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Updated: May 3, 2013 19:31 IST

Vote for social media?

NIKHIL VARMA
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Does online activity translate to on-the-ground results? Photo: Bhagya Prakash K.
The Hindu
Does online activity translate to on-the-ground results? Photo: Bhagya Prakash K.

How will the sudden flurry of political activity on social media platforms impact tomorrow’s elections, Nikhil Varma wonders

Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have grown exponentially in the last few years and politicians have heartily embraced it. Much before it made global headlines with the Arab Spring, a tweet by the then IPL commissioner Lalit Modi questioning union minister Shashi Tharoor’s interest in a new IPL team had resulted in weeks of frenzied political activity, saw both Tharoor and Modi lose their positions and twitter becoming a part of conversations in households across the country.

The medium also played a key role in the Anna Hazare campaign in April 2011. Twitter and Facebook trends are often the benchmark for discussions on English TV news channels and editorials in newspapers. Many national politicians from across the political spectrum ranging from Narendra Modi to Shashi Tharoor and Sushma Swaraj are active users of various social media platforms. A recent study claimed that social media will play a vital role in deciding the outcomes of a third of the seats in the Lok Sabha elections scheduled for next year.

As Karnataka prepares to go to the polls tomorrow, will the social media platforms play a major role in the poll process? Will a hitherto uninterested political class rise up and vote for change? Will the social media ensure that urban disinterest is eliminated?

Shashi Shekhar, tweets with the handle @offstumped and helps in the working of a website. He contends: “The influence of social media must be analyzed at four levels: registration, turnout, perception and outcome .The platforms have played a vital role on voter registration with B-PAC, smart vote, and many other such practices.”

He adds, “As far as voter turnout is concerned, there have been no organised efforts on these platforms yet. I feel that voter perception will be impacted by the social media the most. Whether this perception will result in more votes or a wave in the favour of a particular candidate remains to be seen.”

One of the candidates with an active online presence has been Ashwin Mahesh, the Loksatta candidate contesting from Bomanhalli. He has 3,000 friends and 800 followers on twitter and regularly updates his Facebook feed. He says, “Social media has three main advantages. A good campaign team can leverage the social media to make its internal management and execution much more effective.”

He adds, “A lot of people are online — much more than we realise. The cost of reaching the same people by other media would be very expensive. Online, using social media, I have been able to deliver video messages to more than 40,000 people without any cost.”

Like Shashi, Ashwin says that it is early to talk of a social media impact on the polls. “It is a decentralised medium. But in the ground campaign, I have been to more than 14,000 houses so far, and in many places people recognise me for my pages and entries on Facebook. Voters are also more confident about candidates who maintain a social network presence. The bad candidates can’t afford to be online, because it is an open medium — people may ask difficult questions, and if you are unprepared or unaware you will be exposed quickly.”

However, many active users on these platforms do not think that Facebook or twitter are influential mediums in the political sphere. @vadakkus, an active twitter user with thousands of followers says, “Most of the twitter users are based in cities. These people seldom vote, though they do outrage about everything under the sun. The elections will be decided in the rural areas, where online mediums hardly play a part.”

Ashok Ganguly, who works in an NGO and is an avid user of social media feels that the political role of social media is hyped. “It may bring about more awareness about the elections and of the issues that the election is being fought on. As far as the actual voting and turnout is concerned, there is very little correlation between those who use social media, and those who vote in large numbers.”

Rajeev Chandrasekhar, a Member of Parliament is also active on social media platforms. He contends, “Social media has played a very significant role in getting the voters out and getting themselves enrolled. But these elections are seeing social media play an even more important role of framing and debating the issues that affect the people and voters. Social media, with its interactive nature, has helped consolidate views and opinions.”

He adds, “The real role that I see social media playing this time around is to get people more aware about the ways to exercise their choice, of cutting through the rhetoric and propaganda, and voting responsibly and choosing candidates who can be catalysts for change. A new breed of candidates has taken the plunge into politics, backed by their confidence in social media as a significant way to help spread their message. It is an encouraging step.”

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