The influence of social media on the voter is being put to the test in the general election

Social media is the new battleground for political parties. A war for votes, hearts, minds and ideologies is being waged like never before on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and more. The humble SMS is also around.

#LokSabha2014 presents a new picture as far as the use of social media tools is concerned. Massive machinery, both paid and voluntary, has been created by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Congress, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and regional groupings to leverage the power of social media.

Social media, especially Twitter, is being used broadly in three ways — by parties to extend their propaganda reach and surreptitiously to bash rival candidates, and by freelancers to promote particular leaders, Mumbai-based commentator Siddharth Bhatia says.

Interestingly, Google said in a recent statement that the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and its leader, Mayawati, were the “most searched” party and leader online.

Though the Congress and the BJP continue to dominate the virtual and real worlds in terms of hits and media attention, regional parties are stacking up and driving search trends, the statement added.

The clear message is that everyone can use social media to extend his or her message and pillory political rivals. But the question remains — will the undecided voter change his or her voting preference just because of a Tweet or Facebook post?

Whether social media will inspire direct voter mobilisation is hard to say. Even if one were to look at Indians aged 18-24 on Twitter and Facebook, we know little about how articulation online translates into action offline quantitatively.

“Sure, this mobilisation won’t be anything great, but it can’t be discounted,” says Aditya Gupta, whose site socialsamosa.com recently launched a social media and politics analytical tool called ElectionTracker. #LS2014 could be our first opportunity to understand this influential mechanism, Mr. Gupta says.

There is little doubt that the social media universe is growing by the day in the country and political parties are only too aware of this. In a matter of months, India will overtake the U.S. as Facebook’s largest user-base. According to Nathan Eagle, an influential social media analyst, the site is currently adding about 40 million users from the country every year.

For many parties, messaging platform WhatsApp, just acquired by Facebook for $19 billion, is the new frontier. In Maharashtra, the Congress has formed 55 WhatsApp core groups for each municipal corporation and district.

Every member of a core group has own broadcast groups (up to 50 members can be accommodated in each free group) from where the message is disseminated further.

The AAP too has formed between 10 and 15 groups for each of the 35 districts in Maharashtra, while the groups formed by BJP supporters work under different names such as Vichar Manch or Voice of the People.

The BJP’s alliance partner Shiv Sena has some 500 active groups across the State. “WhatsApp almost compels you to read every message. It has helped us immensely in spreading our message among people,” says Harshal Pradhan, in-charge of the Sena’s social media campaign.

According to Mr. Bhatia, social media was also feeding into evening debates on television, which are watched by millions of people. “Social media provides ideas for TV programmes. Every channel today follows social media,” he adds. As in the case of physical electioneering, you may never be sure whether the voter has accepted your virtual message. But, given that these elections will be close, social media adds a platform to the wider campaign menu.

(With inputs from Vasudevan Mukunth in Chennai and Alok Deshpande in Mumbai)

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