Microblogging site Twitter has fast become the favoured tool for politicos the world over to engage voters and comment on developments. With the nation experiencing an unprecedented youth bulge, the astute among Pakistan’s politicians have been turning to social media in increasing number to engage the young.

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has always been a step ahead of rivals when it comes to harnessing the internet and social media to woo voters. The party claims to be the nation’s first to develop a web portal and boast a social media presence.

The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) lags behind by a wide margin. Party leaders say the vast majority of PML-N leaders, barring a few notables, continue to harbour ‘traditional’ views about social media.

 The Express Tribune has been tracking changes in Twitter follower counts of political heavyweights since the launch of PolTrack on March 30.
Two datasets have been employed for the purpose. Information on followers gained / lost has been collected over March 29 and May 2. Data on new account creation stands tracked between March 29 and April 16. While PolTrack follows 36 individuals, the scope of this report is restricted to 15 gaining over 30,000 followers since the tool’s launch.

Imran Khan

PTI chief Imran Khan, who joined Twitter in March, 2010, registered the highest rise in followers over the pertinent timeframe. Khan gained over 173,991 followers in 34 days. Between March 29 and April 16, the PTI chief gained 106,000 followers. Of these, 89,000 created Twitter accounts for the first time.
Interestingly, Khan lost around 3,600 followers on May 2. His follower count peaked on April 14 and 15. The PTI chief gained over 7,000 followers on April 15. Of these, 6,500 were new Twitter users who created accounts on April 14. Of the 106,000 aforementioned followers, around 79,000 had empty bio stubs. Over 60,000 were yet to tweet. Around 31,000 had zero followers.
Glaring variations across follower handles were noted among all political heavyweights tracked. Of Khan’s 106,000 followers, a noteworthy 2,372 had handles starting with “Muhamma”, 1,300 with “Abdul” and 1,482 with “Ali”.

Shehbaz Sharif

Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif secured the second slot, gaining 105,173 followers over the 34 days. The Punjab chief minister amassed 65,942 followers between March 29 and April 16. Of these, 61,000 were first-time Twitter users.
Sharif registered a greater drop than Khan on May 2, losing 4,062 followers. The Punjab chief minister gained a record 4,500 followers on April 15, two days after the landmark Supreme Court judgement barring brother Nawaz from politics for life. Of Sharif’s 65,942 aforementioned followers, 49,000 had empty bios and around 38,500 were yet to tweet. Nearly 19,000 had zero followers.
Sharif’s followers also exhibited a striking similarity to Khan’s. A whopping 1,943 had handles starting with “Muhamma” followed by random number sequences. There were 300 “Ahmad” handle variations, 387 “Bilal” variations, 186 “Aamir” variations and 58 “King” variations.

Maryam Nawaz

Maryam Nawaz, reportedly striving to increase the PML-N’s social media footprint, registered the third-highest number of followers over the pertinent timeframe at 95,354. The PML-N leader gained 61,202 followers between March 29 and April 16. Of these, 59,800 created accounts for the first time. Maryam’s follower count peaked on April 14 when a record 5,100 started following her. Of these, 4,600 were new Twitter users who created accounts on April 13, the day father Nawaz was barred from politics for life.
Of the aforementioned 59,800 followers, 49,000 had empty bio stubs and 40,000 were yet to tweet. Nearly 22,800 had zero followers.
Scores of Maryam’s followers displayed remarkable handle variation too. The number of accounts starting with “Muhamma” followed by a random number sequence stood at 1,760. Others included: “Hassan” (207), “Kamran” (130) and “Zain” (171).

Jahangir Tareen

Former PTI general secretary Jahangir Tareen, who joined Twitter in December, 2011, stood fourth over the 34-day period. Tareen’s follower count rose by 82,711 over the period surveyed. The PTI leader gained 51,540 followers between March 29 and April 16. Of these, 47,063 created accounts for the first time.
Tareen’s follower count registered a 3611-strong hike on April 25. Of the aforementioned 51,540 followers, around 47,063 accounts were created between March 28 and April 16, 2018. Of these, 36,850 lacked bio stubs and 28,388 were yet to tweet. 13,121 had zero followers.
Over 1,500 of Tareen’s followers had handles starting with “Muhamma”. Variations of “Ali” (868) followed.

Other PTI leaders

Vice chairman Shah Mehmood Qureshi, spokesperson Fawad Chaudhry and MNA Murad Saeed also featured among the top 15. While Qureshi gained over 72,000 followers in the 34-day period, Saeed’s follower count rose by 60,000. Chaudhry gained an additional 54,000. Qureshi, Saeed and Chaudhry’s follower counts peaked on April 25 with 2,900, 2,543 and 2,302 following them respectively.

Other PML-N leaders

Former foreign minister Khawaja Asif, Railways Minister Khawaja Saad Rafique and State Minister for Power Abid Sher Ali also made it to the foremost 15. Asif gained 50,802 followers over the 34-day period. Both, Ali and Rafique gained a little over 50,000 each. Asif gained most followers on April 26 at 2,401. Corresponding figures for Ali and Rafique stood at 2,590 and 3,335 respectively.

PPP, MQM and PAT bigwigs

Bakhtawar and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari were the only two individuals affiliated with the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) who saw their follower tallies rise by 50,000 over the pertinent timeframe. Bakhtawar gained 60,168 followers while another 77,638 started following Bilawal over the 34-day period.
Of Bilawal’s followers, 41,000 created accounts between March 28 and April 16. The corresponding figure for Bakhtawar stood at around 33,000. Bilawal registered a follower hike on April 15, a day after Sharif stood disqualified for life. Bakhtawar experienced a record increase in followers on April 25. The two saw their follower tallies increase by 3,300 and 2,599 respectively.
Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) leaders recorded some of the lowest gains, with none exceeding 5,000. Faisal Subzwari (4,866 new followers) and Syed Ali Raza Abidi (3,108 new followers) were top performers among party peers.
Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) supremo Tahirul Qadri gained a little over 52,000 followers in the 34-day period. Of these, nearly 29,400 accounts were created between March 28 and April 16. Qadri gained a record 2,541 followers on April 25.

Story by: Shaheryar Popalzai and Rahima Sohail

Creative: Irfan Shaikh, Ibrahim Yahya and Saadat Ali