Social Media in Pakistan Helps Engage Youth in the Democratic Process

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In the recent elections, social media such as Facebook and Twitter were instrumental in engaging youth and bringing them out to vote. But the question remains: how can social media can help strengthen democracy in Pakistan?

Social media in Pakistan is an ever growing phenomenon. The editor of Dawn.com, Jehazeb Haq, recently compared Facebook to a virtual city competing with Karachi, the largest city in Pakistan with a population of 20 million and growing.

“Over prolonged periods of autocratic rule, the youth of the country was deliberately made apathetic. The revival of the political process happened at a time when social media had already arrived and started playing a central role in the lives of the connected youth. This medium was used to fullest extent prior to the 2013 elections to spread awareness about the imperatives of the democratic process, as a mobilization tool to garner support and canvassing of ideas and manifestoes by parties. Needless to say the youth was the vanguard of this new movement through the new media.” – Afia Salam, Member: IUCN Commission on Education & Communications

The power of social media in providing the right to speech has been limited, however, since 2010, when government attempted to ban many social media sites, resulting in an uproar from users and civil society groups. All past efforts by government to do so ultimately failed, resulting in access to social media sites being restored.

The only site that is still banned in Pakistan is YouTube, as the government says that it still makes blasphemous material accessible in the country. However, civil society organizations and youth groups are being vocal and have been advocating for restoring access to YouTube. Most of these efforts are done using social media.

CIPE Pakistan spoke to few key social media activists to get their views on the current state of social media in the country and how youth is using this medium.

Faisal Kapadia, a young businessman and social media professional, says that “Social media gives voice to anyone who wishes to use it, thus it is a very important and a key pillar of any society today which wants to exercise its opinion. Opinion and the right to free speech are critical to any democracy and its growth. It might seem like a lot of noise now but this is the only platform our youth has to engage in conversation with one another.”

Kamal Faridi, a technology expert and social media activist, says “How much the social media and active engagement of educated youth of Pakistan would make a real difference, only time can say that. But no one can deny the fact that social media is here to stay and it is increasingly becoming an indispensable tool for political democracy.”

“With Pakistan’s internet penetration on a massive upward journey, the reach would eventually extend to not just the educated mass of cities but also perhaps one day become a tool to connect with every Pakistani youth. Social media is here to stay and is now an extended army of democracy of Pakistan from which nothing can be hidden and which is now a major pressure group to reckon with, which no one can ignore. Social media has perhaps made Pakistan’s democracy more inclusive.”

Adeel Azhar, who is Pakistan’s top radio DJ for two years running and a social media enthusiast, suggests that “Social media has added a new dimension to the concept of elections in Pakistan. It has ensured the participation of youth in the whole process when they had been mostly aloof earlier. No wonder 2013 were the elections with the highest turnout in history. Despite the fact that the impact of social media remains concentrated in the urban upper and middle class of the country and through the tendency to click on ‘share’ and ‘retweet’ without verifying the news, the youth becomes a part of the propaganda war without realizing its negative impact.”

Besides using social media for public debate, it is encouraging to see that the youth of Pakistan are using social media for social causes. A number of groups are engaged in fundraising for internally displaced people, spreading information about dengue fever prevention, and sharing job opportunities, among other things.

Join us on August 12 at 8:30 AM EST for a #YouthChange Google Hangout where alumni of CIPE’s Think Tank LINKS and ChamberLINKS programs will discuss the role of youth in initiating change.

Hammad Siddiqui is Deputy Country Director for CIPE Pakistan.

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