Social media has become the new election battleground for India's nationwide parliamentary elections, which started last Monday. A bevy of politicians are turning to social networking sites to engage Internet-savvy first-time voters. Having an official YouTube channel or an active Facebook page or a Twitter account is now as important as holding mass rallies and plastering candidates' faces on billboards. Politicians are also taking part in Google+ Hangouts and in televised interviews organised by Facebook, and using the Facebook-owned smartphone messaging app, WhatsApp to connect with millions of tech-savvy urban voters.
There are more than 200 million Internet users in India. Most of them are young and mobile urban dwellers. This demographic is also socially engaged, making for the highest Twitter and Facebook usage in the world outside USA, according to Alexa Internet. These numbers justify the social push by political parties as a persuasion tool.
Taking a leaf from US President Barack Obama's presidential campaigns, India's parties are using tools to crunch the insurmountable amounts of information social media generates – what's known as big data analytics. Pinstorm, a digital marketing agency used by some of India's biggest companies to monitor what is being discussed online, now has political parties as clients.
From its Mumbai office, the agency has been collecting, storing and analysing tens of thousands of political statements from over 100 online platforms daily for the past six months to allow parties to find supporters and tweak their political messages. The agency is able to track conversations at the national and local levels, making it a useful tool for both national and regional parties. The instant messaging platform, WhatsApp is being used by the likes of BJP and Congress to send photos, videos and messages to potential voters.
The Trinamool Congress is at the forefront of using social media to spread its messages. Whether it’s Facebook or Twitter or mobile, the party is active on all fronts. The party has been very active on social media with a strong presence on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. From breaking news to the latest videos – all information regarding the party continues to be disseminated regularly via the party`s official social media channels. It is widely acknowledged that Trinamool is among the top three political parties in India to enjoy pride of place in the virtual world. Also, Mamata Banerjee is one of the most ‘liked’ Indian politicians on Facebook.
Screenshot of Trinamool Congress’s official Facebook page
The latest addition to the party’s digital communications arsenal is the mobile app, launched on April 6. The national spokesperson for Trinamool Congress, Derek O`Brien, who launched the app, talked about the various digital communication tools the party is using to connect to voters.
Derek O'Brien launching the app
The mobile app has been developed to deliver all party-related news at the touch of a finger on mobile phones, tablets, etc. It brings 20 latest news stories and videos at a time. You can save news stories as ‘favourites’ and read them offline, too. Compatible with over 5000 devices, the mobile app comes in Android as well as Apple versions. Even if one is in a low-network zone, updates about the party can now be accessed through this mobile app. The app has a link to the party website as well.
Along with the app, another recent addition has been the party blog. The blog can be accessed from the home page of the official website of the party. It is titled ‘Bengal: No Faff. Only Facts.’ (http://bengalbooming.blogspot.in). The blogs essentially highlight the achievements of the West Bengal government run by Trinamool Congress, during the approximately 1000 days of its rule. Right from the Kanyashree and Jal Dharo Jal Bharo schemes to the maintenance of law and order in Jangalmahal, achievements in all aspects of governance is highlighted through the blogs. The blogs have been written by two graduates from the 2014 batch of Indian Institute of Management Calcutta, who worked as interns, assisting the digital team of the party. They were selected through a tough interview process from a field of 31 IIM Calcutta applicants.
According to the party’s Rajya Sabha MP, Derek O’Brien, “... we are launching 40 blogs... will be a first and no other political party in India has so many blogs.”
Bengal: No Faff. Only Facts.
Didi Direct is another channel of communication between the party and the common people. It is a new section in the official website of the party, www.aitmc.org, and is extremely popular. It focuses on news and video content related to the general election campaign by the party chairperson and chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, popularly called Didi, and highlights her campaign activities through the ongoing poll season. Of course, the party website is very well-endowed both in terms of content and design, and is very popular.
Other major parties with a digital presence
Among the other parties which have used social media in a big way are the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
The current main opposition BJP's prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, was among the first Indian politicians to set up a website and today is on Twitter, Facebook and Google+. He is very popular in the cyberspace of Indian politics, judging by the number of ‘followers’ of his Twitter account and the number of ‘likes’ on his personal Facebook page.
Though his main rival, Rahul Gandhi, the Congress party's undeclared candidate for PM, does not have a personal website and doesn't use any of the major social networks, the Congress has a well-entrenched presence in all of these.
Anti-corruption campaigner-turned-politician Arvind Kejriwal is very digitally active, too. He has amassed a huge number of ‘followers’ on Twitter since joining in November 2011, a year before he launched his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
BJP's page on Facebook
Here to stay
During the last general election in 2009, social media usage in India was minuscule. Today, however, Facebook has 93 million users and Twitter has an estimated 33 million accounts in the country. Large parts of the country are still without Internet and mobile, though, and so the impact of these cyber-campaigns on election results remains to be seen. But going by certain studies, the impact is going to be far from insignificant.
According to a study titled ‘Social Media & Lok Sabha Elections’, by IRIS Knowledge Foundation and Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), which was released last year, there are 160 High Impact Constituencies out of the total of 543 constituencies in the country, which will likely be most influenced by social media during the general elections. The report has also identified 67 constituencies as Medium Impact constituencies, and 60 as Low Impact Constituencies. So in more than 50% of the constituencies, social media is going to have some impact.
Thus, one thing is sure: the use of social media in a big way in Indian elections is here to stay. The 2014 general election is justly being called India's first social media election. It is the beginning of a new journey. Looking forward, the digital medium, which includes social media platforms, will continue to be a heavily-invested area in Indian politics.
People wait in line to cast their votes in Agartala, the capital of Tripura, on April 7