It’s election season. The one thing that comes to mind when we think of elections is the campaigns and the buzz around it. Some political parties rope in filmstars, some have sports personalities vouching for them — and others, well they are stars themselves.
However, campaign strategies in India have rarely moved beyond print, broadcast and radio with door-to-door campaigning being the oldest method of them all. Now, this scenario is changing with social media taking over largely from other forms of media. This new change is prompting the political parties to chalk out all new campaign strategies, keeping the popularity and reach of social media in mind.
Given that the number of internet users in India is soaring by the day, any estimate of the impact of social media in this seven-phase poll would be an understatement. In fact, the impact of social media on the voter for the ensuing 17th Lok Sabha polls would be huge, to say the least.
As the number of internet users across the country has reached a whopping 55 crore – higher than the population of the USA – the number of social media users is spiralling. The number of smartphone users touched the 40-crore mark last year.
Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter (with 30 crore, 20 crore and 3.4 crore monthly users respectively), among other social media platforms, are no more just ‘useful tools’ for campaigning in the world’s largest democracy. They are now all set to play major roles in shaping campaigns for all political parties.
Moreover, what adds to the impact is that social media is not confined to a particular age group, with the young, the middle-aged and the old using it alike.
Factors like anti-incumbency, political hysteria, hyper-nationalism and in some cases jingoism play important roles in any election without any doubt. But the ‘X’ factor, if tapped right, could be the first-time voters and the young voters. Their activeness on social media widens the scope of attracting them towards different political ideologies.
The 18-20-year-olds who go to the polling booth without much political baggage will be extremely crucial as they seem to have their own political stances based on what they get to read on social media and how they perceive various ideologies.
The behaviour of youngsters is what political parties have always been wary of and it is no different this time around. Except, with the extensive usage of internet, the young seem to be better informed and more educated than ever, in many cases going against the age-old political learning and inclination of their families.
It is no surprise that political parties have also stepped up their digital-campaign game, for there is a need to change strategies with changing times.
India’s tryst with social media campaigning began with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 2014 election special hashtags #AbKiBaarModiSarkaar and #NaMo, and its popularity has only soared since then. Modi was active on Twitter since 2009, when his competitor Rahul Gandhi would not even have thought of social media as an important tool for campaigning.
Though the BJP started campaigning much later than the Congress in the 2014 elections, their brilliant use of social media gave them a clear edge. While the Congress had a mere blink-and-a-miss kind of presence on social media, the BJP went all guns blazing with a social media blitz, adding credence to Modi as a tech-savvy leader new India was looking for.
Owing to his catchy lines and hard-hitting posts, Modi clearly shows who is the boss on social media with a massive Twitter following of 4.63 crore, while Rahul Gandhi is way behind with just about 90 lakh followers. Not just Twitter, Modi has 4.3 crore followers on Facebook, while Rahul has 25 lakh. Narendra Modi app alone has seen over over one crore downloads.
Priyanka Gandhi, the recently inducted general secretary of AICC (for Uttar Pradesh East) made quite an entry onto the political scene. Be it her striking resemblance to her grandmother, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, or her hard-hitting statements against the BJP-led NDA government in Modi’s own backyard Gujarat, she has been successful in creating an uproar on social media.
However, it is neither her resemblance with her grandmother nor her taking to the podium in Ahmedabad that took the social media by storm. What caught more attention was her new display picture on Twitter in which she can be seen wearing blue jeans and a casual black top.
She did come under a lot of fire for putting up a picture deemed to be ‘inappropriate’ but going by the looks of it, her new display picture could be a stern retort to a sexist comment made by BJP leader Harish Dwivedi shortly after her appointment. “Everyone knows Priyanka Gandhi wears jeans when she is in Delhi but wears saris when she visits Congress bastions,” said Dwivedi, the MP from Basti on February 9.
Priyanka sure has found a way to win over the internet, it seems, with her followers on Twitter growing at a rapid pace, giving a huge hope to the Congress party’s online campaign.
Challenges for EC
Prior to the recently issued guidelines by the Election Commission of India, there were barely any regulations on the money being spent on social media campaigning. Though the EC had earlier issued guidelines, it did not have a module to track the spending of various political parties on social media campaigns. So huge amounts of money was being poured into online campaigns and more often than not, the political parties reaped big benefits out of it.
Another major challenge before the EC is fake news. With innumerable social media users of different political and religious ideologies, it gets extremely difficult to curb the menace of misinformation. In such a scenario, fighting misinformation and how it affects voters would be a major issue in this election.
“Targeted messages based on religious and ethnic differences could polarise the electorate and affect the diverse cultural fabric of the country,” said Prasanth Sugathan, Legal Director, Software Freedom Law Center.
In his March 10 announcement, Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora specified guidelines for the use of social media during the ensuing elections. All candidates are required to provide details of their social media accounts to the commission and take prior approval for all political advertisements on social media. Moreover, the model code will apply to all social media content.
With a view to cutting out misinformation, fact checking and curbing fake news top the list of these guidelines. The commission has also set up media certification and monitoring committees in every district to counter paid news and media-related violations of the model code. Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube have to ensure that all political ads on their platforms are pre-certified by these committees, each of which will include a social media expert.
The EC has also unveiled an Android app, cVIGIL, which can be used to check model code violations such as jumping limit on expenses. “cVIGIL provides time-stamped evidentiary proof of the Model Code of Conduct/ Expenditure Violation, having live photo/video with auto location data.”
However, it still remains to be seen if the measures being taken will be of any effect, as it is the first time the EC has taken cognisance of social media and the guidelines are very much a pilot project.
Meanwhile, social media now seems more like a double-edged sword than just a useful tool. The one who masters the art of wielding it, will certainly have a big advantage. Well who knows, it could well be half the battle won in this digital age!