Pakistan is not unfamiliar with dramatic and often manipulated elections. But the country’s general election results, declared on February 8, stand out both for the stunning outcome and the lessons they hold for journalists on covering elections in this day and age.

Consider, for instance, news coverage ahead of the elections. In one incident, a journalist from a mainstream television news channel stopped a middle-aged man, who was traveling with his family on a motorcycle in a bustling market in Lahore, and asked him, “Who are you going to vote for?” The man cryptically responded, “Someone whose name you are not allowed to say.”

Unsurprisingly, that interaction did not air on the news channel the journalist worked for, making its way instead to a social media platform.

From its inception in 1947, democracy in Pakistan has often resembled Schrödinger’s cat – simultaneously alive with promise and potential, yet also veiled in uncertainty and ambiguity. What has been less ambiguous is the steady decline in the freedom of expression in Pakistan, with the country currently positioned at 150 out of 180 in the Reporter Without Borders ranking.

Attempts to stifle mainstream news media have been documented, from abducting journalists to harassing those who questioned the powerful.

In some cases, this has proved effective, with mainstream news media often resorting to collaborating and aligning with the status quo. A case in point is the media following “directions” not to use even the flags of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf or mention their affiliation with candidates ahead of general elections.

What the military establishment in Pakistan may not have budgeted for is a robust, and far more independent social media ecosystem. With a population of 225 million, a large chunk of whom are young, first-time voters, social media emerged as a platform to reflect public defiance, ultimately ensuring former prime minister Imran Khan’s resounding and surprising victory against unprecedented odds.

One glaring lesson from Pakistan’s election is the futility of restricting information flow in today’s high-choice information environment. An information clamp-down on mainstream media outlets has led to the emergence of new, digital-native platforms, including RaftarTV, NayaPakistan, and, which, collectively on X, have over 3.7 million followers and 4.1 million subscribers on YouTube.

These platforms steadfastly defy coercion and inform the wider public about news events that might otherwise be impermissible for broadcast.

It is also important to highlight the noteworthy reportage by global news organisations, evidence of which was visible on the day of elections in Pakistan when at least 49 foreign journalists provided extensive coverage, emphasising widespread international interest in the event.

During the campaign, on election day and even the days after it, there were continued attempts to curb the flow of information through measures such as internet shutdowns and social media bans, revealing the persistent frustration of authorities in stifling any semblance of freedom of expression. It is no surprise that Pakistan ranks third globally for the most internet shutdowns after Iran and India.

When the government censored the media from even mentioning Khan’s name, his party flooded social media with messages and campaign videos featuring him.

When the police barred party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf supporters from holding rallies, they held a virtual gathering instead , reaching up to five million viewers. When Khan was arrested on August 5, 2023, his supporters produced speeches using artificial intelligence to simulate his voice and rally support. It is against this backdrop that Aleema Khanum, Khan’s sister described her brother's victory as a result of a “social media movement”.

Two key lessons emerge for journalists who will go on to cover elections in 2024. First, a critical misjudgement by traditional news media in the lead-up to Pakistan’s 2024 elections was the reluctance to accurately report ground realities and differing sentiments of citizens.

Veering away from the duty of providing an unbiased and an accurate depiction of events led to a distorted narrative on most mainstream news platforms and may have inadvertently contributed to the establishing Khan’s victimhood.

A second lesson underscores the profound impact of underestimating the younger generation and how they are engaging with the news. Constituting half the country's electorate, millions of Pakistani youngsters were primarily watching and reading about election events online – even as Khan’s political rivals were relying on traditional media for campaign messaging.

While a political outcome still remains in flux, it is clear that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s success can be attributed to its recognition of and connection with this tech-savvy demographic that may have felt overlooked and disenfranchised by political opponents and the mainstream media.

Waqas Ejaz is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.

Mitali Mukherjee is a political economy journalist and Director of Journalist Programmes at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.