Lahore, Pakistan — It was a eureka moment for Jibran Ilyas.
Like much of his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Ilyas had been overcome by a sense of uncertainty. Their charismatic leader, former Prime Minister Imran Khan, has been in prison for months. Senior party officials are in hiding. Campaigning meaningfully for the February 8 elections to the National Assembly and provincial legislatures seemed difficult, if not almost impossible.
Then an idea struck the Chicago-based social media manager for PTI. It was in December when Ilyas and his team sent a message to Khan in prison, through the party's lawyers.
“We have seen repression against our party. We saw how depressed people were. We have seen some of our gatherings scuttled by the authorities. This made us think: what if we try to organize a ‘virtual gathering’ and dodge this ban imposed on us,” Ilyas told Al Jazeera.
“He [Khan] didn't know what a virtual gathering meant and thought we would do something over Zoom. But we explained what we were going to do, that we would show testimonies from PTI sections around the world, and when we explained our idea, he gave the green light,” the social media manager added.
On December 17, the PTI organized what was arguably the first “virtual rally” in Pakistan, using a platform called StreamYard, reaching an audience of over five million people across various platforms.
Ilyas and his team didn't stop there. They had one more surprise planned.
“When we attend a PTI rally, regardless of the other speakers, people are there to listen to our leader. Although he had been in prison for three months, people had not heard him at all. So we used AI instead [artificial intelligence] to generate its audio clip and played it during the virtual gathering,” Ilyas said.
Khan's four-minute speech was generated using AI, interspersed with clips from his past speeches, as well as video montages, and was based on handwritten notes Khan sent to Ilyas and his team from prison.
According to Ilyas, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
It was an example of how the PTI remains the most technologically savvy party in the country. At a time when the PTI faces a devastating crackdown, not even being able to use its party symbol – the cricket bat – in Thursday's polls, it is these digital tools that are helping it contest elections which many critics have called unfair. even designed.
“We are very motivated people and the party leadership, especially our leader Khan, has given us [the social media team] free rein on how to operate. This allows us to react quickly and stay on top of the game,” added Ilyas.
After Khan was removed from power in April 2022, his party protested the impeachment, which it attributes to a US-led conspiracy in collusion with Pakistan's powerful military. The crackdown further intensified last year, when Khan was arrested in May in a corruption case, leading thousands of PTI supporters to take to the streets.
They went on a rampage demanding the release of their leaders and damaged government buildings and military installations, including the house of a top commander in the eastern city of Lahore. Retaliation by the military, once seen as having backed Khan to power in 2018, was swift and severe. Thousands of PTI workers were arrested, party leaders were forced to leave the party and eventually, Khan himself was jailed in August last year, where he has remained ever since.
As Khan continues to remain behind bars, having received three convictions in several cases last week, his PTI has continued to persevere, despite the odds.
When the Election Commission banned the party from using a symbol for elections, it meant that each PTI candidate had to run with a different symbol – and without the party name – like independent candidates.
With literacy rates below 60 percent across the country, symbols or pictorial identifiers remain the most important markers for the public to identify their candidate or party of choice.
So, Ilyas said, the party decided to intensify its guerrilla tactics.
“Overnight, our team came up with the idea of creating an online portal where users can enter the constituency number and receive the candidate's name and symbol,” he said.
Traditionally, election campaigns in Pakistan involve candidates and their teams holding meetings on street corners, visiting voters door to door to spread their message, and addressing voters and supporters at large rallies.
They put up banners and posters and distribute brochures with their agendas. Others, who have more financial resources, also advertise in major media, including television and print. With most institutions of the Pakistani state cracking down on them, these options have been limited for the PTI this time, party leaders say.
“We had to be nimble and thoughtful to turn around this negativity and use it as strength,” said Taimur Jhagra, a senior PTI leader, who is seeking a provincial seat from Peshawar, the capital of the northern Khyber province. -west of the country. Pakhtunkhwa, where the party has been in power since 2013.
“When my posters were torn down in a neighborhood of Peshawar, I made a video with these torn posters and asked my team to upload it on our social media platforms and let the torn posters stay up for let them speak for themselves. » Jhagra told Al Jazeera.
As a result, Jhagra says, the video allowed him to attract a large number of people to what was supposed to be just a small corner meeting in another area of his constituency.
“It was a guerrilla jalsa,” Jhagra said. “We planned to have a small event, with barely 100 people expected. But we ended up with more than a few thousand people, which says a lot about the support we have and the willingness of people to participate in our campaign,” added the former provincial minister.
Another PTI leader, who requested anonymity due to security fears, is contesting in Lahore for a seat in the National Assembly. He said his campaign team relied on WhatsApp to engage with voters.
“We have a channel where we can share information and get our messages out. Through WhatsApp, we have short, quick meetings at someone’s home and disperse quickly,” he added.
Technology journalist Ramsha Jahangir says Khan and his team have always used social media because it helps emphasize the message that it is “accessible” to the average person.
“In the face of censorship, the PTI is at the forefront of finding alternative ways to reach its supporters and propagate its message. These safe strategies are carried out by educated and globally placed supporters,” Jahangir told Al Jazeera.
Commenting on the broader trend of increasing reliance on digital means to disseminate political messages, Jahangir said technology is “writing a new playbook” for politics.
“We have seen the PTI make politics more accessible through virtual jalsas, AI audios and chatbots. This not only helped them circumvent censorship, but also engage young people, including those from rural or peri-urban parts of the country,” she added.
PTI's Ilyas agreed with the sentiment and said the party is keenly aware of the country's electoral demographics and was keen to adapt and evolve its message to reach new audiences.
“When you have more than 60 percent of voters in the 18 to 45 age bracket, you have to look for ways to engage them. This is why we have such an active presence on platforms like TikTok, YouTube, and why we have hosted two TikTok events so far, attended by millions of people,” said the Chicago-based strategist.
Pakistan's other major political parties, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) and the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), have been slow to adapt to the changing landscape.
Unlike the PTI, both parties encountered little resistance from state institutions during their public election campaign. For them, the focus remained on sticking to proven formulas, albeit supplemented by data and technology.
Former Information Minister and PMLN Information Secretary Marriyum Aurangzeb said that while traditional methods cannot be undermined in mass contact campaigns, “the exponential expansion of “digital space” adds another element to campaign awareness initiatives.
“Our campaign messaging framework was assisted by AI-powered active social listening across the digital media landscape. This gave us extremely valuable insights that helped us create a very impactful campaign,” she told Al Jazeera.
Aurangzeb said modern data-driven techniques enabled “separate understanding” at multiple levels, including demographic and socio-economic divides.
“We delivered a tailor-made message, targeting a portion of the voters, instead of a massive dissemination of generalized messages at all levels,” added the former minister.
For the PTI, Ilyas said the challenge now is to convert supporters into active voters on February 8.
Ilyas said his team has set up WhatsApp channels for every constituency in Pakistan, where party supporters can get voting information. Another “important innovation”, he said, is the chatbot that the PTI has implemented on Imran Khan's Facebook profile.
“The way he interacts with people, it almost seems like you're talking to Imran Khan. You send your boss a message asking about your district, and he tells you where to go and urges you to vote. It makes people feel like they are talking directly to him,” Ilyas explained.
“The response on Facebook is huge and we really hope it translates into votes. I believe people are going to vote because they haven't been able to join campaigns or protests because of this air of repression. Voting will be our way of expressing our frustrations.