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Elections

Experts: Afghan turnout boosted by social media

Activists and experts say that social media campaigns were among the factors behind an unprecedented high turnout in the Afghan elections. An estimated seven million Afghans went to the polls, despite Taliban threats.

The Taliban launched a series of attacks, focused mainly on the capital Kabul, just a few days ahead of Afghanistan's landmark April 5 presidential poll. The militant group had threatened to attack polling stations during the vote and warned people against casting their ballots.

But activists and ordinary Afghans reacted by taking to the Internet and launching a massive social media campaign where they expressed their determination to elect a successor to President Hamid Karzai, who has been ever since the fall of the Taliban 13 years ago. Karzai is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term.

'Yes, I will vote'

Pictures and slogans saying "Yes, I will Vote!" (main picture) circulated among thousands of Afghan social media users. The campaign paid off on April 5 when millions of Afghans took to polling stations to cast their votes despite the terror threats.

The turnout was so high that many polling stations across the country ran out of ballot papers and Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC) had to extend voting by an hour. The electoral body estimates that approximately 58 percent - seven out of 12 million eligible voters cast their ballots on Election Day.

Photo shows the Afghan voters in a poling center in Mazar.

Turnout was so high that voting was extended by an hour

Kabul-based activist and former head of the "International Association of Students in Economic and Commercial Sciences in Afghanistan" (AIESEC) Ramin Rastin, who as many other Afghans shared such pictures on his Facebook and Twitter accounts, told DW the campaign represented a further step towards democracy in the conflict-ridden country.

Speaking about the motives behind his participation in the campaign, the 29-year-old said, "It was the first ever democratic transition of power in my country […] and I believe the only way towards a better future in Afghanistan was to go the ballot box." There were similar campaigns on all media platforms urging people to vote.

Afghan media has had a rapid growth in the post-Taliban era. There are some 65 television channels, 174 radio stations and hundreds of print publications. About 8 percent of the population has access to the Internet, around 70 percent of which use social media, according to estimates.

A large number of Afghanistan's social media users are young and male, as the country remains conservative and women's access to the Internet is limited. Big cities such as Kabul, Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif are believed to have the highest number of active Twitter and Facebook users.

'My picture will stay online'

The social media campaign went on until Election Day. This time it grew even larger. Countless pictures posted on Facebook and Twitter showed men and women of all ethnicities, proudly presenting the pictures of their ink-stained finger or voting card to show that they had gone to the polls.

The picture shows Reshad Ahmadi showing his ink-stained finger after he cast his vote on April 5 elections in Afghanistan. Reshad says he shared this picture on his Facebook to encourage others to go to polls.

Ahmadi: "I know my picture from Election Day will stay on the Internet for a long time and everyone will be able to see it"

Reshad Ahmadi was one of them. "I know my picture from Election Day will stay on the Internet for a long time and everyone, including the Taliban, will be able to see it. It could create problems for me in the future, but I am not scared of that," said the resident of the northern province of Balk. The father of two added that his goal was to encourage others to cast their votes.

Experts believe the campaign has achieved its goals. A member of the non-governmental organization "Nai" - which supports the development of free and open media in Afghanistan - and a journalism teacher at Balkh University Nur Agha Sharifi, told DW that it was partly due to the social media movement that turnout reached almost 60 percent for the first time in Afghanistan's history.

An encouragement to vote

"When users saw pictures of Facebook friends holding their voting cards or showing their ink-stained fingers, they also were encouraged to vote," said Sharifi. The expert also pointed to the immediate reaction of social media users to the shortage of ballot papers and alleged cases of vote rigging. He said such videos and pictures could help the Afghan Independent Election Commission resolve fraud complaints in the coming weeks.

his was one of the pictures that circulated among Facebook users during the social media campaign in support of the Afghan elections. It was also shared by Kabul based activist Rahim Rastin who says it was his favorite among election related campaign images. The caricature shows an Afghan woman in Burqa showing her ink-stained finger to an insurgent.

This was one of the pictures that circulated among Facebook users during the social media campaign in support of the Afghan elections.

Sharifi, whose university added digital journalism to its curriculum only in recent years, believes social media could prove to be even more effective in the future as Internet knowledge and access to the Web expands in Afghanistan. Sharifi explained, "Social media is a fast and inexpensive means that gives users a chance to take part in democratic and civil movements."

The number of social media users in Afghanistan might not be as high as in some other countries with broader Internet access, but the platform has already proved its impact in the country, in which almost 65 percent of the population is under the age of 25. Afghan youth have organized similar civil movements in the past with the help of social media. The most recent one was in support for the Afghan security forces.

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