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Khan’s party navigates Pakistan blackouts to keep campaign alive

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Former prime minister Imran Khan's party has redefined election campaigning in Pakistan with its social media rallies and use of AI technology

Former prime minister Imran Khan’s party has redefined election campaigning in Pakistan with its social media rallies and use of AI technology – Copyright AFP Aamir QURESHI

Saad Sayeed and Rimal Farrukh

Former prime minister Imran Khan’s party has redefined election campaigning in Pakistan with its social media rallies and use of AI technology in a bid to sidestep a nationwide crackdown that has followed it online.

Khan was jailed in the build-up to the campaign, while his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has been heavily restricted from campaigning for Thursday’s vote and banned from the television airwaves.

Censorship then followed as the party pushed its election campaign online.

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“They can ban what they want, they can ban YouTube and TikTok, whatever they want but our vote is for Imran Khan,” 18-year-old Imran Aziz, a first-time voter, told AFP at a bustling electronics market in the garrison city of Rawalpindi.

Pakistani internet freedom watchdog Bytes 4 All recorded four hours-long social media shutdowns in January that cut off access to TikTok, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube while Khan’s PTI live-streamed to its supporters.

The blackouts were blamed by the government on “technical difficulties”.

The party’s main website was also blocked in January and, within hours, a seemingly perfect duplicate appeared — except that it contained disinformation meant to confuse voters.

The methods are not new, and were also used by Khan when he was in power, but activists say the scale of the crackdown is “unprecedented”.

“It challenges the democracy of a nation when you have the incumbents preventing the opposition’s ability to participate,” said Alp Toker, the director of global network monitor NetBlocks.

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– Websites removed –

Khan says the campaign against him is an attempt by the government and military to keep him from returning to power after analysts say he fell out with the generals -– Pakistan’s kingmakers.

PTI websites have been blocked, including an official portal listing its candidates nationwide.

A duplicate site with a slightly different web address appeared online hours later containing misleading candidate information, directing voters to cast ballots for representatives from other parties.

PTI activists told AFP they have had the fake site taken down but their own candidate webpage is still blocked.

It had already been severely hampered by a ban preventing the party from using its traditional election symbol of a cricket bat. Literacy rates hover around 60 percent in Pakistan, so parties use symbols to identify their candidates.

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Despite the restrictions, PTI remains far ahead of its rivals when it comes to connecting online with Pakistan’s youthful population and tens of millions tune in to its live streams.

It has also become the first party to use AI voice-cloning technology, releasing a fresh speech by Khan from behind bars.

“They have apps, they have online speeches, they’ve done a TikTok jalsa (gathering) which is unprecedented, at least in Pakistan, so they have a way of innovating and it’s always been the case,” said Ramsha Jahangir, a technology journalist.

She said censorship efforts by the government have little impact on PTI’s popularity because the party is nimble enough to keep reaching its voters.

Bytes 4 All director Shahzad Ahmed agreed that, in a country with more than 70 million social media users and a median age under 21, such “shutdowns are counterproductive”.

“The youth is quick to adopt new technologies to circumvent such blockades,” he said, pointing to the use of virtual private networks (VPN).

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– ‘Attack on freedom’ –

Independent candidates with scant resources who rely on social media to spread their message have also been hit hard.

Lawyer Jibran Nasir, who is running in the port city of Karachi, has taken the government to court over the social media shutdowns, saying it sets a “dangerous precedent” for the future and violates people’s constitutional rights.

“It is a direct attack on the freedom of expression of all Pakistanis regardless of what part of the political spectrum they belong to,” he told AFP.

“I primarily rely on social media because, given the inflation, it is virtually impossible to run a fully fledged campaign within the budget limits.”

AFP spoke to two other independents who said their messaging was also affected.

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Apart from the curbs on political freedom, the measures have seeped into the operations of online businesses in a country facing an economic crisis.

Rabia Farhan, who runs a baked-goods business on Instagram from her home in Islamabad, said the outages left her unable to connect with vendors at a time when millions of Pakistanis are struggling due to rampant inflation and currency devaluation.

“Everything was paused online until and unless we used physical resources,” she told AFP.

Saba Mushtaq, of ride-hailing and delivery service Bykea, said the company experienced “significant operational disruptions” affecting 100,000 commuters and 25,000 drivers.

IT trade association Pasha told AFP it was trying to get the government to ensure internet shutdowns do not knock out the tech sector, by protecting certain websites.

The brazen attempts to shut down the party’s online presence only hardens the resolve of PTI supporters.

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“They are imposing these restrictions but they cannot take (Khan) out of our hearts,” PTI supporter Malik Noman, 28, said.

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Snapchat Explores New Messaging Retention Feature: A Game-Changer or Risky Move?

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Snapchat Explores New Messaging Retention Feature: A Game-Changer or Risky Move?

In a recent announcement, Snapchat revealed a groundbreaking update that challenges its traditional design ethos. The platform is experimenting with an option that allows users to defy the 24-hour auto-delete rule, a feature synonymous with Snapchat’s ephemeral messaging model.

The proposed change aims to introduce a “Never delete” option in messaging retention settings, aligning Snapchat more closely with conventional messaging apps. While this move may blur Snapchat’s distinctive selling point, Snap appears convinced of its necessity.

According to Snap, the decision stems from user feedback and a commitment to innovation based on user needs. The company aims to provide greater flexibility and control over conversations, catering to the preferences of its community.

Currently undergoing trials in select markets, the new feature empowers users to adjust retention settings on a conversation-by-conversation basis. Flexibility remains paramount, with participants able to modify settings within chats and receive in-chat notifications to ensure transparency.

Snapchat underscores that the default auto-delete feature will persist, reinforcing its design philosophy centered on ephemerality. However, with the app gaining traction as a primary messaging platform, the option offers users a means to preserve longer chat histories.

The update marks a pivotal moment for Snapchat, renowned for its disappearing message premise, especially popular among younger demographics. Retaining this focus has been pivotal to Snapchat’s identity, but the shift suggests a broader strategy aimed at diversifying its user base.

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This strategy may appeal particularly to older demographics, potentially extending Snapchat’s relevance as users age. By emulating features of conventional messaging platforms, Snapchat seeks to enhance its appeal and broaden its reach.

Yet, the introduction of message retention poses questions about Snapchat’s uniqueness. While addressing user demands, the risk of diluting Snapchat’s distinctiveness looms large.

As Snapchat ventures into uncharted territory, the outcome of this experiment remains uncertain. Will message retention propel Snapchat to new heights, or will it compromise the platform’s uniqueness?

Only time will tell.

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Catering to specific audience boosts your business, says accountant turned coach

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Catering to specific audience boosts your business, says accountant turned coach

While it is tempting to try to appeal to a broad audience, the founder of alcohol-free coaching service Just the Tonic, Sandra Parker, believes the best thing you can do for your business is focus on your niche. Here’s how she did just that.

When running a business, reaching out to as many clients as possible can be tempting. But it also risks making your marketing “too generic,” warns Sandra Parker, the founder of Just The Tonic Coaching.

“From the very start of my business, I knew exactly who I could help and who I couldn’t,” Parker told My Biggest Lessons.

Parker struggled with alcohol dependence as a young professional. Today, her business targets high-achieving individuals who face challenges similar to those she had early in her career.

“I understand their frustrations, I understand their fears, and I understand their coping mechanisms and the stories they’re telling themselves,” Parker said. “Because of that, I’m able to market very effectively, to speak in a language that they understand, and am able to reach them.” 

“I believe that it’s really important that you know exactly who your customer or your client is, and you target them, and you resist the temptation to make your marketing too generic to try and reach everyone,” she explained.

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“If you speak specifically to your target clients, you will reach them, and I believe that’s the way that you’re going to be more successful.

Watch the video for more of Sandra Parker’s biggest lessons.

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Instagram Tests Live-Stream Games to Enhance Engagement

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Instagram Tests Live-Stream Games to Enhance Engagement

Instagram’s testing out some new options to help spice up your live-streams in the app, with some live broadcasters now able to select a game that they can play with viewers in-stream.

As you can see in these example screens, posted by Ahmed Ghanem, some creators now have the option to play either “This or That”, a question and answer prompt that you can share with your viewers, or “Trivia”, to generate more engagement within your IG live-streams.

That could be a simple way to spark more conversation and interaction, which could then lead into further engagement opportunities from your live audience.

Meta’s been exploring more ways to make live-streaming a bigger consideration for IG creators, with a view to live-streams potentially catching on with more users.

That includes the gradual expansion of its “Stars” live-stream donation program, giving more creators in more regions a means to accept donations from live-stream viewers, while back in December, Instagram also added some new options to make it easier to go live using third-party tools via desktop PCs.

Live streaming has been a major shift in China, where shopping live-streams, in particular, have led to massive opportunities for streaming platforms. They haven’t caught on in the same way in Western regions, but as TikTok and YouTube look to push live-stream adoption, there is still a chance that they will become a much bigger element in future.

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Which is why IG is also trying to stay in touch, and add more ways for its creators to engage via streams. Live-stream games is another element within this, which could make this a better community-building, and potentially sales-driving option.

We’ve asked Instagram for more information on this test, and we’ll update this post if/when we hear back.

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