Social Media, India, and Elections: Long way of regulation

A brief on election campaigning on social media and impending threat to democracy

by Arun Teja P

Media plays a vital role in a democracy by informing the public about political issues as well as acting as a watchdog against abuses of power. During election campaigns, the same media (newspapers, television networks, new channels) provides information and analysis about the political parties’ programs, policies, candidates, and performance. After the introduction of the internet and the growth of giants like Google and Facebook, ‘Social Media’ (different from traditional media in its usage of the online space), has encroached on the space of traditional media outlets and has gone to the extent of transforming politics in India and of course, globally. The transformation of politics in terms of elections especially was rapid and has taken the play and theatrics of politics to the pocket of every citizen. Social media has especially impacted the candidates’ campaign for their election. Social media has allowed politicians and political parties to utilise platforms which connect them directly with people across the country at a reduced cost and greater reach than traditional media outlets. It is not simply the next in a line of communications technologies but rather it has revolutionised our day-to-day lives and has connected people in a manner never possible, inducing constant socio-technical iterative changes with-in the societies (Calzada 2019).

The Adoption of cyber tactics by political parties in India

Let us take the example of the Bhartiya Janata Party (“BJP”): much of this party’s success in Indian politics can be attributed to its campaigning strategy, wherein social media platforms have been given prime importance. The BJP is a pioneer in the Indian election scene to have taken to media platforms for election campaigns and propaganda of their manifesto. While other parties were still relying on traditional methods of conducting rallies and public talks, the BJP party workers were mobilising large groups of youth through an interactive and almost omnipresent media presence. Speaking from experience as a campaign manager for a regional party in India, I witnessed this new style of campaigning and was impressed at the speed with which the campaign adopted a futuristic mindset.

Once the trend of ‘Social Media Elections’ began in India, regional parties also realised the benefit of having a strong social media presence and were quick to implement it into their campaign strategies. For example, despite a limited internet reach among the people of Bihar, in the Bihar Assembly Elections of 2015, political leaders, apart from their usual on the road campaign, also took to capturing the large audiences available via social media through Twitter hashtags and Facebook trends. One instance is Nitish Kumar’s (Chief Minister of the State of Bihar) Social Media account ‘Bihar@2025’, which is the first of its kind by any Chief Minister of Bihar  (Khanna 2015). During the poll season he adopted a Q&A session on twitter called “AskNitish” which he later extended to Facebook. This success of his campaign may not directly be attributable to social media however there was definitely an increase in awareness of the candidates, party manifestos and also controversies. Simultaneously, during the same elections, the BJP took a systematic approach and conducted constituency-wise social media mapping of the state, attempting to repeat its Lok Sabha poll success. The communication department of the Saffron Party aka BJP focused on Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp to enhance its reach. According to Statista, these are the most used social media platforms in India as per 2019  (Statista 2020). Ever since, there has only been an upward trend in the use of social media such as Twitter and Facebook by political leaders to advertise their campaign commitments and ask for support.

During the recent general elections (General elections 2019) also dubbed ‘Internet Election’, all the political parties across the country seem to have taken a cue from where they missed out on the potential exploitation of information and communication technologies in the previous general election (2014). Indian National Congress (“INC”) President Rahul Gandhi was one of the first leaders who took to Facebook and invited people to fill out a customised form to improve the party’s reach. The INC also employed WhatsApp as a platform for quicker reach to their supporters and potential supporters.

However, the BJP has continued to be a formidable champion in the digital space with a robust organisational capacity providing effective cyber-campaigning. For example, the popular ‘Chowkidar’ hashtag that began as a rebuttal between the two major rivals (BJP & INC) gained tremendous buzz with retweets and mentions over the millions of handles of common citizens. As they say even bad publicity, is good publicity. Such novel tactics and campaigning strategies, have not been widely seen in the previous elections and from 2019, it has become a new normal. It appears as if India is adopting the American style of election campaign which started using social media from 2008 elections!

Threat to the Democracy

Even though social media is a great tool for campaigning, the present state of online advertising and marketing faces a huge threat due to fake news and tailored content to sway voters. Politics and media share a complex synergistic relationship and must be looked at in juxtaposition to one another. Media, politics, and elections are intertwined together, and social media platforms have become the essential ground for the discussion of political narratives and discourse  (Bhattacharya, 2018). Therefore there is a drastic need to exercise caution while engaging in a political dialogue on social media.

One progressive step towards reducing unintended consequences from the use of the social media during the elections, is the new rules released by Election Commission (“EC”) (Election Commission of India 2017). It demands a model code of conduct and the pre-certified political advertisement rules to be applied to social media as well. These platforms will also have to follow a ‘Silence Period’ along with all other basic codes of conduct, which is applicable 48 hours prior to the polling day (Economic Times 2019). Further in recognising the probable harm of social media, EC has also asked the contesting candidates to submit their social media handle details (if any) at the time of filing the nominations. One of the most striking features is however the mandatory requirement to disclose the social media expenditure during campaigns in the election budget of the parties (Election Commission of India 2019).

The digitalisation under various government schemes such as Skill India has brought the internet to the fingertips of the large mass of citizens providing them greater access than ever before. However; the caste-based vote bank, primordial loyalties would make the available abundance of online information a reason for biased grouping. Political science scholar, Alex Burns calls this situation as ‘Filter Bubbles’  (Burns 2019). Irrespective of truth or rationale, people tend to form groups in accordance with their existing biased beliefs making the existing vagaries and vicissitudes of society much harsher. Albeit the EC recognised the impact of social media, it is very far from establishing an institutional framework to curb the usage of filter bubbles during the elections. Data protection laws are new to the state of India, but it is just a tip of the digital technologies regulation. Emerging technologies like AI would need a much more comprehensive and robust institutional governance framework which will itself need to be vetted for institutional bias, data protection, transparency and more.

References:

1. Burns, A. (2019, November 29). Filter bubble. Internet Policy Review, 8(4), 1-14. Retrieved from https://policyreview.info/node/1426/pdf

2. Calzada, I. (2019). Deciphering Smart City Citizenship: The Techno-Politics of Data and Urban Co-operative Platforms . IEV (Revista Internacional de Estudios Vascos/International Journal on Basque Studies) 63, no. 1, 42-81.

3. Khanna, P. (2015, July 27). Nitish Kumar takes the Bihar poll battle online. Retrieved June 20, 2019, from LiveMint: https://www.livemint.com/Politics/VVOe2eoWDgpFkGSySDrlKL/Nitish-Kumar-takes-the-Bihar-poll-battle-online.html

4. Statista. (2020, February). Social network penetration India Q3 2019. Retrieved July 14, 2020, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/284436/india-social-network-penetration/

5. Economic Times. (2019, March 11). Model code & political ad rules will apply to social media too. Retrieved May 13, 2019, from https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/elections/lok-sabha/india/model-code-political-ad-rules-will-apply-to-social-media-too/articleshow/68350634.cms?from=mdr

6. Election Commission of India. (2019, April 4). https://eci.gov.in/files/file/9757-compendium-of-instructions-on-media-related-matters/. Retrieved July 14, 2020, from https://eci.gov.in/files/file/9757-compendium-of-instructions-on-media-related-matters/

7. Election Commission of India. (2017). Compendium of Instruction on Media related Matters. Election Commission of India. Retrieved from https://observerseci.eci.nic.in/Instruction/MediaPaid%20News%20Compendium%202017.pdf

8. Bhattacharya, U. (2018, August 9). Retrieved from Youthkiawaaz: https://www.youthkiawaaz.com/2018/08/role-of-mass-media-in-indian-elections/


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s