Will social media decide the 2014 elections?

Four more years — this was Barack Obama’s tweet after he won the presidential election for the second time. This was before he formally addressed the United States of America. Needless to add, he set a precedent in not only the political spheres, but also the ever-increasing digital space. Over the years, there has been a sea change in the way politicians — in India and abroad — interact with the general public, thanks to the advent of social media.

Illustration/ Amit Bandre

Over the past couple of years, more and more politicians have been interacting with the public via social media. Shashi Tharoor, Milind Deora, Narendra Modi and Sushma Swaraj are just few of the names that have a solid digital presence, both on Twitter and Facebook. But can these platforms actually translate into votes? The lingual barrier is already in existence, thanks to English’s overwhelming dominance. And if it weren’t for the diversity that India provides (and tolerates), it would have been easier to generalise our demography. For beginners, the nation is quite clearly divided into urban and rural areas. The former is familiar with the magic of social media, but can the same be said about the latter? Anyway, less than one per cent of India’s population uses Internet on a daily basis.

But speaking of voters, approximately 12 crore first-time voters are expected to set into action for the upcoming general elections. So the rural-urban divide can take a pause, as the focus deftly shifts to attracting the youth.

Capture them young
These are youngsters who live and swear by social media. A lot of content, including text, pictures, and videos, is necessary to make sure the message gets through to the intended crowd.

Jiten Gajaria, president of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s Intellectual Cell in Mumbai, is optimistic about social media’s ability. He shares an example of how his party is trying to boost democratic practices. “We recently used voter registration apps and Twitter very well to increase first-time voter registration. When it comes to information flow and levelling information biases, these options are very effective. At least, they proved to be so in our voter registration drive. Now, let’s see its effect on voter mobilisation.”

US president Barack Obama brought his sophisticated social media campaign to an emotional climax in 2012 by proclaiming his victory on Twitter and Facebook. His Twitter post was re-tweeted 4,72,000 times in three hours. PIC/ AFP

Interestingly, as per the Internet & Mobile Association of India’s (IAMAI) latest report, the number of Internet users in rural areas is going to see a sharp spike by June 2014. Even though the BJP’s initial target is to connect with the populace from urban and semi-urban sectors, rural pockets are not to be left behind. “Check the extent to which WhatsApp is used in rural India,” suggests Gajaria.

Similarly Delhi-based Priyanka Chaturvedi, general secretary of Youth Congress, thinks it’s important to explore all avenues. “We have our official Facebook page where prominent leaders are present as well. The same is true about Twitter. All our leaders actively engage while our websites provide updated information on all the party initiatives and policies. Mobile phones and smartphones are being used to create groups through WhatsApp/Blackberry messenger and SMS alerts. We are making the most of our strong volunteer network.”

From virtual to votes?
It is ‘cool’ to be on Twitter and Facebook, especially for young voters. These are urban, upper middle-class people who just cannot relate to traditional party campaigns and rallies. But when the message comes through social media, it is suddenly attached with more importance, as it invariably comes from friends or someone you look up to.

Take, for example, Operation Black Dot, an initiative by 24-year-old Samyak Chakrabarty, which encourages the youth to vote by engaging with them.

“Most upper middle-class and middle-class people do not engage in politics. We want to change this and awaken them,” says Chakrabarty, who is chief youth marketer with communications agency DDB Mudra. Some older voters too have signed up with the initiative to get their name in the electoral rolls.

US President Barack Obama won the 2012 elections for the second time by tapping his voter base through social media. PIC/ AFP

Social media is relatively inexpensive as compared to traditional media, and that is its advantage. But still, these attention-grabbing informative exercises would ideally require money and time for proper execution. Appropriately, it’s fair to expect returns on investment. After all, the major political parties are reportedly spending in crores “to get it right”. They neither wish to be held behind, nor leave any stone unturned. All things said and done, elections are a one-day win or lose competition and there’s too much at stake. The ultimate aim is to let the campaign penetrate as far as possible.

But Nitin Pai, co-founder of Takshashila, a Bangalore-based think tank, believes the low level of Internet penetration is a massive handicap. “Social media campaigns don’t directly reach the majority of the voting population. However, to an extent, social media influences the overall media narrative, for instance, by affecting what is discussed on television and newspapers. While social media is unlikely to make a significant electoral impact in the next year, it will be increasingly important in the coming years as India urbanises and Internet use gets more widespread.”

Chakrabarty himself has a two-pronged view of social media. “While it helps in creating awareness, for people, social media has also become a proxy for change. Instead of actually going to vote, people think that by putting up status messages and changing display pictures, they’ve done their part. It is diluting the action that is needed. In a democracy, what you do on social media does not matter. Online campaigns need to have an on-ground, real-life element,” he says.

That’s why Operation Black Dot has had several events and will have many others in the future too. Several city colleges are on-board and the infrastructure is set up. They’re waiting for the colleges to start.

Meanwhile, they’ve signed up two ambassadors per constituency for the six constituencies of the city — these are youth icons such as Vishal Dadlani, VJ Jose, Nikhil Chinappa, and Purab Kohli. These ambassadors encourage people to sign up for voting and get their name in the electoral rolls. VJ Jose, who has more than 1,00,000 followers on Twitter, says, “Social media is the easiest way to disseminate information. It’s fantastic if you want to reach out to these young voters and bring them into the game. As far as the youth are concerned, you have to speak in their language and on platforms they use, to make them understand politics. Once they are educated, the efforts will definitely translate into votes. Social media cuts across all economic divides.”

The group is also planning Operation Black Dot Hangout, where members of parliament (MPs) from the city will have an informal interaction with the youth at coffee shops. A massive conclave with national leaders is also in the works, and so is a You Tube show called The Undecided Voter with VJ Jose and Purab Kohli, who are trying to learn the concept of politics. “It will help people make an informed choice,” adds Chakrabarty.

Sushobhan Mukherjee, an analyst at SapientNitro, a marketing and communications agency, points out the benefit of web-based strategies. “It ups the profile of the parties involved, making them more transparent and consultative and thus, a lot closer to the people.”

Strategy is the key
Despite the ultimate aim being to earn that extra vote, the strategies may vary from party to party and candidate to candidate. Sanjay Mehta, founder and joint CEO of Social Wavelength, a social media agency, emphasises a balance has to be attained between the party and its candidate’s objective. “A party needs to keep pushing their agenda at a mass level to appeal to the larger franchise. That is best done in a significant carpet-bombing effort when supported by good content. A typical leader needs to be far more focused on his constituency and ensure impact with voters. But there are always candidates who want to get projected beyond their constituency as possible national leaders.”

Irrespective of how leaders are chosen, can they be far away from their propaganda-themed trucks and blaring speeches? No, says Gajaria. “Mass meetings and rallies are an integral part of democracy and I don’t think they can be replaced. But yes, social media will ensure rally participants include those from across the country and not just from the place where the rally is held.”

Chaturvedi shares a similar thought too. “One cannot imagine virtual political debates taking over the on-ground people-to-people connect. But the instantaneous two-way communication online is its strength.”

Yet there is a need for constructive dialogue in the online space, rather than the malicious commentary and childish hashtag trends on Twitter like #Pappu and #Feku. Parties would do well to demonstrate their plans for the country, rather than invest time in bringing the opposition down. Yet, there are some who have used it in a better manner. Aam Aadmi Party, for example.

Even the Election Commission has taken notice of social media. Moreover, running for office is one thing while winning it, another. Similarly, campaigning and reaping don’t always end up in the same sentence. Can a seat be won?

Mukherjee takes crusader-turned-politician Arvind Kejriwal’s case to explain. “I suspect Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), depending on their performance in Delhi, can surely apportion some praise to social media. So, the answer is yes, in a couple of constituencies,” he says.

There are going to be closely fought constituencies and public opinion will matter. “In such places, the final winner could easily have a margin of just a few thousand votes. Can social media impact a few thousand votes to go from one side to the other? Definitely yes!” adds Mehta. So some people may receive a jolt when the results are announced.

On the other hand, Pai chooses to be cynical about such a paradigm shift. “I’m sceptical that people will turn out to vote merely because they were canvassed on social media. Voters make their decisions based on a number of factors and this is unlikely to have changed merely because of Facebook and Twitter.”

This is the first time in India’s history that social media features as a part of the campaign plan. Parties and voters are still grappling with the changing scenario of platforms.

Many feel it is an organic process and it’s early to attribute importance to social media’s role in the elections. An impact, it will make. Only time will tell the extent of it. 

A cautionary act
The Election Commission of India recently issued guidelines for the use of social media for election campaigning, after its attention had been drawn to certain violations of the Electoral Law in the social media.

>> Social media accounts of candidates should be furnished in affidavits filed by candidates.
>> No political ads can be released on social sites by parties or candidates without pre-certification from competent authorities.
>> Ad expenditure on poll campaign on social media will be considered part of all expenditure.
>> Model code of conduct will apply to social media sites as well.

How social media helped Obama win?
Florida was a key constituency in the Obama vs McCain 2008 presidential elections. Florida is a tide turner, and resulted in George Bush getting elected twice. Droga5, the agency handling Obama’s campaign, found in its research that elderly Jewish voters were a key element in Florida — most of them were going to vote for Republican candidate McCain, because they thought Obama was Muslim.

Hence, the agency enlisted Sarah Silverman, a popular Jewish actor, writer and comedian, and released a series of funny videos on YouTube talking to the young Jewish voters, her fans.

Silverman asked them “to get their fat Jewish asses on a plane to Florida” to convince their grandparents to vote for Obama. Armed with data and talking points that Silverman gave them in the videos, young Jews flew to Florida. The campaign resonated with the target, as Jewish families are very close-knit and grandparents couldn’t say no to their grandchildren. The campaign, called ‘The Great Schlep’ (‘schlep’ is Yiddish for ‘to drag oneself’) received millions of hits on YouTube and was shared on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms extensively. The result is there for all of us to see. 

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