How will social media shape India’s next election?

By Dr Usha M Rodrigues
Incoming Leaders Fellow, Australia India Institute@Delhi; Senior Lecturer in Journalism at Deakin University

This article is part of the Indian Election Series – a partnership between the Australia India Institute and the Melbourne School of Government’s Election Watch project.

In the 2014 general elections, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) made extensive use of social media platforms to engage with educated, middle-class youth voters. This strategy was complemented by BJP leader Narendra Modi ‘appearing’ at thousands of rallies as a 3D holographic projection. Despite shunning India’s vast mainstream media, Modi still managed to dominate the news cycle.

Modi and the BJP have made further social media inroads since entering office, now reaching voters on their mobile phones. This reach is aided by the increasing number of Indians owning mobile phones and gaining access to the internet. Recent estimates indicate that nearly 500 million Indians have access to the internet and of these roughly 300 million use at least one social media networking platform. Educated young Indians are increasingly replacing the mainstream media as a conduit for political communication.

Prime Minister Modi has been using social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to connect with followers since he first commenced his election campaign in 2012. Now, he is the third most followed political leader on Twitter after Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Modi has over 44.5 million followers on his personal Twitter handle, while his prime ministerial handle has over 27 million followers. Meanwhile, his Facebook page has over 44 million likes, and his YouTube channel has been viewed over 161 million times.

Modi also keeps his followers abreast of his daily activities using various other social networking platforms, government websites, his own app – NaMoApp – and publicly funded broadcasters such as Doordarshan and All India Radio. Modi incessantly uses these platforms to push his ‘Digital India’ agenda, launch initiatives such as the ‘Clean India’ campaign and Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (‘support the rights of girls to live and learn’), and promote prime ministerial funding schemes for small businesses and cashless payment systems.

Politicians have always needed to articulate, influence and shape their public discourse to meet the expectations of their voters. In the past, mainstream media was the messenger that politicians courted to disseminate their messages to the masses. But now the internet and social media platforms offer leaders and civil society members a more direct way to reach their followers. For a leader such as Modi who likens journalists to ‘news traders’, social media provides an appealing alternative to directly reach his followers. That said, this is largely one-directional communication – Modi rarely engages with his followers or responds to their queries.

A relatively late entrant to online public platforms is the main opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi. Gandhi and his Indian National Congress (INC) party have beefed up their campaign team, hiring social media and data analytics experts to take on the BJP online in the lead up to the 2019 election. Gandhi currently has nearly 8 million followers on Twitter and over 2 million followers on Facebook. His YouTube channel also has nearly 3 million views.

These social media platforms provide political parties with a significant level of data about their supporters as well as their contact details. The INC, BJP and some regional political parties have set up data analytics departments to analyse their voter bases by district – and even booth – to tailor their election campaigns. These parties claim that they are mostly dealing with public data or data that followers have readily provided online.

Another messaging platform that will continue to play a significant role in Indian parties’ communication strategies is Facebook’s WhatsApp, a chat app that is used on mobile phones by over 200 million Indians. Parties stay in touch with their constituents via WhatsApp groups, which have proliferated to several thousand, which circulate information and opinions – both real and fake. Party workers, often supporters and volunteers, send or forward regular messages to their constituents, from birthday wishes to political messages, which are often focussed on tarnishing the opposition’s image.

WhatsApp messages are encrypted, making it easier to circulate unverified information. Following the spread of rumours and subsequent murder of several people in India, WhatsApp has been forced to restrict the number of times a message can be forwarded and shared on the app.

The primary purpose of WhatsApp groups is to share information, ideas and opinions among a small group of family, friends and acquaintances. When used as a political communication tool, WhatsApp chats can impact people’s voting patterns by reinforcing pre-set beliefs. The sharing of information on social networking sites may not necessarily change people’s minds, but it can encourage them to come out and vote for a candidate that personifies their beliefs.

Irrespective of the outcome of the 2019 Indian general elections, BJP and INC’s technical competency in data analytics and social media communication strategies – including personalised micro-campaigns on WhatsApp – will significantly impact their respective election campaigns.

A version of this article was originally published by the East Asia Forum.

Image credit: Flickr/Leakhena Khat. The thumbnail version of the image has been altered.


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