There is little doubt that Pakistan is barreling towards an uncertain political and economic future. But the most unique phenomenon of the last four months of continued political imbroglio is the extremely effective utilization of social media by former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) to transform his brand image. Communication teams are the routine wing of any political party in the developed world, but Pakistan is still little behind in this domain. Here very few political parties have professional communication teams. Most of the political parties rely on the traditional methodology of electronic and print media to promote their respective political parties. “Image-building” is a relatively new phenomenon in Pakistan. But the PTI has effectively introduced this new concept of using social media campaign to promote the party image and specifically the personal image of Imran Khan himself. Last four months have seen one of the most drastic changes in the political arena of Pakistan. Indubitably, the most phenomenal change, however, is the unprecedented transformation of the acutely dwindling popularity of Imran Khan and his party into a populist movement. In the first week of April, owing to high inflation, drastic devaluation of rupee and soaring unemployment, Imran Khan’s popularity was at its lowest ebb. Particularly, the disgruntlement in the lower middle class of the society had reached the boiling point. This was perhaps one of the key factors that encouraged his opponents to join hands to throw the PTI out of the corridors of power when the public sentiments were significantly against Imran Khan and his faltered economic policies. The then opposition leadership was quite confident that Imran Khan, once out of the gate of the Prime Minister house, would not be able to generate any kind of effective agitation against the new government.
Majority of the political pundits and analysts was expecting Imran Khan to have a lukewarm response from his supporters after his much-dramatic ouster from power. Imran Khan’s slate was empty as far as his four-year stint was concerned. There was nothing that he could claim as a tangible and effective “achievement” to motivate his supporters. However, to the utter surprise of all the stakeholders, including Imran Khan himself, the PTI has suddenly emerged as a significantly popular political force in Pakistan within the span of just four months. In desperation, the PTI’s communication and marketing team came up with the idea of playing the “patriotism card” to charge up the public against the so-called US-sponsored regime-change conspiracy. In a highly professional way, the PTI communication team utilized anti-American sentiments as a marketing tool to galvanize the public sympathies for Imran Khan. Imran Khan very shrewdly used a highly efficacious social media campaign to create anti-American sentiments to divert the attention from his poor performance as Prime Minister. Imran Khan has been directly blaming the Biden administration for “regime change conspiracy” against him – an allegation that has been categorically denied by the White House. There is no logical and material evidence to validate Imran Khan’s allegations about the US-backed regime change conspiracy, but he has been able to ignite massive anti-American sentiments among his supporters. Imran Khan has made this allegation as the main mantra of his social media campaign after his dismissal through a no-trust motion in the parliament.
The cult-like behavior of his supporters is not a new phenomenon in our political history. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Altaf Hussain had a similar kind of influence among their supporters, but the speed with which this cult-like behavior has become contagious among his supporters in the middle and upper middle class is reflecting the success of his social media team managers. It is reported that a big team comprising of hundreds of social media activists are working within the communication team of the PTI. These social media activists are using every trick to ignite anti-Americanism and paint all political opponents as the “American agents”. There is no doubt that, despite not being a tightly-knit and organized political party, the PTI has established a very efficient and resourceful team to influence the public opinion through social media. No other political party in Pakistan has utilized the social media as effectively as the PTI. The social media team of the PTI has been turned into a formidable propaganda apparatus. Allegedly, over 1,500 social media activists – or mercenaries as they are being labelled by the opponents – are working on the payroll of the PTI.
Every brand needs a continuous reminder to the target audience through psycho-somatic stimulations in the form of audio-visual contents in the electronic as well as social media. This is exactly what the PTI social media team has done consistently to Imran Khan’s image transformation. They used all social media platforms to create a cult-like culture within the PTI. However, the interesting thing is that other political parties have not yet learnt anything from the PTI and are still struggling with traditional methods to out-compete the PTI’s social media campaign.
[Photo by Voice of America]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Imran Khalid is a freelance columnist on international relations based in Karachi, Pakistan.