By Charlotte McDonald-Gibson (AFP) – Jul 29, 2009
KABUL — Afghans may be desperately poor, largely illiterate and without electricity, but that does not stop would-be presidents campaigning in cyber space on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Mimicking tactics made famous by US President Barack Obama, one of the top contenders to rule Afghanistan "tweets" on hot micro-blogging service Twitter and has a flashy website where supporters can make donations.
Of 41 presidential candidates standing on August 20, some trumpet policies on social networking site Facebook, while video-sharing website YouTube carries clips of campaign rallies from across the war-scarred nation.
As only 10 percent of the estimated population of 26 to 30 million have access to electricity -- let alone a computer with Internet access -- it may seem like a waste of resources.
But Luke Cholerton-Bozier, who heads London-based digital media agency Red Narrative, says that even in a country where at best five percent of people have Internet access, that still means 1.5 million potential voters.
"The Internet has huge potential to affect elections in the developing world, as it does in richer countries," he told AFP by email.
"Those few people that do have computers or Internet access are going to be the types of people who are influential amongst their peers, and so it's important to gain their support for the election," he added.
His agency handles online strategy for Afghan presidential hopeful Ashraf Ghani, who blogs on Twitter and has his own YouTube page.
Another of the top three contenders, ex-foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, has a sophisticated website with photo galleries and videos.
Incumbent President Hamid Karzai's online strategy lags behind his two main rivals, with his website "down for maintenance" just weeks before he stands for another term in the country's second presidential poll.
Karzai, who is tipped to win, does however dominate television coverage -- a priority in a country were 70 percent of people cannot read, his campaign spokesman Waheed Omer said.
"The Internet and Twitter and YouTube and Facebook and all these things, they have a limited audience here in Afghanistan," Omer said.
"I don't see how using Twitter or using Facebook for example could get anyone a substantial number of votes or a substantial edge in the voting... the Internet is a new thing in Afghanistan."
Indeed online support for candidates appears lacklustre.
A Facebook page for Karzai -- although unclear whether official -- logs only 528 supporters. Ghani clocks in 824 on his fan page. Abdullah wins the race with a still underwhelming 1,216 Facebook backers.
Ghani's Twitter page has 63 followers -- rather paltry compared to Obama's 1.8 million Twitter devotees.
Cholerton-Bozier says that a key aim of the online campaigns is to reach out to the better-off Afghan diaspora living all over the world, who can donate money to the candidates' campaigns.
And it is not just political candidates who harness the power of the Internet in Afghanistan.
The US military has a Twitter blog and Facebook page extolling its operation against the Taliban in Afghanistan, posting photographs of smiling soldiers entertaining Afghan children and talking to turbaned elders.
On the other side of the fence, the Taliban recently revamped its website before it was apparently taken offline this week. The site has been blocked several times, usually reappearing soon afterwards under a new domain name.
But in the cramped booths of a Kabul Internet cafe, patrons tapping away at their keyboards appear unaware or uninterested in the candidate websites, and few have even heard of Twitter and Facebook.
"No, I do not use those sites, mostly I'm just coming to check my email," said Arash Perzai, a 22-year-old medical technology student.
He said he did not even know the presidential candidates had websites: "I don't have any interest. Mostly I get my information from the TV."
Sherahmad Hotak, a 35-year-old construction company owner, says the Internet is catching on among his peers as it is more reliable than phone lines in a country where infrastructure is crippled by decades of war.
The International Telecommunications Union, a United Nations agency, puts Internet access as low as 1.5 percent in Afghanistan.
Hotak may use the Internet, but he is still in the dark about Facebook: "I have heard of it, but I don't use it. I don't know how it operates."
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