The Russian-Ukrainian war has been aptly called “Global Cyber War I” because it takes place in a world where social media is ubiquitous, while videos and images can be quickly uploaded and shared around the world in real time. Video is now king on all platforms, be it Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, YouTube or Facebook and instantly shared through popular messaging apps like WhatsApp, Signal and Line etc.
Social media users are exposed to information within minutes of the event. Emotions can be strong after watching such videos, real or fake. Last week, a peace activist from the western Ukrainian city of Lviv rolled 109 strollers into a square to represent children who had been killed during the war with Russia. Within minutes the image was available to millions of people on their phones, leading to an immediate call to cease hostilities. Similarly, a “deepfake” video showed Ukrainian President Zelenskyy calling on soldiers to lay down their arms.
The American political war is taking place on the Twitter space, which has 220 million subscribers. In one of the most expensive buys of all time, technopreneur Elon Musk last week bought Twitter for $44 billion. Musk, who calls himself a “free speech absolutist”, will now take full control of the company. Some US politicians called the deal “dangerous for democracy”.
In the world of politics, former US President Obama is the most followed on Twitter with 131 million followers, followed by Donald Trump with 89 million (until he was removed from Twitter) and Joe Biden with 34 million. However, famed actor and wrestler Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson has over 308 million Instagram followers (more than Biden and Trump’s Twitter followings combined) and may well announce his candidacy for President of the United States. Outside the United States, Indian Prime Minister Modi, for example, has 76 million followers (an insignificant number considering India’s population of over 1.4 billion), Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has 18 million and Imran Khan 16 million followers on Twitter.
Social media is not just about politics on Twitter, but also – and more – about entertainment, marketing and learning. Its disruptive power influences the way young people make decisions. All businesses, big or small, depend on social media marketing through influencers and SEO. Facebook has 2.9 billion subscribers, YouTube 2.2 billion, TikTok 1 billion, Instagram 500 million and Twitter 220 million. Because YouTube videos have no time limit, most entertainment, news channels, travel and food vlogs, skills courses, etc. are hosted on YouTube.
Vloggers like PewDiePie with over 100 million YouTube subscribers, and Kim Kardashian with over 300 million Instagram followers, influence the way Gen-Y and Gen-Z think and act. When Cristiano Ronaldo, who has 422 million Instagram followers, removed the Coke bottles in front of him at a recent press conference, Coke lost $4 billion of its stock value. The posting of memes and tweets by finfluencers has been known to increase or decrease stock prices.
Pakistan is catching up fast, with 61 million internet users in January 2021 (an increase of over 11 million between 2020 and 2021 alone). At this rate, we can easily assume that there are currently more than 76 million Internet users today, or more than 70% of the population if we do not include 0-14 year olds.
In Pakistan, as in most countries, social media influences the way young people make decisions. Forty-three million (20% of the population) are Facebook and Twitter users, while 22 million (10%) use YouTube. The most popular mobile application for communicating, posting and transferring videos, images and links is WhatsApp with over 46 million users.
YouTube is popular in Pakistan for news channels, entertainment, travel and food blogs etc. Among non-TV YouTube news channels, Haqeeqat News leads with 4 million subscribers, while presenter Imran Riaz Khan has 2.8 million. Among the gastronomic chains, Kitchen with Amna has 4 million subscribers. In the world of business and entertainment, Azad chaiwala who introduces young people to the world of entrepreneurship, and Irfan Junejo, an influencer, each have 1.2 million subscribers.
Twitter, the popular political platform, is used by 44 million people (20% of the population) and its number of followers is growing rapidly among the population. Among politicians, Imran Khan leads all others with over 16 million followers, Shehbaz Sharif is next with 5.8 million and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has 4.5 million followers.
Besides fake news, trolling (bullying or sending abusive remarks) is one of the major negative aspects of Twitter, along with buying followers and creating fake accounts and bot accounts. It is a threat that must be identified and filtered.
Instagram, on the other hand, with over 10 million followers in Pakistan, is used by both influencers and politicians. Politician Imran Khan leads with 6.9 million followers, while Maryam Nawaz (480,000), Bilawal Bhutto Zardari (223,000) and Shehbaz Sharif (90,000) each have reasonable followings. In the world of entertainment, Mahira Khan and Minal Khan are in the lead with 9 million followers.
Last, but not least, TikTok, also known in China as Douyin, is popular for hosting a variety of short-form user videos, in genres such as pranks, stunts, tricks, jokes, dancing and entertainment. It has a large following in Pakistan with over 26 million users. Popular TikTokers, among others, are Jannat Mirza (15.3 million), Chaudhry Zulqarnain (12.7 million) and Alishba Anjum (12.4 million). TikTok is currently not commonly used for political purposes and was temporarily banned in Pakistan in 2021 to curb immoral content.
Social media platforms will continue to grow, change and transform rapidly as new technologies using metaverse, web3, 5G and IOT unfold further. Pakistan must keep pace with these developments. People are quickly becoming aware of the power of social media and the influence it has on decision makers. The future clearly belongs to social media which will determine public opinion and market trends.
The writer is a former senator, and former president of HEC.