Politicians are now omnipresent on the Internet, especially in the social media

Thursday, 5 December 2013 - 6:41am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA

The debate between new media powered politics and traditional politics has gained momentum in the light of significant developments in the field of communication. The advent of public radio, the arrival of private television and now the proliferation of the Internet have all caused a stir among people interested in the relation of politics and the media.  

Another feature of this debate is the period of politics which is labelled traditional. Tradition means “cultural continuity in social attitudes, customs, and institutions”. To fix a certain period in history as the point where there was discontinuity, we would have to identify a development which brought a sea change in the way politics was practiced. That development was the advent of Internet-based instruments such as social media, blogs, podcasts and their use by political entities. Before the Internet the only way a political party could circulate such information was through pamphlets, speeches and newsletters. The net provides a forum for a free exchange of ideas and views, unconstrained by imbalances of power and resources.

In India, all major political parties have their own websites and all parties have personal addresses in social networking websites — Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and blogs — through which they can disseminate information. In addition, all political leaders who have penchant for writing have their own blogs where they publish their personal opinions. All of this readily available political information is at the disposal of India’s 143.2 million Internet users.

India has a population of 1.237 billion out of which there are only 94.7 million unique Internet users. Of these 94.7 million, only 7.1 million are from rural areas. In 2009 general elections, 414 million Indians exercised their franchise — a number which will definitely increase in next year’s elections. Out of these users, how many are consuming political information from the Internet is dubitable and a subject of extensive research.

As far as politics on social media is concerned, Narendra Modi has 4.4 million Facebook ‘likes’ and 2.3 million Twitter followers. Shashi Tharoor, Minister of State for Human Resource Development, has more than 1.9 million Twitter followers.

However, to say that the rules of politics have changed after the advent of the Internet would be to say that the instrument has outgrown its user. Which, in itself, is a tall claim and with which I disagree because the majority of people accessing data on the Internet are in urban areas, which collectively account for far fewer Lok Sabha seats than in rural India. In all other parts of the country politicians would still have to use posters, mass rallies and, most importantly, demonstrate tangible evidence of development because that is the most potent form of  political communication.

But if we are wondering how representation of politics has changed with changing communication technology and strategy, it is true that political arguments have been trivialised; appearances are taking precedence over reality; personalities count for more than policies and the superficial matters more than the substantive. 

Has the language of political communication changed? The Internet, by virtue of its inherent qualities, has changed political and electoral campaigning for those who can access it. The shortening of attention span has already led to images and sound bites being on top of the pyramid of political communication. Also, electoral campaigning has acquired a new attribute.

Politicians are now ubiquitous on the Internet, especially in the social media. A case in point is the two-hour session on Google+Hangout uploaded by Narendra Modi, which is available for free on YouTube in which he elucidates his developmental strategies.

Social Media and Lok Sabha Elections by IRIS Knowledge Foundation: A case study
A report was published by the IRIS knowledge Foundation in collaboration with IAMAI earlier this year, looking into the possible effects Facebook can have on 2014 Lok Sabha elections. 

Some important observations in the study were: That the number of Facebook users in the constituencies was understated because some constituencies had cities/towns which had more registered Facebook users than the whole constituency. Social media, unlike physical campaigning, is not subject to the 48-hour deadline, which means that savvy candidates can harness the power of social media to unleash a guerilla campaign on their opponents without giving them the time to respond. Attributes like voter data and candidate details like attendance in Parliament, crime record and reported misdemeanours, when available in granular form on social media, will change the way the voter perceives the candidate. It is not the number of fans or the number of likes and tweets that are going to determine the probability of victory of a certain candidate but the ability of the candidate to engage with the electorate.

There are some flaws in the study. In India migration is prevalent and the youth migrate to centres of education and employment from their domicile. And once there, they update their location on Facebook which leads to cities/towns with major educational or employment centres having higher number of Facebook users. Though initially acknowledged, the methodology negates the subjective aspect of voter perception which simplifies the process of voting to a seller-consumer model.

To analyse some subjective aspects a simulation survey was conducted in IIMC Dhenkanal (in the age group 20-33) in which it was found that 98 per cent respondents used social networking websites and 94 per cent relied primarily on the Internet for information. Some observations from that survey are: Only 38 per cent followed a political entity on social networking websites, out of which 65 per cent did so solely for information. And, 75 per cent had a voter identification card, out of which only 47 per cent had cast their ballot. Again, 66 per cent believed the youth is getting politically active due to their consumption of political information on social networking websites.

While 56 per cent said they would vote for the party which is beneficial for their constituency rather than voting for the party to which their favoured prime ministerial candidate belongs. People observed that the absence of local leaders on Facebook made it an urban-centric campaign.

Though the survey covers a small and homogenous sample it is apparent that the people who consume political information on the social media cannot be considered a vote bank whose characteristics can be deduced by who they “Like” or “Follow”.

It is evident that social media and the Internet have huge potential to affect political communication, and to some degree they already have. For them to become de rigueur in political communication the technology would have to penetrate our society to a greater extent, in the way television has done. Next year’s Lok Sabha election may witness a change in the voter statistics but that the result will be dictated according to preferences on social media and the Internet seem far-fetched.

The author is a student of English Journalism at IIMC, Dhenkanal

Electoral campaigning has acquired a new attribute. Politicians are now ubiquitous on the Internet, especially in the social media. A case in point is the two-hour session on Google+Hangout uploaded by Narendra Modi.

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