It is election season and the business of buying popularity online is booming. Political parties and candidates are locked in a no-holds-barred contest to dominate the digital space and influence opinion online.
Parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) appear slightly better organised on the medium, with larger support groups, but national parties like the Indian National Congress and others have also begun to understand the impact and are beginning to enter the space quite aggressively.
Here are some statistics on the digital India: The Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and IMRB recently released "Social Media in India - 2013" report, which states that the number of social media users in urban India will reach 86 million in October this year, and 91 million by the end of this year. The report further highlights that there could be a vote swing of 3 to 4 per cent in 24 states, where the internet users are sizeable. Young men and non-working women, whose affiliation towards social media is high, have been identified as pre-dominant vote swingers.
Meanwhile, Google also came out with a survey stating that almost four out of every 10 urban voters (or 37 per cent) in India are online. The Election Commission estimates the total number of voters to be 725 million. According to provisional census data, out of India's 1.21 billion people, 833 million live in rural India and 377 million in urban areas. Using the same proportions, the number of urban voters is around 225 million. And, the number of those online, around 83 million.
Besides this, seeking to woo more young voters in the coming 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Facebook has launched a new feature, 'Register to Vote'. The feature aims at attracting the 17 million first-time voters who are in the age group of 18-19 years, to participate in the electoral process.
All these are huge numbers and the number loving political leaders and parties are certainly interested. At the moment, they are still trying to understand whether the reach on digital is equal to engagement, and whether trending on Twitter can guarantee votes. afaqs! explores the issue.
National co-convenor, BJP IT Cell
Social media by its very nature is an un-moderated two-way conversation mechanism. Our attempt has been to be able to engage with the youth to communicate our thought process to them - without any distortion by the mediator. More than a monetary investment, it's been our commitment to this engagement that has now borne results. So yes, if you think of our time and energy spent on this effort as an investment, we're definitely hopeful that it'll help us mobilise the youth. The youth today is smart and has access to a lot of information. But there is a risk as there are a lot of noisy elements that try to take the attention away.
This is perhaps the first general election where the generation born after 1995, whom we call the 'digital native', is going to vote. Radical newspapers in the pre-independence era had played a crucial role in mobilising mass opinion against the British. This new medium has mobilised people elsewhere across the world and even in India, it has been playing a crucial role in helping people to come together for causes they believe in.
We're very hopeful that this medium will not only contribute to voting patterns in general elections, but also extend further than that - to encourage more open policy debates and to mount pressure on the governments or keep a check on them.
CEO, WAT Consult
The first issue is in getting social media users to vote. Voting turnout itself is something that social can drive and, hence, the influence on whom to vote. I think political parties are investing in the wrong things. Instead of building a case on why people should vote for them they are building a case on why they shouldn't vote for the other party.
The negative promotion far exceeds the positive one. In my view this strategy is sure to turn off the social media voter, who is progressive and wants to see real change and not just political agenda. It is also something that may make the voter not vote for anyone at all. The social media user can see through these negative tactics and it's very clear to him that mobbing social platforms with hate speech for the other party is not going to make a party get extra votes from this user.
Unfortunately, political parties have no clue how to leverage the medium. What is seen is the use of social media to create tactical buzz and reputation damage to the opposing parties. So, whether it was PappuCII or Fekuexpress, both seemed like an orchestrated effort by each party at trying to stab each other.
Congress launched Khidki but beyond the launch buzz there is nothing of significance that has been seen or heard about it. Modi runs a fairly vocal twitter and blog stream but as the elections come closer a lot of Modi campaigns are also targeted at pointing fingers at the Congress rather than talking progress and where India would be headed. Both political parties seem to be confusing influence with tactical buzz that they generate every now and then.
I am sure that social will have a significant impact on voter turnout from the metros and towns. Especially in the run up to the voting, there will be many who will motivate their peers to go out and vote. The celebs on Twitter will have a role to play and in general, the first time voters will feel compelled to vote as it will be the "in" thing to do. All in all this will be one case where peer pressure will actually do some good with respect to voter turnout.
Chief creative officer, Bang in the Middle
Every party has equal opportunity to put the pros and cons of each other in a digital world. So the battle for people's minds is not a one sided affair, and it's not necessary that bigger budgets rule. In a way, it's an equal playing field. Everyone with a fair budget and following can tilt the skew of the conversation.
Besides, I believe, social media is tailor made for political debate. It activates discussions, conversations and debates. Considering that almost anyone connected can see or follow thought leaders and other social media voices, people get to read, respond and participate in popular views, all the while making an informed set of voters.
While social media has the power to get people on the street to vote or to rebel (as we know what's happened across the world), India is a very strange country. Half the youth has no interest in politics, partly because of all the muck that's been going around about all the scams and corruption. Overall, I hope people have the basic enlightenment to understand that it's their right and responsibility to vote and that everyone is equal on Election Day. A billionaire's vote is as important as a pauper's.
Co-Founder, Windchimes Communications
Social media can influence votes in the coming elections to some extent. At the end of the day, the political party and the candidate need to do some good work. Media acts as an amplifier to the good work done by a candidate or a party. Earlier, it used to be newspaper ads and campaigns, but with social media, the amplification goes further as people discuss about the activities on social media platforms. Now, with all these discussions happening, there is a chance of opinions getting swayed and thus resulting in votes for an individual or a party.
The key is in understanding how to disseminate the message and how to let the universe know about the party's or the candidate's views about a matter. Politicians should not just start a social media page out of peer pressure. Today's youth is much more evolved and they decide on their priorities quite early in life. So, to get a share of their attention, political parties and candidates need to focus on forming conversations and discussions on social media.
Even after the elections, they shouldn't stop using the medium. If one looks at the Obama campaign, we will find that the US President has not stopped connecting with his countrymen on these platforms. I am hopeful that in the coming Lok Sabha elections, we will see a good number of voters being influenced by social media.
Managing director, Samsika Marketing Consultants
Social media, if handled well, can yield good dividends. It has been used well in the US for the same purpose and it has worked well there. Over the last 50 years, as different communication media have evolved, social media is one more channel in this evolution.
However, I don't believe it will be the only medium used by political parties to influence youngsters. It is going to be mixed media with continued use of newspaper, outdoor, television and radio. Whether social media will wield that much influence, well, the same question was asked when other media, be it print, outdoor, radio or TV, came along.