In early April, The Hindu ran a lead story on the potential of social media to decisively influence the outcome of elections in at least 160 constituencies. The story, based on a research report by the IRIS Knowledge Foundation and the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), contended that 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.” It’s a simplistic proposition as admitted by the study’s proponents themselves and there are many obvious flaws in the theory.
Nevertheless, the idea has gained ground. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) already has an organised presence online with an army of volunteers who descend on anyone who dares critique the party, and many of its party heavyweights, including Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi are active on social media. The party also recently started working on its social media “guidelines” for its volunteers and held a meet in Delhi. The Congress is getting into the act slowly but ambitiously with plans to spend Rs.100 crore on social media. The Prime Minister’s Office recently opened a Twitter account. Many other younger Members of Parliament have an online presence as well.
Impact of who votes
While all attempts at increasing communication between the political parties and the people themselves must be welcomed, the impact of social media on elections in India is vastly overstated. First, a closer look at the central premise of the study where a constituency is deemed high-impact if the number of Facebook users exceeds the victory margin. There are many obvious flaws in this theory, some noted by the study itself including the fact that it is not known how many of these users are active not just on the site itself but politically. Voter turnout in India in the general election is around 60 per cent, with greater participation of the lower income classes. It is thus safe to assume that the percentage of politically active users on social media will be less than 60 per cent given their middle-class base. A case in point: Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, arguably the most technologically savvy politician of India garnered 1.6 million “Likes” on Facebook. The number for actor Shahrukh Khan? 3.8 m. Actor Priyanka Chopra? 3.9 m. Furthermore, social media sites are not ideological platforms; the users are a heterogenous group ranging from the apolitical to political, and the left to the right. Of those who are already politically active, it is doubtful that social media can help change political affiliation, given the intensely partisan nature of online exchange. So this is what the social media proposition looks like: of the total users, some are fake and inactive. An entire section cares more about Bollywood than Lok Sabha. And of the small section of Lok Sabha enthusiasts, there are hardly if any, undecided.
The Obama campaign
What then is the social media proposition? What of Barack Obama who beat Hillary Clinton to clinch the Democratic Party nomination to defeat John McCain in 2008, and then win again in 2012? What about the Arab Spring protests fomented by social media? While it is true that Mr. Obama leveraged social media heavily in both elections, what is missed by his Indian counterparts (and certainly those looking to sell social media management) is that the campaign used social media not in isolation but to drive his offline grass-roots campaign. Soon after his election, Chris Hughes, the coordinator of Mr. Obama’s online campaign and website My.BarackObama noted that what made the site unique was not the “technology itself, but the people who used the online tools to coordinate offline action.”
The My.BarackObama website was used to create more than 35,000 local organising groups, 200,000 events, and millions upon millions of calls to neighbours during the 2008 campaign. In 2012, in addition to this grass-roots organisation, the Obama campaign leveraged big data to work with the electorate at an “atomic level.” In this “as many as one thousand variables each [for potential voters], drawn from voter registration records, consumer data warehouses, and past campaign contacts” were combined with surveys and volunteer interactions to “derive individual-level predictions.” In contrast, Indian political parties are using social media largely to drive a partisan discourse of either abject devotion or juvenile rhetoric. For instance, after speeches by both Narendra Modi and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi at business forums recently, the online discussion was dominated not by substance but obsessive repetition of “Feku” and “Pappu” by Congress and BJP supporters respectively.
The Indian style of online engagement thus most closely resembles that of Imran Khan, by far the most popular politician online in Pakistan, but whose party was placed third, winning even less seats than the discredited incumbent party, the People’s Party of Pakistan. This is in consonance with the hypothesis that social media doesn’t influence voter behaviour on its own, and can at best supplement the grass-roots organisation of political parties. In any case, given that internet penetration in India is only 12 per cent and five per cent on Facebook, by far the largest social media website, using social media to drive offline engagement is improbable.
All said, social media is a useful medium of communication because of its decentralised nature which helps bypass censorship. There is a difference between relaying information and influencing behaviour. Social media did not foment the Arab Spring but did help amplify the protests by making it difficult to censor communication and making information easily accessible. Live 24x7 television coverage by Al Jazeera was another factor in sustaining and spreading the protests. In India, social media is being used by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) to directly reach out to its supporters after it soured its relationship with the media with one too many press conferences. However, established political parties are less susceptible to such censorship especially in the context of 24x7 news. What they lack are not adequate channels for communication but content itself as evident from the overblown and facile rhetoric they are increasingly engaging in.
(Ruchi Gupta is associated with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan and National Campaign for People’s Right to Information. The views expressed are personal. twitter.com/guptar)
This article has been corrected for factual errors