ISLAMABAD: On September 6, the PMLN social media manager received a notice, which never caught the attention of the party leadership despite its narrative failure.
“Anyone who is part of our trending team or wants to be part of it should tweet in this trend,” tweeted Atif Rauf, the party’s social media manager. One of the responses he received is instructive. “First of all, you have to form a team. You (the PMLN) have 165 members in the Punjab Assembly. Similarly, there are deputies and senators. If each of them provides you with 100 volunteers, you can build a good team. Also, if the party officials at union council level are also involved, you won’t have to seek help,” an Amir Muhammad Khan replied.
The PMLN has been far behind the PTI in mobilizing support and internalizing the narrative through social media. Party supporters are increasingly worried about this narrative loss, but management doesn’t seem to care. They were unable to get PMLN leader Mian Nawaz Sharif’s Twitter account checked, let alone understand social media dynamics.
This contrasts with PTI’s social media accounts. Not only are office member accounts verified, but PTI city chapter Twitter handlers have also secured verification. A PMLN social media official said the PTI can do this through the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) when in government. A PTA official, however, clarified that the regulator only recommends verifying the accounts of people in government positions.
A PMLN source said a number of requests to verify Nawaz Sharif’s accounts were not met by Twitter for reasons well known to the social media company. “We sent requests more than five times,” he said. Another candidate is Khurram Dastgir whose verification request is also pending. Hamza Shehbaz was only able to get his account verified after he became prime minister. Similarly, luck smiled on Atta Tarar after he was inducted into Hamza’s cabinet and granted verification.
In-depth discussions reveal frustration in the PMLN ranks and files at the leadership’s indifference to social media, which has become a battleground on the narrative front at a time when around 70% of young people aged 14 at 34 receive information via social media. They identify two major reasons behind the poor performance of the PMLN in this regard. This is not at the top of the leaders’ priority and there are too many leaders in the Sharif family. “It’s not that the party lacks funds. It is the will that we lack,” said a party source in London.
Again, it’s not that the fault lies solely with the Pakistani leadership, Mian Nawaz Sharif isn’t too enthusiastic about it either. Several supporters tried to sensitize the party’s supreme leader, a source said. Although the elder Sharif acknowledges this reality during the discussion, it does not translate into actions, which is a true measure of a person’s seriousness, he said. If Imran Khan is politically damaged by any chance, it will be his own fault as the PMLN cannot take credit for it, he stressed.
Another key factor identified is the struggle within the Sharif family over leadership. Although Maryam Nawaz is quite vocal, she is neither independent in making the decisions nor has a team of followers to echo the narrative she is building. Shehbaz Sharif is although a party leader, he still struggles to become a leader who could deliver a competing narrative. Currently, various social media teams are working to project the performance of the executives who fund them.
If Twitter is used as a guide to judge the presence of a party on social networks, PTI manages to scroll through trends on a daily basis to assert its point of view on different issues. On the other hand, PMLN often fails on this front. This was also acknowledged by Atif Rauf, the party’s social media manager. Speaking to The News, he said the PMLN was ahead of the PTI in activism, but was trying to catch up in trend setting. Failing, he said, is because we have an organic presence while PTI works through a paid model. “You would have read the news that the PTI governments in Punjab and KP have hired trainees up to trade union council level for this purpose,” he explained.
The News noted that PMLN workers and supporters often voice their concerns on Twitter against the party’s social media cell. The majority of them are active not because of the PMLN’s social media but because of their opposition to the PTI’s divisive policy. Responding to a question, Atif said those who worry about him actually try to be neutral at times and target leaders. Another social media manager described the lack of narrative from party leaders as a major reason for trending failure. “We cannot manage trends successfully unless there is a strong leadership policy/statement on certain topics,” he said.
While the PMLN is a poor performer on Twitter, it has a negligible presence on other social media platforms like Instagram, TikTok and YouTube where once again PTI reigns supreme. A few weeks ago, The News asked a minister why social media was not getting the attention it deserved from the party. His response was comical: “People know what’s going on and who’s doing what.” Another party leader rejected this approach. “It is a big misunderstanding. It is our responsibility to tell people instead of letting them know and judge at a time when there is a flood of fake news to manipulate the minds of the public,” he argued.
The News attempted to contact Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb for her version of the social media policy, but she was unavailable. Energy Minister Khurram Dastgir also did not respond. Atta Tarar, while explaining the reason for the late verification of the Twitter account, said that there was a technical issue with the party’s official website where his appointment as Deputy General Secretary of the PMLN could be confirmed, which caused resulted in a delay in verification. He sent a letter of his appointment as party official, he explained, but Twitter wanted to check the website as well. Again, this shows how user-friendly the PMLN website is.