The 16th Lok Sabha Elections is being carried out in the country and by mid next month India will see a new government formation. While the political parties remain the same with the only big addition of Aam Aadmi Party, the elections in the country are witnessing something new for the first time. Social media is the new medium that has contributed in democratizing the Indian elections. While the debate remains whether the medium can pull voters to the booth, social media has become an important medium for political parties and voters.
The penetration of Internet has been a challenge in the country but mobile is closing the gap. Despite so many conversations and controversies happening on social networks, talks on television being driven by social conversations, there wasn’t a book which talks about the whole evolution of social media from an Indian point of view. Moreover so much has been written about social media and Indian politics, it was time to consolidate all the information.
Shaili Chopra has attempted this in her second book The Big Connect – Politics in the age of social media. The well known award winning journalist has tried to trace the advent of social media in India and how Indian politics has got attached with the medium, in her latest book.
“Though a post, a pin or a tweet may not translate into a vote, it can definitely influence it,” Shaili argues.
For a medium that is evolving every day, documenting it into a 200 page book is a daunting task. Shaili does a great job in elaborating aspects such as social media and demographics, how political parties are using the medium and the tools being used. She finally touches upon the most talked-about subject: can social media influence elections while discussing the credibility crisis of social media.
“Social media is exciting because it has its genesis in news, politics and emotions. I followed parties, joined their mailing lists, their volunteer lists and spoke to their reps almost every day to understand how they were evolving strategy and planning new engagement tactics,” adds Shaili explaining the research methodology she adopted for chalking out the book.
Random House Publishers India was kind enough to pass on a copy of ‘The Big Connect’ to me, when I had shown keen interest.
The Big Connect (TBC) has 12 chapters focusing on the length and breath of social media’s evolution in India along with detailed chapters on how political parties are using social media to connect with voters for the election. Listed below are some excerpts from Shaili’s book.
Defining moments in Social Media
The fifth chapter in the book looks at the power of social media in documenting world events and in most ways how it augmented the coverage of these events on traditional media like TV, radio and even newspapers.
Revolutions in today’s world have been triggered, common people have turned into journalists, activists have able to rally support for their causes by simply creating fan pages and politicians have been able to get up, close and personal with their voters. Such is the power of social media, writes Shaili in the chapter.
The chapter then looks at some defining moments that had connecting points with social media. The Osama Raid in May 2011 was documented on Twitter a day before US President Barack Obama even announced it. Unaware of what was going on, a young technology consultant Sohaib Akhtar was live tweeting about the raid carried out by US that killed Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad.
There are mentions about Boston Bombings, The Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Delhi Gang Rape, Shashi Tharoor’s recent Twitter controversy between his late wife and Pakistan journalist Mehr Tarar, LGBT Rights, Sachin’s retirement and the never ending debate of social media screening in the country, among other defining moments.
“You don’t have to be media to share or talk. These new online platforms are a megaphone giving a voice to people wanting to get their message out there, allowing for the articulation of new political discourses, social ideas, a new audience, and opening all to others. These tools may have a positive or a negative influence but that’s for a user to figure out,” writes Shaili.
BJP and Narendra Modi: The first mover advantage?
From here on the book focuses on the major political parties and how they evolved on social media and their performance on the medium.
Modi is the most mentioned political leader on social media and having adopted the medium when the ruling government was thinking of screening it, Modi has the first mover advantage. Shaili says it is safe to say that before Modi became a PM candidate – he became a social media phenomenon.
Back in 2007, YouTube was the first social media platform that Modi befriended. His journey on Twitter and Facebook commenced in the months of January 2009 and May 2009, respectively. In 2013, he was the most talked about politician on the most popular social network in the country – Facebook followed by Sachin Tendulkar.
Later on April 14 2009, on the occasion of 118th birth anniversary of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, Modi started blogging and at the same time he launched his own personal website.
The chapter further talks about Saffron Warriors or the internet Hindus or cyber Hindus – their task is to do everything to protect the Modi philosophy. These accounts are vociferous and opinionated. Their daily agenda is to pick news, put up pictures and criticize the ruling party and praise Modi or the BJP.
“So like there are party cadres who physically bolster the rallies, on the world wide web, there are the social media sanghis who multiply and amplify these.”
The chapter also focuses on 272+ campaign, Twitter wars – Pappu Vs Feku and namo merchandise frenzy.
“Modi used social media as a parallel media course as he has openly admitted he did not believe the mainstream television channels in English. He used social media to create a parallel discourse around his thinking. Indeed a first mover advantage helps in creating larger base,” adds Shaili on being asked if social media has helped Modi to create a bigger picture of himself.
Congress and Rahul Gandhi: Reluctant Followers
Efforts from Congress on online have always been a fightback.
A reaction. A counterback. It was never their own plan; never their own initiative. Mostly a ‘me too’ style.
Rahul Gandhi has always shied from media and he still isn’t active on the medium like Modi is. However, of late, the party did try to shed its digital dilemmas and break into some planning. The party has also focused on adding more spokespersons and training them both in traditional and online media.
The chapter later also focuses how at present individual denizens are fighting the trolls but not being on social media with their own handle has hurt Congress. #RahulSpeaksToArnab finds a special mention along with the famous Twitter jokes.
AAP: Social Media Wonder
The eighth chapter focuses on the Aam Aadmi Party, a party whose present day success cannot be complete without social media driven by volunteers, multiplied with the energy of youth and fund raising via the web.
Arvind Kejriwal, the founder of the party and his team of unknown faces, ensured that online posts turned into some votes. “I think technology has been our saviour,” shares AAP’s Somu Sundaram. She further adds, “Without social media, I believe we could have not reached out to these many people. Right from mobilizing people to sending across the correct information to people to countering the lies and confusion being spread by other parties, social media has proved to be an important tool.”
The Delhi election was the game changer not just for the newcomer party but also the test for use of social media in politics. It was a matrix of whether or not social media and online campaigning plays a role in electoral success.
AAP and social media have gone hand in hand through the inception of the party and its astonishing rise. But one can’t ignore the early success of India Against Corruption which has been also discussed in the chapter.
The chapter focuses on sections like Donation Drive – the online initiative by AAP to drive clean money to run the party and set a benchmark in Indian politics.
With all the positives the party had to face its bit of controversies too. AAP’s massive online fan base which had once been praised, also had to face criticism on the ways opted while running the Delhi government for 49 days. Twitter hashtags like #AAPDrama #YoKejriwalSoBrave had occupied Twitter trend for days.
Nonetheless, without paltry party fund it’s difficult to ignore how AAP has married into strategies for online communication and physical mobilization.
Social Media in 2014 General Elections
The Delhi election of 2013 and the upsurge of AAP in popularity charts validated the significant role social media plays in spreading information and influencing the final outcome.
Undoubtedly, social media has given a voice to the common man. News channels often pick up stories that break on social media. Major political episodes in the country become trending topics and even make it to TV news headlines quite regularly.
“Since social media also becomes a via-media to put news views, and opinion on mainstream media – its effectiveness multiplies and makes social media important to election 2014,” writes Shaili.
Among the many candidates, Shaili talks about Nandan Nilekani who is standing from Bangalore supporting Congress and social media being core to his campaign. The co-founder of Infosys Technologies is putting all technology to use according to a report by India Today.
Meera Sanyal, the ex-banker is standing for AAP from Mumbai, also admits that social media is influencing voters.
At the end Shaili sums up really well: “A computer screen many not be an electronic voting machine but it’s an indispensable tool in this age in urging people to eventually head there.”
Social media skills are tested well during a crisis situation and it would be interesting to see how these political parties use social media going further. Will they build on the online assets they have created or will they leave the space for bots and come back once again in the 17th general elections. If parties opt for the later methodology then by now they should know that Internet never forgives.
“Leaders who continue using SoMe after elections to engage will be the long term winners,” Shaili shares.
I am optimistic that social media from here on is not going to clutch its wings in the country. Political parties will invest more on the medium while becoming efficient and smart. Social media is here to stay and so is the well researched and articulated book – The Big Connect by Shaili. The book definitely does justice and makes a worthy read for the young and old, as R. Gopalakrishnan, Author and Director at Tata Sons states.
Image credit: Random House India