There is a lot of interest and speculation on the impact of social media on politics because of its amplification effects.
There is no denying that it has overtaken the traditional media in certain facets of news - most notably when it comes to breaking news and that it provides grounds for expressing one's ideas unbounded.
But the marketing and the advertising world are only just coming to grips with the medium. (Twitter is set to launch its IPO soon and Facebook is going to increasingly face the need to monetize its services. The Web has a history of complaints where users have found it tough to different between user-generated content and 'promoted' content.)
In effect, the question of the “influence” that social media and its star patrons wield is still being assessed, especially in the loaded context of whether its proactive use would translate to votes in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. Not only are the number of active social media users negligible in the Indian context, there are doubts on whether a 'cause and effect' scenario is possible.
There are two predominant points of view, while talking about the influence of social media campaigns on politics: One that closely reads the Facebook ‘likes’ and Twitter trends as an important measure of public pulse; and the other which dismisses any sort of influence that social media has on real and grass root level politics.
T. Vishnu Vardhan, a researcher at Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society, prefers the middle ground. “It is important to not ignore the growing popularity of social media in India with [telecom] service providers providing Facebook access at Rs. 1 for an entire day. However, I would refrain from seeing a direct correlation between a person's participation on social media to real-time events in society including politics.”
“In India and especially in Tamil Nadu it has been proved that the Propaganda Model is a fallacy. There is no simple formula, whether it be cinema of 1970s or the Social Media of the 2010s. There are too many factors and layers that influence real-time events.”
Companies around the world are trying to make sense of this 'Big Data' that people's digital lives are generating. And whilst individuals and even some clever campaigns make snap pronouncements based on superficial data and analysis, there are a few companies that are looking at it through the prism of complex algorithms and technology-enabled web crawling.
One such company Kochi-based startup Riafy Technologies is attempting to make sense of the digital noise in a broad sweeping sense looking at three domains: relational intelligence, predictive analysis and big data.
One of the their applications 'Movie Tarot' predicts the outcome of Friday releases at the movie box office, based on the digital traffic on the days preceding the release. Not every instance of praise or every denouncement is treated equally. Instead, they have an intelligent algorithm that they apply to predict the box office collections and the ultimate verdict. (They claim to have a fairly accurate track record thus far.)
The company's CEO John Mathew says there is a correlation between a person's online presence and behaviour in the real world. “This influence is significant in age groups of 18-34,” he says. “As for Lok Sabha elections, the 'social media influenced' voter turnout would be marginal when we look at the country as a whole, but this number would be substantial in the 'swing constituencies'.”