Among the political parties, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf is way ahead of its rivals in social media presence, beaming targeted messages and building, and sustaining, narratives, a fact that is now being acknowledged by senior members of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, albeit in private.

A well-informed PML-N source attributes the PTI ascendancy in the area to “millions of dollars spent on hiring professionals and on building the architecture not just in Pakistan but also abroad like in the US”. The source concedes the PML-N presence is weak and no match for the PTI’s.

In contrast to the scale of the PTI’s investment in all elements of the social media infrastructure, the source acknowledges the PML-N has invested not “even a few millions” and depends mainly on volunteers who may be “committed party loyalists but lack the professional skills and nous” of their opponents.

The PML-N source says senior members of the party are aware of this shortcoming which, if not addressed soon, could leave the party at a great disadvantage in any general election next year. Another source confirmed that PML-N leaders such as Maryam Nawaz Sharif have been fully briefed. “The top leadership has been made aware of the perils but does not seem to be moving fast enough, especially given how effectively PR firms are handling PTI’s image-building here and abroad, and paid techies are throwing cash to run its social media trends.”

Some old-fashioned commentators, however, say social media presence is overrated and so is the role of the “youth bulge” in any Pakistani elections as more traditional electioneering tools such as rallies, door-to-door canvassing and, in our case, “biradari” ties are effective enough.

They ask how many social media followers former military ruler General Pervez Musharraf had, for example, on Facebook (over a million then; 2 million now) when he tried to stage a political comeback in March 2013, just ahead of the elections.

Some 1,500 supporters greeted him in Karachi, long considered a stronghold, given the largesse he lavished upon the city and Muttahida Qaumi Movement during his 1999 to 2007-’08 years in near absolute power. These cynics ask if Imran Khan, having even more Facebook followers (12 million now) than Pervez Musharraf, both in 2008 and 2013 elections, won a landslide or even big victories.

One has to ask if it is wise to compare the environment then with the one we witness today in terms of the age profile of voters and their smartphone use. It bears repeating that 65% of Pakistan’s population is under 30.

Today, according to Pakistan Advertisers Association, a whopping 77% of the age group from 21 to 30 use a smartphone, or more than one smartphone, and of the entire smartphone-user population over 85% use applications; in Facebook’s case, the figure goes up to 90%.

While all political leaders claim to have been voted in by “22 crore (220 million)” people, the official results of the 2018 elections show 16.8 million votes for the PTI; 12.8 million for the PML-N and 6.9 million for the Pakistan Peoples Party, the leading three vote-getters in that election.

For this discussion, we’ll leave aside a vote bump or cut for one contender or the other attributable to the elaborate political engineering done by the establishment. Suffice it to say that a record 1.67 million votes were rejected; Result Transmission System failed on Election Day. And in the pre-poll effort, the media was muzzled, candidates (and independent winners later) were coerced to change loyalties and controversial court decisions targeting its top leaders loaded the dice against the PML-N.

Coupled with the high usage of smartphones in that age bracket, no party or pollster seems to have done any research or carried out a scientific poll on the voting intentions of the 15 million new voters added to the electoral rolls since the 2018 election.

Juxtapose this number with the votes secured by the top three parties in 2018 and assume a similar percentage of the voter turnout (55) happens in the next elections and the new voter is no more or no less inclined to vote than the rest. We are looking at some 7 million to 8 million new voters.

I have no idea which way this enormous cohort will vote. But it would be safe to say that the newly minted voter will be open to persuasion via intelligently-run and sophistically managed social media campaigns as this sort of appeal lands in their palms and the recipients have to make no effort to access it.

This cohort may or may not flock to the various party leaders’ jalsas to hear in person the latter’s hyped-up promises, delivered at very high decibels, and condemnation and criticism of their opponents, warranted or otherwise.

But a carefully crafted message landing on their phone, one can be sure, will be accessed. So many of the young people are struggling to find work and get on with their lives. A subtle message delivered on their smartphone that plays to their dilemmas or aspirations can strike a chord better than most other means.

Of course, this is not to say the tried-and-tested traditional campaigning methods and means are redundant. Far from it. Personal contact remains a significant means of reaching out. But even then, there is no doubt in many analysts’ mind that in today’s world, aspirants to office can only ignore social media or assign it low priority at their own peril.

The by-elections last Sunday are important as a huge PTI win can provide renewed impetus to the party’s push for fresh general elections. Backbreaking inflation is a huge cross for the incumbents to bear today. However, if inflation can be reined in over the coming months and the awam given enough reason to feel good, that disadvantage can be neutralised to a large extent. What cannot is the gap in the narrative-building capacity and riding the crest of the social media wave.

This article first appeared in Dawn.