Lahore, Pakistan — It was a eureka moment for Jibran Ilyas.
Like much of his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Ilyas had been swamped by a sense of uncertainty. Their charismatic leader, former Prime Minister Imran Khan, has been in jail for months. Senior party officials are in hiding. Campaigning in any meaningful way for the February 8 elections to the National Assembly and provincial legislatures appeared difficult, if not near-impossible.
Then an idea struck the Chicago-based social media lead for PTI. It was December when Ilyas and his team sent across a message to Khan in jail, through the party’s lawyers.
“We saw the suppression against our party. We saw how depressed the people were. We saw some of our rallies scuttled by the authorities. It made us think, what if we try to hold a ‘virtual rally’ and dodge this ban on us,” Ilyas told Al Jazeera.
“He [Khan] was unclear what a virtual rally meant, and thought we would do something on Zoom. But we explained what we will do, that we will show testimonials from PTI chapters globally, and when we explained our idea, he gave the go-ahead,” the social media lead added.
On December 17, the PTI held what was arguably the first “virtual rally” in Pakistan, using a platform called StreamYard, reaching an audience of over five million across various platforms.
Ilyas and his team did not stop there. They had one more surprise lined up.
“When we go to a PTI rally, no matter who the other speakers are, people are there to listen to our leader. With him in jail for three months, people hadn’t heard him at all. So instead, we used AI [artificial intelligence] to generate his audio clip, and played it in the virtual rally,” Ilyas said.
The four-minute-long address by Khan was generated using AI, which was interspersed with clips from his past speeches, as well as video montages, and was based upon handwritten notes Khan had sent to Ilyas and his team from jail.
The response, Ilyas says, was overwhelmingly positive.
It was an example of how the PTI remains the technologically savviest party in the country. At a time when the PTI has faced a devastating crackdown, barred from even using its party symbol — the cricket bat — in the polls on Thursday, it is such digital tools that are helping it compete in elections that many critics have described as unfair, even engineered.
“We are very driven people, and party leadership, especially our leader Khan, gave us [the social media team] free rein over how to operate. That allows us to respond quickly, and stay on top of the game,” Ilyas added.
After Khan was removed from power in April 2022, his party has been protesting against the removal, which it blames on a US-led conspiracy, in collusion with Pakistan’s powerful military establishment. The crackdown further intensified last year, when Khan was arrested in May in a corruption case, which resulted in thousands of PTI supporters pouring out on 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. Retribution by the military, which was once viewed as having backed Khan to power in 2018, was swift and harsh. Thousands of PTI workers were arrested, party leaders were forced to quit the party, and eventually, Khan himself was imprisoned in August last year, where he has remained since.
While Khan continues to remain behind bars, as he received three convictions in multiple cases last week, his PTI has continued to persevere, despite the obstacles.
When the election commission banned the party’s use of a symbol for the elections, it meant that each PTI candidate in effect would have to contest with a different symbol — and without the party’s name — in effect like independent candidates.
With a literacy rate of less than 60 percent in the entire country, symbols or pictorial identifiers remain the most important markers for the public to identify the candidate or their party of choice.
So, Ilyas said, the party decided to intensify its guerilla tactics.
“Within a night our team came up with the idea of setting up a portal online where users can enter in the constituency number and they would receive the name of the candidate, and their symbol,” he said.
Traditionally, election campaigns in Pakistan involve candidates and their teams holding street corner meetings, visiting constituents door to door to spread their message, and speaking to voters and supporters in large rallies.
They put up banners and posters, and distribute pamphlets with their agendas. Others, who possess more financial resources, also advertise on mainstream media including both television and print. With most institutions of the Pakistani state cracking down on them, those options have been limited for the PTI this time, say party leaders.
“We had to be nimble and think on our feet to turn this negativity around and use it as strength,” says Taimur Jhagra, a senior PTI leader, who is contesting for a provincial seat from Peshawar, the capital of the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where the party has been in power since 2013.
“When my posters were torn apart in a neighbourhood in Peshawar, I made a video with those torn posters, and told my team to upload it on our social media platforms and let the torn posters stay in place to let them speak for themselves,” Jhagra told Al Jazeera.
As a result, Jhagra says, the video enabled him to attract a large number of people for what was supposed to be only a small corner meeting in another neighbourhood of his constituency.
“It was a guerrilla jalsa,” Jhagra said. “We had planned to hold a small event, with barely 100 people expected to attend it. But we ended up with over a couple of thousands of people, which speaks volumes about how much support we have and how willing people are to be part of our campaign,” the former provincial minister added.
Another PTI leader, who requested anonymity due to security fears, is contesting for a national assembly seat from Lahore. He said his campaign team has relied on WhatsApp to engage with constituents.
“We have a channel where we can share information and spread our messaging. Using WhatsApp, we hold short, quick meetings at somebody’s house and disperse quickly,” he added.
Technology journalist Ramsha Jahangir says that Khan and his team have always used social media, as it helps underscore the message that he is “accessible” to the average citizen.
“Facing censorship, PTI are at the forefront of finding alternative ways to reach their supporters and propagate their message. These sure-footed strategies are led by educated, globally placed supporters,” Jahangir told Al Jazeera.
Commenting on the broader trend of increasing reliance on digital means to disseminate political messaging, Jahangir said technology is “writing a new playbook” for politics.
“We have seen PTI make politics more accessible through virtual jalsas, AI audios, and chatbots. This has not only helped them circumvent censorship but also engage youth, including those who are from rural or periurban parts of the country,” she added.
PTI’s Ilyas agreed with the sentiment and said that the party is keenly aware of the voter demographic of the country and was eager to adapt and evolve its messaging to reach out to new audiences.
“When you have over 60 percent voters in the age bracket of 18 to 45, you have to look at ways to engage them. This is why we have such active presence on platforms such as TikTok, YouTube, and why we have so far held two TikTok events, attended by millions of people,” the Chicago-based strategist said.
Pakistan’s other major political parties, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) have been slow to adapt to the evolving landscape.
Unlike PTI, the two parties have faced little resistance from state institutions while conducting their election campaign in public. For them, the focus has remained on following the tried and tested formulae, though complimented by data and technology.
Former information minister as well as the information secretary of the PMLN, Marriyum Aurangzeb, said that while traditional methods cannot be undermined in mass contact campaigns, the “exponential swell of the digital space” adds another element to campaign outreach initiatives.
“Our campaign messaging frame was assisted by AI-based active social listening across the entirety of the digital media landscape. This gave us extremely valuable data insights that helped us build a highly impactful campaign,” she told Al Jazeera.
Aurangzeb said that the data-driven modern techniques allowed for “segregated understanding” at multiple levels including demographic and socioeconomic splits.
“We delivered a tailored message, microtargeting a said section of the voters, instead of mass distribution of generalised messages across the board,” the former minister added.
For the PTI, Ilyas said the challenge now is to convert supporters into active voters on February 8.
Ilyas said that his team has set up WhatsApp channels for every constituency in Pakistan where party followers can get information on voting. Another “important innovation”, he said, was a chatbot that the PTI has set up on Imran Khan’s Facebook profile.
“The way it engages with people, it almost appears you are talking to Imran Khan. You send your leader a message asking him about your constituency, and he replies back where to go, and urges you to vote. It makes people feel they are talking to him directly,” Ilyas explained.
“The response on Facebook is huge and we are very hopeful this will translate into votes. I believe people are going to vote because they have not been able to join campaigning or protests due to this air of suppression. Voting will be our way to vent our frustrations.”