Elections 2024 | With several journalists and politicians taking to online platforms, will YouTube become a gamechanger?

Politicians from the Prime Minister onwards are going online to connect with the public, and TV channels are no longer the go-to place for election coverage

December 15, 2023 04:10 pm | Updated March 27, 2024 04:47 pm IST

YouTube has over 450 million active users in India, equivalent to 32.8% of the population.

YouTube has over 450 million active users in India, equivalent to 32.8% of the population.

It was an extraordinary moment in Indian history when the Prime Minister went live on his YouTube channel this September, and asked netizens to like and subscribe to his channel. It marked a shift in the contours of India’s information ecosystem.

No longer could the Prime Minister rest assured, confident that his message would reach the masses if he spoke to a news channel. He knew the audience had moved away from the dozens of noisy TV channels that had grabbed eyeballs until recently.

Also read: Social media influencers are India’s new election campaigners

Just before the recently-held Assembly elections to five States, the INDIA political alliance released a list of TV anchors they had boycotted. Letting go of the opportunity to be on national TV would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Not anymore.

YouTuber Samdish Bhatia (left) interviews former Telangana IT Minister K.T. Rama Rao in November.

YouTuber Samdish Bhatia (left) interviews former Telangana IT Minister K.T. Rama Rao in November. | Photo Credit: Youtube.com

At the heart of this revolution is video sharing platform YouTube and the manner in which it has emerged as the favourite medium for spreading political information. The signs were obvious a few months earlier when a clutch of Union Ministers gave interviews to a well-known YouTuber. “What’s the size of your shoe,” was one of the questions posed by Samdish Bhatia to Telangana’s then IT Minister K.T. Rama Rao in the middle of election season. It was the equivalent of actor Akshay Kumar asking Prime Minister Modi how he ate mangoes in a 2019 interview. In this case, Bhatia is just a YouTuber albeit with a million subscribers.

The big audience shift

Why should India’s politicians speak to YouTubers who are armed with nothing more than a tripod, a smartphone and a mic? Yes, some of them have better equipment and lighting but they are not a patch on newsrooms with dozens of journalists, cameramen, lighting specialists, graphic designers, make-up artistes, and data crunchers who are at the heart of operations of TV channels.

It’s because the audience has shifted. “It is making a difference. One of the technical problems with news channels is that they are forced to give out news 24/7. They stretch the story. The advantage with social media is that you can say just what and how much you want to say. This gives social media platforms an edge over news channels,” says Dhruv Rathee, arguably one of the country’s pioneers in using YouTube for political awareness.

“You cannot censor the Internet. The laws of the land apply to everyone, even if someone is on YouTube or the Internet. It doesn’t need special regulation”Dhruv RatheeYouTuber

He has 14 million subscribers on the platform — an audience the size of the population of Kolkata — who get notifications whenever he posts a video, and some of whom pay a small sum to subscribe to his channel. Imagine a multilingual visual Wikipedia where the speaker switches between Hindi and English and dissects facts.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi with Kamiya Jani of digital platform Curly Tales.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi with Kamiya Jani of digital platform Curly Tales.

The trend probably caught on when Rahul Gandhi, earlier this year, sat down for brunch and an ice cream with a YouTuber called Curly Tales (Kamiya Jani). The video, released on January 22, is 32.20 minutes long, and is cut into 25 sections. The viewer can choose which segment to watch and post on their social media handles.

Catering to Gen Z

While in past elections, salty, abrasive, cheap and low is the direction political messaging has taken, the flavour now is conciseness, humour, wit and sharp delivery that caters to the truncated attention spans of smartphone addicts.

“News through social media works, if you know how to weed out all the false information, and is a great way to catch up on current events happening all over the world,” says Hanna Nasim, a student. “It comes in shorter bites and more visuals instead of long paragraphs that wind up nowhere,” she says, speaking for a generation growing up with technology.

It is this generation that former news anchor Sakshi Joshi targeted when she quit her job and started her own channel sometime in 2020. “I started meeting students and bringing up their issues. Live sessions with students gained traction. I raised the issues of farmers and I realised there was a demand for what I was doing,” says Joshi, who has earlier worked with BBC, Network 18, News 24 and India TV.

“People are turning to us. Journalists are adding to the credibility of YouTube and people trust us more than they do news channels”Sakshi JoshiFormer news anchor

Unfettered by the needs and demands of advertisers and corporate minders, YouTube has proved to be the perfect platform for several news journalists. “It is a paradigm shift,” says Joshi whose channel now has 1.26 million subscribers.

Telugu journalist Thulasi Chandu

Telugu journalist Thulasi Chandu

“Technology is changing and is now targeted towards the youth, most of whom have cellphones,” says Thulasi Chandu, an independent journalist who began her YouTube channel “without a mic, tripod or lights”. Five years down the line, her channel is powerful enough to rattle the powers that be. “You can go digital in a minute. All the political parties approached me with offers before the elections. But I rejected all of them. My viewers have paid for the stories I do. I didn’t want to break that trust,” says Chandu, who had to seek police protection after being subjected to doxxing — the revealing of an individual’s personal information on public platforms. Since starting her channel three years ago, she has been at the receiving end of a barrage of hateful comments and trolling, even death threats.

Senior journalist Ravish Kumar

Senior journalist Ravish Kumar | Photo Credit: AP

Senior journalist Ravish Kumar, who left a high-profile position with news channel NDTV India last year and now has close to 8 million subscribers on his YouTube channel, remains circumspect about the reach of Internet journalism, however. “Can new media revive the competition that used to exist between two newspapers or four TV channels? Difficult to predict. Journalism happens when there are specialised beat reporters who have access to corridors of power. YouTube journalism currently has a limitation as it is just individuals running the show. It has to scale up from there,” he says.

Regulations soon

The recent elections showed how streaming platforms have become key to building the election narrative. While the videos have been successful in capturing the nation’s imagination, the unregulated nature of the content is a bone of contention for many. The Broadcasting Services Regulation Bill, 2023, which will replace the existing Cable Television Networks Regulation Act of 1995, seeks to bring over-the-top (OTT) and digital news platforms under its ambit.

According to the Information & Broadcasting Ministry, the bill “seeks to provide for Content Evaluation Committees and a Broadcast Advisory Council for self-regulation, different Programme and Advertisement codes for different Broadcasting Network Operators, accessibility measures for persons with disabilities, and statutory penalties, etc.”

At the helm of the new set-up is the Broadcast Advisory Council, which will have handpicked government servants, including an eminent personality as chairperson, and other officials from the Ministries of Information and Broadcasting, Women and Child Development, Home Affairs, External Affairs, and Social Justice and Empowerment, and five independent members nominated by the Central Government. How this organisation will function is anyone’s guess.

Norms for OTT platforms include mandatory registration and a Content Evaluation Committee. Violation of terms and conditions will invite stiff penalties ranging from ₹10 lakh to ₹50 crore. “You cannot censor the Internet. Even in China they tried to do it but people find a way to bypass regulations. The laws of the land apply to everyone, even if someone is on YouTube or the Internet. It doesn’t need special regulation,” says Rathee.

According to data from multiple sources, YouTube had over 450 million active users in India, equivalent to 32.8% of the population, and the exact percentage vote share of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2018 general elections.

In the market that is the Indian democracy, the rise of news, analysis and explainers on YouTube is the big transformation as the country heads towards the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

serish.n@thehindu.co.in

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