March 18, 2014

Indian elections: social media and the voter

In 2012 Presidential Elections in the US, Barack Obama is supposed to have used social media effectively to his advantage. It helped him connect with people, the argument goes.

Now that the world’s largest democracy goes to polls, the role of social media in influencing elections has often been debated in media circles, the Indian press and on the social media itself.

Hype beyond substance?

Do look at some facts that relate to the likely impact of social media in India. 

  • About 80 million Indians, possibly a third of them non-voters, are supposed to visit social media: this in a country with 820 million voters. 
  • A study has shown that social media might play an important, decisive, role in about 160 parliamentary constituencies. In these constituencies the number of social media users is sizeable, even more than the winning margin in the last election. 
  • Another recent study has found that people on social media can result in 3-4% swing of votes in a number of constituencies across India. Psephologists aver that this much swing is very significant in India where there are multi-cornered contests and winners generally win by a small margin of votes. 
  • Another survey hints at a big impact of social media in cities where about 37% of voters are online.
  • The leading Indian politicians have social media engagement numbers running into millions [e.g. @NarendraModi fans on Twitter: 3.54 million; AAP Facebook fans: 1.67 million]

Also look at these recent newspaper headlines in major Indian papers: 

  • India’s first social media elections
  • Political wars will be fought on Facebook this time 
  • Social media to influence elections in a big way; politicians worried.  

Do you believe in such premises? Not us. 

We feel that the numbers that many surveys and studies give out are mere statistics, however much nuanced these studies might be. A politician ‘trending’ does not mean much unless we know how much influence he is really making in general terms and in terms of influencing the potential voter. Is the trend negative or positive, and to which degree? How much of it is from hardliner supporters who need not be influenced any further? Whether the comments that we see on blogs, YouTube, Google+, Facebook and Twitter are just gas? How much of it all is manipulated, using proxies and machines? How many of the genuine social media engagers have hibernated after clicking on the 'follow', 'like' or 'fan' button? The true picture would not come out even if we were to have a highly professional psychometric and sociological analysis of social media engagements. Not at present, at least.

Social media might not influence voter preferences but it is relevant

Though we feel that the type of headlines being given to social media's importance are far from the reality, we find social media fully relevant and its importance growing.

On the question of the voter's voting behaviour, we go with the argument that the voting decision depends on many factors - personal as well as social. There are numerous social influencers such as the mainstream media, friends and family, caste and communal considerations [especially pronounced in some parts of India], historical and cultural preferences and so on.  Social media might have started influencing one’s decision but only as a tertiary influencer: mostly reinforcing one’s opinion already made.

From the point of view of political parties, a new class of voters has indeed emerged, which can't be ignored. However small this base of social media users might be at present, it needs to be targeted by whatever [legitimate and legal] means possible: advertising, engaging in discussion, etc. 

We see three very clear and important roles of the social media in the context of elections. 

One, as a medium of communication. Politicos in India already use social media in many ways:  present their nuanced stands on various subjects (e.g. Advani and Jaitley’s blogs; Sushma and Tharoor’s Twitter accounts), project their good work (e.g. Congress and BJP on their websites, blogs, Facebook and Twitter accounts), berate opposition leaders (e.g. Digvijaya’s Twitter account), seek support and communicate with followers / supporters… They use apps and SMS to communicate with potential voters and their own workers. Parties such as AAP use it rather effectively for getting donations. All big parties have an army of techies for social media engagement as well as monitoring. 

Two, as a mirror. Social networking sites such as Facebook, Google+ and Twitter directly show up what people think about parties, politicians and public issues. On the other hand, on the traditional media there are intermediaries (reporters, editorial writers, columnists etc) who tell things to the reader according to their understanding and bias. So, if a party or politician has the tools to gauge people’s pulse through these platforms, they can wisely mould their media / social-media strategy accordingly. Indeed, many big parties are reported to be formulating their reactions to different issues after analysing social media feedback

Three, as a force multiplier or destroyer. One of the most potent ways the social media builds or [most often] destroys a politician’s reputation is by placing interesting things (e.g. a document that exposes some misdeed or an embarrassing photo / video) on the public platform and letting more and more people see it and tell others about it.

To conclude...

We are witnessing more and more use of social media as a new way to communicate, gauze public mood and create buzz in the Indian elections. But considering India’s socio-political realities and low use of social media, it might not change voting preferences in any significant way this time.