Amrita Prasad
Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Ahead of the General Elections 2019, we look at how political parties, along with their loyalists, are using the digital space to their advantage

Till the last General Elections when the 16th Lok Sabha was constituted, political parties would reach out to their voters in the most traditional way, which included recreating songs boasting of the parties’ greatness, making promises for the good of the common man’, running campaigns in print and on radio and television, sending representatives to the doorstep of the voters and so on. But this time around, the dynamics and tools of election campaigns have drastically changed and political parties are utilising the power of internet and technology to promote their leaders, agendas and manifestos like never before. 

And in this, they stand united. Whether it is the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led NDA government or the Mahagathbandhan or independent parties, all are banking on platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter etc to take the election campaigns a notch higher this time. 

As regards, politicians and their supporters trolling each other on Twitter isn’t a recent phenomenon but using social media for propaganda of ideologies is being done more aggressively now. For the contesting political parties, social media seems to be an easier way to reach out to the voters and influence the way they think and form opinions about leaders and parties, which will ultimately impact the way they would vote. And they seem to have left the Bollywood and sports personalities behind when it comes to ‘influencing’ people through social media.

So what has caused this digital dependence? Observers attribute it to factors like the availability of affordable 4G internet, huge IT cells funded by political parties, a large number of population being the youth who use technology and internet 24x7 and so on. 

And there are far-reaching consequences of this. Use of social media on this scale is  giving rise to fake news and misinformation, and often to communal hatred and biases.  

Anoop Mishra, a leading social media expert, informs that some of the Facebook pages and WhatsApp groups with massive followings are directly in touch with the IT cells of the political parties. “Fake statistics related to various government policies, news promoting regional violence, manipulated political news regarding government scams, propaganda, patriotism and Hindu nationalism — WhatsApp has it all in the election season,” says Mishra.  

While agreeing that this year’s election, irrespective of the region, will be greatly impacted by social media, Kolkata-based social media influencer, comedian and columnist Debdip Rana says, “Gone are the days when social media was only for urban, educated and young people. Cheap smartphones and affordable internet have penetrated deeper into our villages. Add to it the fact that social media platforms are offering typing and messaging services in regional languages. This makes it easier for political parties to spread news and information to non-English speakers that shows them in a positive light. I think despite a large number of population possessing smartphones and enjoying free/cheap internet, there is a lack of education and a sense of logic that makes people easy preys. Haven’t you seen some on your Facebook friendlist and hundreds of others you follow on Twitter, changing their normal display picture to boastful chowkidars?” asks Rana. He adds that most political parties have an army of people working to create a positive and impactful social media image and volunteers who don’t bat an eyelid before they forward misinformation on WhatsApp groups.   

While many will agree that social media campaigns and propaganda are working in favour of the parties, there is also a section of people who maintain that these platforms help reveal the true side of politicians. “You may have come across doctored videos and pictures where one party is trying to put the other down in order to prove that it is the best for the nation. The picture of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra wearing a cross created a huge noise on social media, but it was later proved that it was photoshopped. The truth about PM Modi’s exaggerating the number of people attending his rally in Nagpur, was exposed by an onlooker too. So, social media can act as an eye-opener. A few positive campaigns are creating awareness of the power of democracy, encouraging more and more people to come forward and cast their vote,” adds Megha Rajan, Chennai-based social media manager. 

Rajan feels media analytics is going to influence people in the right way. She adds that with news like artists, writers and activists urging people to vote for the right candidates making waves on social media, people are becoming aware of who they should and shouldn’t vote for. Her word of caution is, “Social media needs to be used responsibly by political parties, their media managers and common people, especially the youth because spreading of false information will add to politics of polarisation. One political party trolling another and then a counter response coming on Twitter, leads to confusion amongst people,” says Rajan. 

Social media analysts and experts don’t hesitate to call out Facebook for being a business module that wants to mint money by leaking out information about people and also doing things that are unethical. “No matter how many times Facebook claims that it is trying to curb misinformation and hatred, the truth is that several Facebook pages, groups and accounts have been renamed and have become extremely active to propagate election agenda and favour parties. It is not an unknown fact that if a particular piece of information is fed to people, they begin to believe it and that influences the way they perceive a political party,” says Rajeev Gupta, a political writer and social media expert.  

According to other political scholars, renaming the Facebook pages or groups to promote political campaigns and influence voters has become common and the Artificial Intelligence (AI)-driven algorithms are not sufficient to handle such a huge volume in a country where Facebook has over 30 crore users and another 30 crore are using WhatsApp monthly. Mishra says that there are over 200 fake Facebook groups and pages with more than one lakh followers, which are currently influencing the group members and followers with biased political content. 

Facebook received a lot of flak from people when it removed  687 alleged fake pages, groups and accounts linked to the Congress last week, while overlooking pages and groups that were associated with the BJP.

Nathaniel Gleicher, head of Cybersecurity Policy at Facebook, claimed that the company removed 687 pages and accounts that engaged in coordinated inauthentic behaviour in India and were linked to individuals associated with an IT cell of the Indian National Congress (INC). This didn’t go down well with many Facebook users who called this step biased, reckless and illogical raising the important question whether social media giants like Facebook are governed by a political party and censor news and agenda related to the Opposition. 

Without a doubt, WhatsApp is the most popular and powerful social messaging app today and that makes it the most impactful tool to share and spread information in time. While both the ruling party and the Opposition have been accusing each other of spreading fake news, it has been observed that all political parties are using WhatsApp for campaigns and sharing fake and doctored pictures and videos. Most WhatsApp users happen to believe these messages and tend to forward them to their friends and relatives. In fact, reports say that around 87,000 groups have been created to connect and influence the voters with their half-baked and misleading content. 

Although  L K Advani, a senior BJP member, launched WhatsApp’s Checkpoint Tipline service with an aim to help users in India report fake news, it isn’t really helping people. The service, which was launched on April 2, 2019, is not a helpline number but a data-gathering research project to help the Facebook-owned platform understand how misinformation spreads. It isn’t really helping curb spreading or reporting of fake news. “We have to understand the nature of people using these platforms. For them, forwarding messages seems to be a ritual and a hobby at the same time and they do it without verifying or actually thinking of its repercussions. While many do it without an intention of sparking a debate, others do it because they strongly believe in the political party sending them these messages and many are paid volunteers employed by the political parties to contribute to their election campaigns,” says  Gupta.    

Recently, Twitter blocked the French Government ad campaign intended to encourage voting in the upcoming European Parliament elections, which according to the micro-blogging site, violated France’s new fake news law. The French Government’s Information Service (GIS) wanted to promote the campaign “#Ouijevote” (#YesI’mvoting) on Twitter. But the social media platform rejected the campaign after determining it to be a political campaign. According to a report by BBC, as per the new law, which is in force since December 2018, France requires online political campaigns to declare the billing information — who paid for them, and how much was spent. 

In India, in an attempt to bring transparency in political advertisements ahead of the elections, Twitter said earlier this year that it will provide a new dashboard showing such expenditures by political parties on its platform. The US-based company is also engaging with various stakeholders, including the Election Commission of India (ECI), to verify candidates as well as train parties and election officials on using Twitter and teach them how to report suspicious, abusive, and rule-violating activity to Twitter. However the war of tweets continues to take place every day.

Like most other social media platforms, politicians have also tried to tap the power of YouTube because that’s the millennials’ go-to platform. If you search on YouTube, you’ll see a huge rise in the number of viewers watching videos related to politics, political stories, breaking news, election speeches, political spoofs and so on. Google’s report says that political ad spending on its platform in India was at around Rs 3.76 crore ($545,000) between February and April 2019 (45 days). Over 830 political ads ran on Google, far behind Facebook, which is the hotbed of political ads in India. But when it comes to YouTube, it is YouTubers and artists who are making strong political statements.  

Aam Aadmi Party’s social media head Ankit Lal once said in an interview, that people are getting empowered with knowledge because of  young YouTubers who are putting information on the table. He further added that those who are watching these YouTube videos are driving conversation in their respective areas. Similarly, Derek O’Brien, Trinamool Congress MP, was quoted as saying, “Without sounding condescending, I would like to salute the young men and women, and there are so many, that are doing these exposes (through YouTube videos).” 

YouTubers like Dhruv Rathee  who voices his strong opinions through the About Me section of his YouTube channel, and other channels like The Open Letter, don’t mince words while criticising the ruling government. They don’t openly label themselves ‘anti’ or ‘pro’ any political party, but they are fearless in what they say and that’s what connects with the audience, especially the youngsters.  

Comedians like Kunal Kamra and Vir Das, very satirically spoke of the laws and policies of the government in their stand- up acts across platforms like Netflix, YouTube and Amazon Prime Video. According to Rathee, he makes YouTube videos to educate people and his channel, which has over 4.6 lakh subscribers, describes its purpose as ‘to incite critical thinking and awareness among masses’. The 20-something discusses, analyses and criticises everything making headlines in India, particularly government policies, which has even resulted in a BJP supporter filing a police case against him. But that hasn’t deterred the youngster speaking his mind and millennials continue to follow him and watch his videos. 

Hasan Minhaj, an American comedian and television host, was lauded for his episode on Netflix’s Patriot Act which focused on Indian elections. In the episode, he criticised the present ruling party, its ministers and its policies. While the entire world appreciated the host, many Indians demanded that Netflix pull down the video. However, it did manage to make an impact on people and held a mirror up to the government and the policies it imposes every now and then.

Social media is not just helping politicians ‘convey’ what they want, it is also helping in their image building and establishing them as social media stars. Research by the US-based online visibility management platform SEMrush has shown that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the most popular politician in India in terms of online search with 7.24 million and 1.82 million searches for the year 2018 and 2019 respectively. However,  it is the INC, which has managed to steal the limelight after two years as the most searched political party during December 2018. 

The research also states that Congress President Rahul Gandhi has emerged as the second most searched Indian politician on online platforms with 1.5 million searches in 2019. But to everyone’s surprise, it is the newbie Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the Congress General Secretary, who has gained popularity most rapidly between 2018 and 2019. She registered a search volume of 1.22 million in 2019 in comparison with a search volume of 701,000 in 2018. Now that’s the power of the internet.

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