Social network: Love it, hate it, can’t ignore it

Columnist  | Ankit Lal

Facebook stated that Narendra Modi’s fan base grew by 14.86 percent between April 7 and May 12, the duration of the elections.

There have been various questions raised about how effective social media is but one can say beyond doubt that it does have an impact.

Social media has played a huge role in the way elections have been fought in India since 2013 Delhi Assembly Elections. That was the first time an Electoral result was impacted due to the usage of social media in campaigning. Ever since, the role of social media and its impact has only increased. What started as Facebook posts, give way to tweets and Twitter trends and the new “in thing” is live telecast of events and videos.

In 2014 general elections social media was part of the BJP strategy. Right from creating issues to responding to issues to conversing with their target audience, the BJP and its then Prime Ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi used social media to the hilt. Eventually Narendra Modi went on to become the Prime Minister and BJP ended up winning 282 seats for the party and NDA winning 336 seats in all.

There have been various questions raised about how effective social media is but one can say beyond doubt that it does have an impact. A study by IRIS Knowledge Foundation and Internet and Mobile Association of India had predicted before the elections that, “There are 160 high impact constituencies out of the total of 543 constituencies, which are likely be influenced by social media during the 2014 general elections.”

Facebook stated that Narendra Modi’s fan base grew by 14.86 percent between April 7 and May 12, the duration of the elections. Arvind Kejriwal’s count increased by 8.16 percent during the same time. Also, according to Facebook, between the day the elections were announced and May 16, the counting day, 29 million people made 227 million poll-related interactions (posts, comments, shares, and likes), with 13 million people on Facebook posting 75 million updates related to Narendra Modi. There were 49 million Indian elections-related conversations on Twitter — more than double the 20 million Indian elections-related conversations on Twitter for all of 2013.

However, one must understand that social media is not the only factor, it is one of the many factors. Without actual ground action there is almost negligible possibility of creating an electorally impactful social media phenomenon.

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One example of this was in Delhi in 2015. The failure of time-tested conventional tactics, especially by the Congress party, proved that with a new breed of technology-savvy young voters, web is the new battleground for political parties and its significance cannot be ignored. Be it #DelhiDecides or #Decision2015 on Twitter, or ‘Delhi Legislative Assembly’ on Facebook, the social media is flooded with tweets and posts.

Just consider how the Delhi Congress, fairly new to the social media forum, already lost the race when it managed to get only about 44,000 likes on Facebook and just about four thousand followings on Twitter handle @dpcc while its arch rival, the Delhi BJP, flaunted about 15 lakh likes on Facebook and about 44,000 followers on Twitter (@BJPDelhiState). The AAP was still far ahead of the Delhi Congress and was almost neck to neck with the BJP with 44,100 followers on Twitter, and though behind the Delhi BJP in terms of Facebook likes, was still much ahead of the Congress with about 6.5 lakh likes (all figures as of 10 February, 2015). Besides, even the personal Twitter handle of the AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal had 3.51 million followers. Which was almost the same as the BJP’s CM candidate, Kiran Bedi’s 3.88 million followers. In sharp contrast, the Congress’ election face, Ajay Maken had just about three lakh followers on Twitter!

The eventual result was that the AAP swept the Delhi polls with a thumping majority of 67 in the 70-member Delhi Assembly. BJP came a distant second with three seats. Other parties, including Congress, failed to open account.

In 2018, with Karnataka elections slated to happen, the social media warfare will take a big leap. In a place like Karnataka, where literacy as well as social media usage is high, the impact will be much more. The new start-ups based in Bengaluru will also play a huge role with whatever innovations they can come up with.

The usage of Kannada language and graphics in Kannada, to appeal to the local people, will rise up sharply. With political campaigning getting sharp, the Twitter war of words will also see increased usage of the regional language.

The one platform that the BJP tends to overplay and Congress always ends up underestimating is WhatsApp. BJP uses it to the hilt, for getting positive message about it across as well as to pull down the other parties and their faces. The biggest advantage of WhatsApp is its distributed and non-public nature which actually makes it next to impossible to gauge the impact.

All said and done, any political party worth its salt will alienate a huge chunk of the vocal electoral base if it shies away from digital campaigning. You can have debates on how much value social media adds, but you can’t avoid discussing it.