All political parties must end their campaigns by July 23. If they don’t, they can be held liable – except for the campaigns that continue unhindered online.
Digital media experts and activists have been pushing the Election Commission of Pakistan to come up with measures to contain online campaigns. The election regulatory body’s code of conduct tells politicians to wind up their campaigns two days before election day. The code is, however, silent on campaigns that continue in cyberspace.
Some observers argue that it doesn’t matter as social media’s reach is limited. According to Bolo Bhi Director Usama Khilji, only 20% of Pakistan’s population has access to the internet. Activist Marvi Sirmed feels, however, that whatever goes online eventually spreads offline.
Digital Rights Foundation founder Nighat Dad is of the view that online and offline campaigns complement each other, but we cannot say which is more effective. “For example, a political leader organises a rally in Mianwali,” she said. “It would be attended by just the people of Mianwali. Through social media, supporters across the country would get to know about the rally.”
According to Khilji, the ECP should monitor and stop social media campaigns being run by official party leadership after July 23. “Posts and tweets of their supporters should, however, not be restricted as that’s a breach of their freedom of expression,” he said. He said the ECP should look into the use of social media for manipulative and political purposes. He cited the example of how Cambridge Analytica sold the data of millions of people to political clients in the US and UK, which eventually influenced election results.
“I am really disappointed with the election commission as they did not do much to educate voters about online spaces,” said Nighat Dad. “The burden has been on different organisations and NGOs.”
According to the digital rights activist, misinformation spreads on social media easily due to the absence of fact-checking. “People believe in whatever they see on the internet without verification,” she said. “Misinformation can even incite violence from people who are blind supporters.”
Sirmed said that the ECP should not just come up with rules regarding social media campaigning. It should also ensure implementation.
She pointed out how supporters of political parties present themselves as anchorpersons and analysts on TV channels, which leads to biased and non-objective coverage. The ECP should look into this as well, she said.
Nighat Dad said that regulating campaigns in the online sphere in complex. You can’t stop people from posting what they want to. However, the election commission should regulate campaigning that happens on party official accounts.
“It is the election commission’s incompetence that they have not considered the political use of social media,” said Dr Mudassir Hussain, a professor of social media at the Aawaz Institute of Media Sciences. According to him, many countries have proper policies on use of social media during elections.
Nighat Dad feels, however, that the onus of social media regulation in terms of election campaigns does not lie on the ECP alone. Social media forums such as Twitter, Facebook and Google must also play their part, she said.
WITH ADDITIONAL INPUT FROM RASHIDA SHABBIR