How three major political players in India are using social media and whether it could prove to be a game-changer

For politicians, the coming Lok Sabha election is not about getting elected; it is about getting socially elected. Social media has changed the way people think, write and react but political pundits believe it has also influenced the way people vote.

Most of the political parties are aware of the pulse and the impulse of the public on social media timelines, which is why more and more politicians are realising the importance of social media as an electoral tool. As a result, for the general election, digital strategies have become central to planning political rallies and elections, and party manifestos are no longer conspiracies of a coterie but are laid bare in the public eye, if not crowd-sourced to voters at large. Canvassing demands a party’s interactive presence on social platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, YouTube, Google Plus. And so for anyone wanting to read the sentiments of the people, the notion of a dipstick survey has been replaced by a tweet-stick survey.

Interestingly in India, the mass social media revolution is being led by politicians who have grasped the medium and are now utilising it. Narendra Modi enters this election with a first-mover advantage and over three million twitter followers. Arvind Kejriwal is a social media wonder who has successfully used the medium for fund raising and increasing his party’s footprint. Rahul Gandhi, however, is a reluctant follower who virtually trends every other day but is yet to join the networks. These politicians are hoping to convert likes and posts into votes and are crusading efforts to connect and engage with India’s youth who spend their waking hours online. According to Comscore, 25 per cent of time spent online is on social media alone.

But does social media really bridge the divide between candidates and voters? Does digital democracy have the power to change political fortunes? What makes for a winning political strategy and just how is social media at the helm of a social churn in our country? Let’s analyse this through the examples of three major players: Narendra Modi, the Aam Admi Party, and Rahul Gandhi.

The Modi machine is constantly testing new instruments to influence voters. A few days ago, on Holi, Mr. Modi sent personalised Direct Messages to thousands of people with a signed photograph for each of them. Unlike a regular Direct Message, this was connected to a link that enabled the receivers to tweet or share the autographed image. It was something never done before, forcing someone to say: “won’t vote for Modi but impressed with his digital campaign.” Not just this, Mr. Modi has also forced his team to up his presence on WhatsApp and SMS in addition to the social media blitzkrieg. Even the ‘chai pe charcha’ campaign is a social media seed, making Mr. Modi’s mantra: connect online and engage offline. One wonders if any of the volunteer platforms for Modi such as India272, NitiCentral and ModiBharasa could succeed without social media? The mass of Modi supporters, in addition to the many right-wingers online, have built Mr. Modi a significant amount of voluntary troll-ammunition. Anything against Mr. Modi is unlikely to escape vast criticism.

That social media connects people and gets them talking and sharing is one thing, but it becomes more meaningful when it allows campaigners to know the voters, target a specific audience, splice demographics, mobilise support, and urge people to participate. When some of these people actively engage in political debates, they become a great tool in spreading the word and influencing opinion. Researchers have suggested that there will be about 149 million first-time voters in 2014, a majority to whom technology comes easy.

AAP’s strategy

That is why, irrespective of campaigning and hashtag wars, the real impact of technology will be in sensitising and popularising voter registration among the youth. Riding this wave, the AAP used social media in an unprecedented way making engagement with the public and donation-seeking its primary plan. The AAP’s young and energetic volunteer brigade used Facebook to convene meetings and set the agenda. They used Twitter to present new facts and built ammunition against political rivals; they also got people to donate online in a bid to introduce transparency. The new party not only made people aware of its agenda, but also connected them to appropriate donors. Its example highlights how social media isn’t just about a bunch of journalists and news junkies following each other. It can be put to use meaningfully — for raising awareness for causes, for running campaigns, and bringing people from all walks of life together to discuss and debate issues.

As the election approaches closer, political parties are gearing up for the battles that need to be fought through social media. The hashtags are planned. The speeches are prepared in a manner that makes them twitter friendly. Politicians realise that suddenly thousands of people are speaking up; the aam aadmi is now actively seeking a slice of the political mindshare.

Rahul Gandhi recently connected with party workers across India through a Google Hangout live video chat session. To participate in the live chat with Mr. Gandhi, party workers were asked to post their questions on their Intranet website. But there is no doubt that the party has been a late entrant to this battle. The problem is that Mr. Gandhi is not online in person, unlike Mr. Modi and Mr. Kejriwal. He is neither there to connect with people nor to defend himself when he trends over controversies. As a result, the Congress is more often seen defending a trend tag than launching one itself. ‘Feku vs Pappu’, which can go down as India’s biggest hashtag battle, is a good case in example.

Even though the impact of social media is still to be ascertained in India in a more defined way, we are driven by the syndrome where one takes the lead and the rest follow. After Mr. Modi and the AAP’s viral fever, the Congress and other regional parties have joined in. Back in 2009, when Shashi Tharoor joined Twitter and caused an uproar with his “cattle-class” tweet, hardly any other politician was on the site. Five years later, not only has social media become pervasive but its very purpose has become to create a stir, no matter how politically incorrect people may be. For reasons right or wrong, it seems everyone wants to trend. Last year is replete with examples — Kapil Sibal taking on Google and Facebook over privacy, Digvijaya Singh’s “tunch maal” remark, and Rahul Gandhi’s escape velocity statement among others.

Credibility crisis

The relationship between social media and politics is rooted in the desire for change. Today the public at large is using online information and networking access to find solutions. Civil society, with its rising frustration over political apathy, is trying to use social media to drive real change. This online revolution may be less about technology and more about changing human behaviour. But at the same time the quest for transparency and free flow of information is raising questions about over-democratisation, what’s reality and what’s rumour, and fake following. This credibility crisis makes us wonder if leaders are really what they project themselves to be.

There is no doubt that social media has become a ubiquitous force of impact and influence. This election will be a litmus test to put the spotlight on the question we started with: can social media influence these voters? The answer may not be an unequivocal yes, but it certainly isn’t a no. It’s an answer in progress.

(Shaili Chopra is the author of the book “The Big Connect- Politics in the Age of Social Media”.)

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