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Digital dharma

 

Social media could influence more than 150 of 543 Lok Sabha constituencies in 2014. Chandran Iyer examines the implications.
CHANDRAN IYER | Issue Dated: May 31, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : Election campaigns | Social Media | Narendra Modi | Rahul Gandhi | Twitter | Facebook |
 

Social Media is poised become the most potent weapon for political parties girdling their loins for the 2014 general elections. Apart from party propaganda work which appears to have already started in right earnest, there is the added promise of lampooning rivals, highlighting personal achievements and scoring brownie points in the fond hope that the voter will catch on.

To be sure, the days of dust-bowl election campaigns in India’s boondocks are not a thing of the past but the cutting edge to arguably the most explosive election campaign likely in 2014, is most certainly going to be provided by a proliferating social media.

Right on top of this list are two of India’s main candidates, Congress’s Rahul Gandhi and BJP strongman Narendra Modi whose recent Twitter monikers, ‘Pappu’ (naïve) and ‘Feku’ (boastful) respectively, have already acquired a life and logic of their own. As elections draw closer, many more such parallels may be thrown up, to the delight of the public, specially the social media-using public.

Political parties, quick to spot the potential of this newly-emerging bandwidth, are aware that an issue breaking out on Twitter or Facebook is more likely to catch eyeballs as compared to the mainstream media which is increasingly been seen as ‘compromised’ and ‘affiliated’ to one or the other political party. For the first time, social media is being seen as a direct connect with the people – without the well informed journalist and blue collared analyst coming in with his or her two penny bit.

Speaking at a debate on ‘Will Internet and social media be a game changer for the next general elections’, Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari recently said, “Content agnostic new media platforms are definitely not something that any politician or political party can ignore. However, elections are a complex exercise where voting preferences depend more on local/regional variations. Therefore, one variable may not be a game changer.” May be.

Admits archrival, BJP’s Ravi Shankar Prasad, “the power of social media cannot be denied and political leaders will be forced to take the demands of young India into consideration.’’ By the looks of it, they probably, already are.

Just how significant is the scale of this social media outreach? According to a recent study, it is set to play a very vital and decisive role in influencing the outcome of general elections in at least 160 Lok Sabha constituencies. In other words, a significant portion of the urban vote. In a tight contest, such as the type being predicted in 2014, it can become anyones game.

Says a study conducted by IRIS Knowledge Foundation and Internet and Mobile Association of India (IMAI), “There are 160 high impact constituencies out of the total of 543 constituencies, which are likely be influenced by social media during the next general elections.’’ In such a situation, a little tweet or a throwaway line on the net could lead to a frenzy of talk shows, high decibel comment and seemingly endless controversies, all stirred in one direction - impending elections.

In situations such as these, the mainline media, particularly the 24x7 news matrix, on the look out for little tit bits to start a talking heads chat show, can ideally feed on the social media. In turn, both can feed on each other.

India has about 60 million-plus social media users and the numbers are continually increasing. The study categorises high impact constituencies as those where “Facebook users account for over 10 per cent of total voters in a constituency.’’ Even though, the country’s internet penetration is relatively low; about 150 million people out of a total population of 1.2 billion go online. According to the IRIS-IMAI survey, these numbers are poised to go up as D-Day approaches.

Away from dreary and cliched election speeches, a whole new world is opening up – a world where an issue can snowball out of proportion - like the Anna agitation or Kejriwal anti-corruption stir - to be lapped up by an adoring public. Social media's first impact were felt in the now celebrated Twitter spat between former IPL head honcho Lalit Modi and the Congress minister Shashi  Tharoor in 2010 over the equity pattern in the former IPL Kochi team. The seemingly minor exchange ballooned out of proportion and cost Tharoor his job as the junior minister for external affairs. It also made Lalit Modi scamper for cover in London. And guess what Modi is doing from London? Tweeting against the present management of BCCI of course and grabbing headlines!

According to a study on social media usage by The Nielsen Company conducted in collaboration with analytic and research company AbsolutData, nearly 30 million Indians who are online are members of social networking sites and about two-thirds of them spend time on the net on a daily basis.

More importantly, says the study, Indians spend more time on social media than they do using personal email. According to it, an equal number spend up to an hour on social networking and email. However, while just 8 percent spend between an hour and three hours on personal email, 20 percent spend the same time on social media sites.

The growth of social media has given rise to a new breed of entrepreneurs whose job it is to provide specialised election-related services to individual candidates or to political parties using the digital platform. In this, they are taking the help of software professionals. In some instances, political parties are outsourcing work to newly-cropped IT companies which provide niche information of the kind they require.

This novel experiment was witnessed during the 2012 Gujarat assembly elections, as well as the recently-concluded Karnataka assembly elections. Pune-based Xtech Infocom, an information technology-enabled service provider company, was given the task of managing Congress propaganda. Explains Riyaaz Sheikh, head business relations of Xtech Infocom, “We work for political campaigning through digital medium for individual politicians, regional and national parties. We have provided technological support for campaigning, propaganda, giving information to voters about the party’s policies through bulk SMS, Bulk Voice and cloud telephony”.

Sheikh’s company helped the Congress in Gujarat in the last assembly elections in implementing their election strategy. “We worked hand in hand with the Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee (GPCC) in Ahmedabad.  Our boys worked with GPCC's IT cell. Our task was to reach out to maximum voters in the state through mobile telephony and internet and ensure that the party message reaches them. We helped the party in planning total electoral strategies”.

While this social networking may not have been enough to take Narendra Modi off his high pedestal, it certainly suggests the pattern of things to come. The methods employed by Sheikh’s company helped in deploying state-of -the art telephony system along with updated voting slip database and putting into place a call centre where voters phoned up for getting detailed voting slips on their mobile along with the name of their leader.

During the Karnataka assembly elections, political parties set up their own election cells with IT experts and professionals to propagate party agenda and to take liberal pot shots at the opposition.

In Karnataka, BJP became the first political party to set up a professional wing to take care of the social media, christened the Communication Cell. Points out Channamallikarjun B Patil, cell convener: “Our total campaign via the social media was designed by members of our Communication Cell. Our five-pronged strategy included letting the world know about the achievements of the first BJP government in south India through the social media. Second was the party manifesto and the party's future plans; third exposing UPA’s corruption - we released an online version of UPA 100 not out scams – a complete ready reconnoiter of the scam-infested of UPA in the last nine years. Fourth,was the voter awareness programmes via social media and the last, details of clean governance provided by Chief Minister Jagdish Shettar’s government.’’ To be candid, this is one case where even the social media could not help a beleaguered state government and party mired in graft but the general elections could throw up another picture.

A report on Social Media in India by the IAMAI and Indian Market Research Bureau, says about 74 per cent of all active internet users in urban India use social media. It ranks after email (80 per cent) in terms of usage. As per its findings, of the 80 million active internet users in urban India, 72 per cent (about 58 million individuals) have accessed some form of social networking. Awesome.

In Gujarat, Xtech Infocom, broadcasted text messages and candidate voice broadcasts in several constituencies. Recalls Riyaz Sheikh: “We broadcasted 3 crore SMS and voice messages. We increased the website traffic of Gujarat Congress to 20 lakhs per month. In addition, we posted real time videos of leaders and their press conferences on networking sites and a special application which contained the profile of candidates and advertised it on internet-enabled mobile phones.’’

Such efforts have not gone unnoticed and this Pune-based company was asked to pitch in with similar paraphernalia in support of the JD (S) in Karnataka in a big way. Riyaz and his team worked from the JD (S) office. Interestingly, they had the support of professional volunteers working in senior positions in mega companies like IBM, Intel and Infosys. Like Gujarat, the JD (S) sent more than 1 crore voice calls, over 50 lakh emails and more than a crore messages on mobile during the elections.

Says Darshan Devegowda, chief of JD (S) IT cell,  Bangalore,“ we used the social media in a big way. This is because our party was perceived by mainstream media as a farmer’s party with a rural base. We wanted to change this perception by going hi tech.’’ It seems to have worked with the JD (S) who came in a surprising second behind the Congress in Karnataka relegating the ruling BJP to a poor third position.

Predicts BJP’s Channamallikarjun B Patil, “elections 2014 are going to be a game changer as far as social media is concerned. It will play a very important role in deciding which way the electoral wind is blowing. The Karnataka cell of the BJP is going to train its leaders in effectively using social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. This gives us the advantage as the Congress is hardly present in the social media”.  In addition, he believes that the explosive growth of social media will reduce the scourge of paid news phenomena where news is ‘planted’ in newspapers for monetary gains.

Says Prashant Bhushan, senior advocate and leading rights activist associated with the newly-formed Aam Aadmi Party, “Internet and social media not just enhances accountability and democratises communication but also allows new political formations such as ours, to leapfrog the support base, in the absence of traditional cadres”. Political parties without exception concur on the role of social media. Madhav Bhandari, BJP spokesman in Maharashtra, believes that the social media is going to play a big role in influencing voters as it is more personal and real time. ``But on the flip side it remains to be seen how much it influences urban voters to actually go out and vote because generally it has been observed that those active in the virtual world are not socially active,’’ Bhandari says. That is the question all political parties are asking of themselves and their followers.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017