February 19, 2015

Why Indian government’s social media actions are bound to fail

Indian government, headed by Narendra Modi who is one of the most tech-savvy heads of government in the world and who is supposed to have won the last elections supported ably by his social media campaigns, seems to have lost the social media plot after becoming the PM, partly thanks to over-active but insensitive digital media managers in the government.

Most ministries and other governmental organisations are eternally confused about how and how much to engage in social media interactions with the public. Interestingly, the Information & Broadcasting (read propaganda) Ministry, which has the role to remove the confusion, is itself no less confused.

This Ministry set up a new unit called New Media Wing two years back, when the UPA government was in power, and started a few initiatives to find a place in the social networking sphere. Using public money and all muscle at its command, the ministry set up a big unit directly under its mandarins, unlike other units such as Doordarshan that are run by people experienced in media affairs. Over the last two years, they have held numerous meetings, workshops, seminars, presentations and what not (a workshop recently held for senior bureaucrats from other ministries was hugely publicized) to discuss social media matters. Ironically, such meetings end up with a smug sense of having discovered something new, while these have already been practiced and sometimes discarded by progressive governments and organisations. For this ministry, this becomes a showcase for its ministers and senior bureaucrats to flaunt before Modi and his trusted lieutenants. In other ministries, social media work is taken as a nuisance and a burden.

Yet, because Modi sahab will be dissatisfied otherwise, ministries are busy taking power-point presentations from private entities how they can capture the social media (whatever that means!), and many companies are making easy money out of ministries' urgency and lack of knowledge. If we believe some of our colleagues in such companies, some officials are also having a good time. (There are some rather good examples, even among ministries, such as the public diplomacy social initiative of the Ministry of External Affairs.)

Modi's web presence: are his social managers smart by half?

We looked at some of the web entities of this ministry. Its page on ‘New Media Wing’ was blank (please see the screen shot here) for quite many days when we visited its website. Many of its sections are written in such English that you would yawn after the first sentence. (Hindi is just atrocious in some sections!)

Modi all over
Look at social media accounts of different ministries, especially those of I&B Ministry. In other ministries’ webspaces, there is at least some action but I&B ministry’s webspaces are filled with #Modi's avatars  in numerous moods and postures. How much Modi can people take? 

We have gathered that I&B ministry has enrolled a large number of ‘volunteers’ to retweet, like Facebook posts, re-post content on different social networking platforms / accounts, and has been engaged in activities that cannot be called exactly ethical. Its big army of staffers analyzes social trends (perhaps using sophisticated software) and take covert action to ‘neutralise’ negative sentiment (we do not mean third-degree methods, only digital counter-action and asking Google etc to remove matter that it finds objectionable).

It is all automation and backend. Where is the man with a throbbing heart? 

Can someone make #Modi see that by this act, his official social media managers are doing him more harm than good? Can somebody let Modi realise that all his personal social media management too is giving him diminishing returns, and might be getting him more ‘dislikes’ than likes? Can somebody tell him that pervasive publicity – more so, on social media - is no substitute for action on the ground?

Modi's official social media teams seem to be doing what should not be done in social media domain: to bombard information, to push it in an unintelligible language, and to interact at one’s own will. We won't blame the techies but the ministry bureaucrats for this. Modi's over-activity on social media during elections was taken positively by a large number of people, as it went well with his aspirational speeches and slogans and also his persona that looked to be modern and forward-looking. Not any more. Can somebody tell Modi?