Where Does Pakistan's Democracy Stand In The Digital World?

With technological advancements taking place rapidly, do political and nonpolitical entities realise that the old playbook cannot work anymore?

Where Does Pakistan's Democracy Stand In The Digital World?

In the Global Gender Gap Index 2023, Pakistan ranked 95 out of 149 for political empowerment. In 2018, it had ranked 97. Small improvement which goes to show the electorate is slowly but surely changing. The real question is: have the masters of the democratic show learnt anything? From what’s being rolled out, it appears not.  

This election has barely mustered the enthusiasm that has marked the yesteryear elections that previous generations get misty eyed about – the crowds, jalsas, speeches - the glory days. All of it is tinted with nostalgia, which would all be very well, had it led to any constructive development in the democratic process.

Which isn’t to say efforts weren’t being made to pave the way for a stronger democratic state, but that the seed never germinated due to soil being replaced by concrete.

And while concrete jungles are impressive, what we ended up with is a political wasteland.. On offer are the usual stalwarts and really, the menu is so stale. Dismantlement of a political party to avoid the blame of banning it, is but a mere glitch which has been cloaked by moral piety surrounding a marriage and an alarming state security threat. Voter fraud, vote manipulation, low voter turnout and lack of funds for electoral hopefuls are definitive characteristics of any election but here they’re medals of success.

The fear factor has been amplified by the dreaded main streaming of parties such as the TLP especially in volatile areas such as Jhang and the outright, cold murders of political hopefuls such as Rehan Zeb Khan who electrified the status quo like bolts of lightning – only to be extinguished as quickly as the thunder they bring.

The usual, the usual some sigh. Of course – as a people we are averse to change. But that’s exactly where the problem lies. The playbook hasn’t changed, the players haven’t changed but the voters have.

In a digital age where news spreads on social media long before news outlets can churn out a ‘news story’ based on the information culled from social media sites, success of jalsas measured by number of social media accounts, tabloid slander converted to digital trends and hashtags, on-the-ground campaigns virtually streamed as digital campaigns, have the powers-that-be underplayed the role of technology in the upcoming election? It certainly appears so.

After all, where else in the world can you find a head of state ask the younger lot to dismiss what they see on the screen? Surely, communication of all kinds ought to be regarded as the backbone of democracy and in a state where not too long ago printers had run out of paper to publish books, screens are necessary as a source of information?

And what about the electorate that has clearly changed and understood the power of technology, credit for which largely does rightfully belong to the PTI? Forget non-democratic institutions, where do democratically aligned entities stand?

There is evidence that from 2013-2018 and then from 2018 to present day, the digitisation of the Election Commission of Pakistan has come a long way. All polling stations, locations, roles are all digitised. Form 33 which is the election management’s core element has been digitised which is also available online making candidate information easily available.

However, this still falls short of meeting technological advancements and how social media specifically is used. The ECP code of conduct remains outdated and obsolete due to their lack of facilities to address how information is falsely presented and there is a painful lack of focus on monitoring social media. Hate speech has been limited to language targeting powerful but there is no mechanism which can address hatred towards other entities. This limits the ECP in its institutional independence and dilutes transparency which needs to uphold and also undermines their claim of inclusivity. This brings about several issues:

1. Disinformation and propaganda generates hate speech that impacts inclusive election process. Can the electoral process be inclusive in wake of political polarisation?

In an age of disinformation, misinformation, fake news data plays a major role in generating content that sways voter allegiances and can also shape how information is portrayed. Long gone are the days of rhetoric and enter quick and easy flow of tidbits which explode into digital wars where players don’t need physical votes to be declared the ‘winner’ – the loser of course remains those who don’t have access to verified information but even that is changing. But what exactly is the impact of all this?

One only needs to look at marginalised communities from all walks – transgender and the Ahmadis – to see first hand how they are repeatedly targeted and attacked simply, for existing. The digital activities conducted against them in the form of disinformation and propaganda largely under the veil of religion makes them regular targets of hate speech. The recent anti-Ahmadi discrimination in the context of the elections by lumping them as a separate group of voters immediately renders this as being non-inclusive and is a vicious act which will fuel and legitimise violence against them. An anti-constitutional element that targets a minority, attached to an already hollow election does not necessarily mean the King will retain a crown.

Another element to consider is how hate speech fuels gender inequality as well. Female participation in elections has always been an empty one with little trickledown effect or further emancipation of others females or other marginalised communities. With the refusal of letting female candidates be part of the process or expecting them to unite with ruling elites to maintain empty seats of power have not had the silencing effect as expected – if anything, it has only highlighted exactly how limited the menu is which further undermines the election.

2. ⁠Digital solutions for digital disinformation

And this is precisely why that crown, as tainted as it may be, risks being lost all too quickly. With online tools being developed by civil society focused organisations and NGOs working as watchdogs to arrest the guttural content generated by paid internees keen to have a say in the democratic process, one wonders who is to learn the lesson here. Is it these misguided internees who will ultimately pay the price as they erode their own civil liberties? Or will it be the kingmakers who keep referring back to the tried and tested playbook which is clearly losing the battle on the digital realm as more and more digital solutions are produced to dilute the impact?

3. ⁠Social media

The internet and social media have completely transformed how elections can be shaped and the rise of the individual candidate has never been stronger and more amplified over the traditional party as it is now. Using social media, candidates are bypassing the more cumbersome means of communication which consisted of print ads, jalsas and the tiresome television arguments which no longer cater to the electorate’s growing demand for accountability. Of course this does not mean political engineering is taking place – that goes without saying but what matters is this time, the counter-fight is as slick and glossy as an ISPR production.

With social media campaigns ending on February 6 (48 hours before the election), this is a crucial window that needs to be safeguarded and approached with great caution. The Election Commission has no control over what is shared or created in the name of the election. This poses a risk because social media in such a situation can be used as a weapon to undermine the electoral process – another unhealthy act in an already sick system. The disinformation in this crucial window is likely to have an impact in a way that could fuel existing contention and runs the risk of offline abuse.

4. Online violence can perpetuate physical violence impacting marginalised group participation on electoral process.

This is perhaps most evident in the case of the transgender community who have been denied their most basic human rights and recognition as a result of the digital campaigns targeting them on platforms such as Instagram. Creating panic, roping in religiously inclined politicians for political clout, using ‘mothers’ as tools to fight for the country’s soul, all of this is reductive in the quest for a stronger civil society as it further fragments an already broken nation.

With media houses and NGOs as well as political parties fighting the good fight against disinformation, misinformation and extinguishing all attempts to derail the thin and narrow path to democratisation, there is very little to nothing suggesting that the state and non-state actors are part of the process. Perhaps the older generation is right to reminisce. As more and more fact checking takes place, the uglier the truth becomes. Will the state lose the battle against technology? Yes, it has. Does one dare to ask then, that does this mean the people will win? They never stood a chance in the first place.