherry Rehman on becoming the new ambassador to the US. Even his wife Farahnaz Ispahani, who is a regular on Twitter, eventually distanced herself from the controversy after making the comment “The end result: a population raised on a diet of conspiracy. The wild claims of Mansoor Ijaz.”
But politicians will be politicians, with their martyr complexes and self-congratulatory words. Soon after resigning from his position, Haqqani tweeted, “Ah, to wake up in my motherland, without the burden of conducting Pakistan’s most difficult external relationship,” as if he had willfully stepped down in favour of early retirement. Years of diplomacy have clearly paid off and Haqqani gracefully navigated his way through the gossip and criticisms.
Federal Interior Minister Rehman Malik, who is one of the few Pakistanis to have a verified Twitter account, frequently publicises his achievements through incoherent tweets such as: “Pl speak with honesty what was the frequency of attacks of suicide bombings before and now reduction level. pl see the peace I brought in Kar (sic)” And while Haqqani still tries to appear dignified, Rehman rather pathetically pleads with his critics to “evaluate (his) performance with an open mind” and “avoid using abusive language.”
Imran Khan has a mass Twitter and Facebook following. However, most of the tweets from Imran Khan’s account are highly impersonal and act as mini press releases. Twitter is certainly a useful way to disseminate information about political events and political stances, but social media also offers an opportunity to create a personal connection with the public, which is something Imran Khan and his party have not fully capitalised on yet. Another seasoned presence in the social media world is Musharraf. He once proudly shared in an interview that he has approximately 400,000 fans on Facebook and he keeps the Pakistani public updated about his activities through his frequent Tweets. Musharraf’s comments are frequently patriotic in nature but what stands out most is his ignorance about the correct use of the apostrophe. (Check them: “Hero’s of Pakistan come in all shapes and forms,”… “Pakistani’s must keep working…” and “Pakistan can never allow any ingress to any of it’s nuclear facility”). But like Imran, most of his comments are fairly impersonal and might as well have been written by an assistant.
In contrast to Imran Khan and Musharraf, we have Sharmila Faruqi, advisor to the chief minister of Sindh, who effusively comments on everything from the personal — “God is kind..Stuffed myself with chicken biryani!!!” — to the political — “And now for the best news of the day!! Bill seeking death penalty for child molesters introduced in NA…yesssss!!!” While some of her comments about eating frozen yogurt in winter could be mistaken for the musings of a sorority girl, Faruqi’s blunt words are revealing of her personality and balance out her other more serious tweets in which she lashes at Nawaz Sharif or highlights women’s rights issues.
While Musharraf and Imran Khan have already established their presence in the digital world, the Sharif brothers are the new kids on the block. In the days immediately following Imran Khan’s Lahore jalsa on October 30, Shahbaz Sharif set up official Twitter and Facebook accounts. He uses these sites to publicise everything from scholarship programmes to his favourite food (daal chawal and gobhi gosht). As would be expected, he frequently talks about dengue and PML-N jalsas. But he also shares his alleged love for reading and congratulated the Pakistan cricket team on their win. There is certainly no way to confirm if Shahbaz actually favours the humble daal chawal over more gourmet delicacies or to find out what he supposedly reads every night before going to bed. But he is carefully constructing a connection with the public and is successfully using social media to reveal a more personable side to himself.
Although they might have been late bloomers, the PML-N is making more effective use of Facebook and Twitter than many of their counterparts. Shahbaz Sharif has participated in live chat events with the public and, on occasion, directly refers to comments from his supporters in his Facebook statuses. Interestingly, many of Imran Khan’s supporters visit Sharif’s Facebook page and blatantly promote their leader by posting Imran Khan’s images and quotes. While some might view this as being in bad taste, there is a very little a politician can do to stop such activities.
Public figures might filter negative comments on their Facebook and Twitter accounts, but they cannot control what is being said about them on unofficial fan pages or even hate groups’ pages. In the real world, the average person might hesitate before criticising a politician in their presence, but on Facebook and Twitter all bets are off. And while many of these criticisms might not directly appear on the politician’s pages, they are only a quick search away. Najam Sethi, also on Twitter, tweeted during the Haqqani fiasco, “Only Pakistani tweeters accuse fellow citizens of being ‘beghairat’ ‘shameless’ ‘foreign agents’ ‘liars,’ etc. Shows poverty of debate/philosophy.” Sethi, however, is wrong. While abusive comments are not justified, they are certainly not a local phenomenon and sometimes, these criticisms serve as a much needed jolt back to reality for politicians who are often too removed from the public.
This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of Newsline under the headline “Follow the Leader.”
Zehra Nabi is a graduate student in The Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University. She previously worked at Newsline and The Express Tribune.