By Vidya Hattangadi
We are living in the era of social media. From morning to night, most of the people are glued to their smartphones, checking Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, Linkedin and YouTube everywhere at home, office, while travelling, in public transport and roads… anywhere. With the increase in addiction of internet, social media is emerging as the best mode of communication. With over 460 million internet users, India is the second-largest online market, ranked only behind China. By 2021, there will be 635.8 million internet users in India. The widespread use of social networking in the country has been on a rise, especially among the new generation.
In 2008 and 2012, the world witnessed Barack Obama’s winning strategies using social media. Not only was Obama the first African American to be elected the US President, but he was also the first presidential candidate to effectively use social media as a major campaign strategy. In 2008, American voters were sent out voting reminders on Twitter and interacting with people on Facebook was a big deal. Following his footsteps, in 2014, the BJP straight dived headstrong into social media conversations. Their constant activities were aimed towards spreading awareness and having a direct connection with the voters. On a daily basis, various competing hashtags like #NaMoInUdhampur, #KejriwalInVaranasi débuted. Politics is a favourite topic of discussion among the young and old. The hashtags are famous on Twitter and Twitter users get pulled into it.
Already, we are witnessing the blitz of anti- and pro-political campaigns on our smartphones for the 2019 general elections. Advertising experts and industry leaders are betting on the overall expenditure of the campaigns worth `5,000 crore. The ruling BJP is already spending quite a bit on advancing “Brand Modi” in terms of achievements of his government in the last four years—all campaigns undertaken by the BJP and its several ministries and departments have revolved around NaMo. The main opposition, the Congress, is also likely to spend `1,500-2,000 crore on mass media and another `400-500 crore on digital campaign.
We cannot ignore the fact that politics and media share a complex synergistic relationship; media, politics and elections are knotted together and social media platforms have become the essential ground for discussion on political narratives.
Recently, when the Uttar Pradesh unit of the BJP met, there was one session that had a lot of outside states turn up. It was held in Meerut and attended by UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath and Union home minister Rajnath Singh, among others. The social media session was attended by BJP President Amit Shah. The message is clear: If social media was the X factor in 2014 polls, in 2019 it will be their main focus. It seems the BJP plans to have a social media coordinator for every single booth in the elections. Let’s consider that each booth has approximately 2,000 voters, which means that the BJP social media team across the country would run into about 4.5 lakh social media coordinators.
According to the Election Commission records, India has 81.5 crore voters, and among them exist BJP volunteers and workers who are trained in social media. They all are armed with a smartphone. What a fantastic strategy! The 2019 election is a few months away and already few lakh volunteers are working. But the BJP is looking for many more as they need to penetrate their campaigns in the interiors parts of India, which is too vast. The BJP is organising spree of meetings to boost their social media campaigns. After the strategy of “page pramukh” worked well in Gujarat (one worker to be in charge of each page list of voters), it has been decided to have two pramukhs for each page. Since every page has a front and a back.
However, globally, some election experts have raised alarm against the recent elections in some countries where social media campaigns influenced election proceedings to such an extent that the democratic process came under threat. There is an alarming worry that outside interests can work to undermine the democratic process in a subtle and sneaky way. In April 2017, Facebook admitted that its platform had been exploited by governments seeking to manipulate public opinion in other countries during the presidential elections in the US and France. Facebook pledged to clamp down on such operations.
Many countries in the world are running election campaigns on social media. Look at the recent example—in the closely-fought elections in Malaysia, former Prime Minister Najib Razak who is dogged by corruption allegations was ousted and arrested, and the election results were revoked. Courtiers such as Singapore and the Philippines are actively proposing legislation on fake news, while Germany introduced a new law that compels social media networks to remove hate speech. Indonesia has launched a new cybersecurity agency as part of its efforts to deal with online religious fanaticism, online hate speech, nip terrorist groups and fake news on social media.
It has become big task for the Election Commission of India; they have set a panel to scrutinise the growing use of social media platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook and YouTube. The panel has recommended processes to deal with violations. The nation has seen a rise in religious and ethnic tensions in recent times; few people are killed due to rumours spread on social media about child kidnappings, rapes and cow smuggling. Fake news and paid news are matters of concern and misuse on social media. The Election Commission is tightening rules and regulations to plug loopholes in the forthcoming general elections.
The author is a management thinker and blogger