The Social Media Proposition: More Hype Than Substance

Published in The Hindu

In early April, 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 IRIS and Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) contends 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” and are thus “the newest vote-bank with the power to shape Indian politics”. It’s a simplistic proposition as admitted by the study proponents themselves and there are many obvious flaws in the theory. Nevertheless the idea has gained ground. BJP already has an organized presence online with an army of volunteers who descend on anyone who dares critique the party, and many of its party heavyweights, including 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. Congress is getting into the act slowly but ambitiously with plans to spend Rs 100 crores on social media. The PMO recently opened a Twitter account. Many other younger MPs have an online presence as well.

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 exceed 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 general elections is around 60%, 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% given their middle-class base. Case in point: Narendra Modi, arguably the most technologically savvy politician of India garnered 1.6 M “Likes” on Facebook. The number for Shahrukh Khan? 3.8 M. Priyanka Chopra? 3.9 M. Furthermore, social media sites are not ideological platforms; the users are a heterogeneous 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 exchange online. 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.

What then is the social media proposition? What of Obama who beat Hillary to clinch the Democratic Party nomination to defeat McCain in 2008, and then win again in 2012? What about the Arab Spring protests fomented by social media? While it is true that 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 grassroots campaign. Soon after his election, Chris Hughes, the coordinator of 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 organizing groups, 200,000 events, and millions upon millions of calls to neighbors in the 2008 campaign”. In 2012, in addition to this grassroots organization, 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 Rahul Gandhi 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 placed third, winning even less seats than the discredited incumbent party, People’s Party of Pakistan. This is in consonance with the hypothesis that social media doesn’t influence voter behavior on its own, and can at best supplement the grassroots organization of political parties. In any case, given that internet penetration in India is only 12% and 5% on Facebook, 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 decentralized nature which helps bypass censorship. However there is a difference between relaying information and influencing behavior. Social media did not foment Arab spring but did help amplify the protests by making it difficult to censor communication and making information easily accessible. 24×7 live tv 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 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 24×7 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.


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