Social media has critical mass to affect polls, says study

The Thane parliamentary constituency has 1.8 million registered voters. Of them, 7,50,000 exercised their franchise in 2009. Sanjeev Ganesh Naik of the NCP won the seat by a margin of 49,000 votes over his nearest rival. As he prepares to face the voters again, he will find that almost 10 times the number of voters who made a difference between his victory and defeat are now on social media. In his constituency, 4,19,000 people use Facebook. Will they allow the NCP to retain its edge, or exposed to newer forms of political communication, will they swing the other way?

A study, a copy of which is with The Hindu, has, for the first time, shown how social media can affect the results of the next Lok Sabha elections. Conducted by the IRIS Knowledge Foundation and the Internet and Mobile Association of India, the research claims that results in over 150 constituencies could be decided by ‘Facebook users, making them the newest vote-bank with the power to shape Indian politics.’

Adopting a ‘straightforward’ methodology, the research assessed the number of Facebook users in all Lok Sabha constituencies. It then measured the margin of victory in these seats. There are 160 ‘high-impact constituencies’ where the number of Facebook users exceeds the margin of victory in the last election, or constitutes 10 per cent or more of the voting population.

In 67 other ‘medium-impact constituencies’, Facebook users comprise over 5 per cent of voters. Politicians here, the study says, ‘cannot afford to ignore social media.’

The caveats

Admitting that the ‘approach may seem simple to the point of being simplistic,’ it lists out the caveats. It does not factor in whether the social media users in each constituency are active. It does not examine other factors like ‘anti-incumbency or political realignments.’ And while Facebook may be a common medium, those using it are a heterogeneous lot.

However, researchers say their limited objective is to assess the ‘clout of the social media … and if Facebook users will have an impact, if they so choose.’

The study shows that 75 of the 206 seats won by the Congress and 43 of the 144 seats where it finished second are in the high-impact constituencies.

For the BJP, this is true for 44 of the 116 seats it won and 50 of the 110 seats where it came second.One-third of the seats the leading parties won earlier could thus be affected depending on the preferences of social media users. “A well thought-out social media will not only be about retaining previously won seats, but also wresting new ones.”

The study reveals that social media use now extends to small towns, and will allow candidates to communicate with voters even as polling is on unlike traditional campaigning, which stops 48 hours in advance.

In the graphic – Vote Book - accompanying this story, Shashi Tharoor is shown to have got 1.72 million “likes.” A reader pointed out that the figure should have been about 23 thousand “likes” as reflected in Tharoor's Facebook page. The reader is right. However, the graphic was meant to cover the entire social media.