“It is not the number of likes and tweets that will determine the probability of victory of a candidate but his ability to engage with electorate..."

There are 62 million Indians on the social media, and that may ramp up to 80 million by the next elections. Some 97 per cent of them are on Facebook. And they are spread beyond the big metros. One-third of social media users live in towns with a population of less than 5 million; 25 per cent of the total users live in towns with less than 2 million inhabitants.

These findings of the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), the umbrella organisation representing online and mobile value added services, triggered off a serious examination of the links between social media and electoral outcomes. The study, jointly conducted by IAMAI and IRIS Knowledge Foundation, has claimed that in 160 constituencies, Facebook would be a critical tool which could influence people’s voting choices.

The researchers have based their assertion on the grounds of a young demographic; the upsurge of popular protests and citizen activism in the past few years — often organised digitally; and growing urbanisation. The study also claimed that the number of social media users in India has now reached a ‘critical mass’. “It is not the number of likes and tweets that are going to determine the probability of winning of a certain candidate but the ability of a candidate to engage with the electorate, by rising above the media clutter, and by trying to get his or her message across to the voter directly.”

The study has evaluated the number of social media users in each constituency, the margin of victory in that seat in the previous election, and whether there is enough critical mass of Facebook users to impact the results in the seat. The variations across States is however clear. For instance, in Delhi, all seven seats are ‘high-impact constituencies’, while in Bihar, only four of the 40 seats fall in the category reflecting low levels of net penetration, social media use and Facebook’s potential to bridge the gap in swing seats.

There are mixed views among politicians about social media’s impact. In an interaction organised by Google in the capital a few weeks ago, politicians active on social media had expressed their skepticism at the ability of the medium to influence elections.

Both Minister of State Shashi Tharoor and Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, who have large followings on Twitter, said that with net penetration of less than 12 per cent, no serious politician can mount a significant poll campaign based on social media, let alone win an election.

Crucial tool

But they agreed that social media is a crucial tool in relaying messages without delay, and has an impact beyond the confines of the medium. The rising sensitivity of local politicians to what is posted about them on Facebook, as witnessed in the reaction to the posts of two girls following Bal Thackeray’s death in Mumbai, can be seen as evidence that they care about mediums which they barely knew existed till a few years ago.