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A New Book Explores the Engagement Between Politicians and Social Media

The following excerpt introduces the author's extensive research on how politicians make an impact on social media.

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(The following is an excerpt from The Online Effect: Decoding X to Predict Election Outcomes by Sanjeev Singh, published by Bloomsbury.)

Despite all the tools and media that help politicians propagate their messages, predicting the outcome of a political campaign has always been more of a gamble than a science. India’s multi-party system makes the job of psephologists even tougher. Apart from calculating the vote shift between different parties, there are other socio-economic variations in which a reasonable representative sample could still end up with a significant margin of error.

As for the effect of social media engagement on politics—well! So much data is available on social media platforms, but only a few people have collated and analysed it to seek the relationship between engagement and vote share during election season. Why is that, I wondered, since an inquiry into this phenomenon could have valuable implications on the prediction of relationships between engagement on specific issues, coupled with overall engagement during elections, and the final vote share?

So I decided to work out a model that could show the correlation between social media engagement by politicians and their ultimate vote share in the elections. This is important because everybody talks about the growing influence of social media in society in general and political campaigns in particular, but very few detailed studies support this claim.
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My father was a big fan of former prime minister Indira Gandhi. He named his sons Rajeev and Sanjeev, and discussions around politics were commonplace in our house. In fact, my mother contested as an independent candidate in the 2005 Bihar elections.

Elections had always fascinated me and nobody at home was surprised when I decided to pursue a career in journalism. As a journalist, I covered numerous elections in India between 2002 and 2020, spread across states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Delhi, Punjab, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Telangana.

In the period between the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013, I noticed that politicians had begun to use social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to engage with their supporters. Many analysts believed that the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi was due to a section of people mostly on social media who wanted a political platform of their own. The party was a logical political extension of the popular anti-corruption movement led by activist Anna Hazare demanding a Jan Lokpal Bill.

As the months passed, I watched as several top politicians, some political parties and some government departments began to make an impact on social media. Not only did they engage extensively with their followers, expressing opinions and posting news but they used their social media accounts to bypass traditional media and the gatekeeping scrutiny of journalists.

I observed that this engagement between politicians and their social media followers increased as elections drew near. As the years passed and more and more political parties and news organisations got on to Twitter, I began to read studies that investigated this phenomenon.

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These studies included Every Tweet Counts? How Sentiment Analysis of Social Media Can Improve Our Knowledge of Citizens’ Political Preferences with an Application to Italy and France1 and More Tweets, More Votes: Social Media as a Quantitative Indicator of Political Behavior, which showed that political parties and media organisations were investing time and energy in engaging with Twitter users so as to build a loyal online base, shape political discussions and set the news agenda to drive offline political participation.

Another study, titled Digital-Born and Legacy News Media on Twitter during the UK General Election: Key Findings, analysed a sample of 4.26 million news-related tweets collected during the 2017 UK general election to examine the role played by both digital-born and legacy news media in online political discussions. This study also accounted for the fact that discussions on Twitter tend to have a transmedia effect, meaning that what is posted on Twitter is also often shared in other media, including newspapers and television.

In India, Twitter itself studied the engagement levels between politicians and their social media followers in the period between late 2018 and 2019, claiming that it had recorded more than 48 lakh election-related tweets in October–November 2018 when the five states of Chhattisgarh, Mizoram, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Telangana went to the polls.

‘With over four million (40 lakh) tweets related to the assembly elections, it’s clear that regional parties and leaders are using the platform to connect with the voters, opinion makers, youth and media, making [these] the most talked about Indian state elections on Twitter so far,’ Mahima Kaul, the then head of public policy and government at Twitter India, had said.
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Twitter would go on to record nearly 32 lakh tweets in the run up to the assembly elections in the states of Haryana and Maharashtra in 2019 as well.

As elections took place in various parts of the country, I observed that journalists were continuously tracking the social media accounts of top politicians and political parties for updates that could be used in print and on TV. This made me wonder: Why does Twitter see relatively higher political engagements in the election season compared to any other time of the year? And does this Twitter engagement in the run up to elections affect the outcome—the vote share—in the elections themselves?

I also wondered if the politicians strategised about which issues to post on Twitter. Do some issues see more tweets from politicians and engage more users? Are tweets posted by politicians discussed only by Twitter users or are they discussed and disseminated on other media platforms as well? Do some issues receive more engagement than others and affect election outcomes?

In search of answers, I looked back to the 2014 Lok Sabha election results. They were a defining moment in India’s democratic history and seemed to have brought about sweeping changes in every aspect of life—including the use of social media, especially Twitter. The fact that the BJP’s prime-minister-elect chose to post a victory message on Twitter and not on any other social media platform or in traditional media gave me a fair indication of the importance of the microblogging site as a political platform. Modi’s tweet, ‘India has won!’, posted on 16 May 2014, was an instant hit with Twitter users. It received more than 51,000 retweets and was favourited more than 32,000 times within four hours.

In fact, Twitter India announced it was the most retweeted tweet from India up to that time. Most of the journalists who covered the Prime Minister’s Office were instructed to follow the official Twitter account of @PMOIndia because the handle would constantly be updated with the latest news and information which could then be used, discussed and disseminated by traditional media, especially during elections. Many TV news networks started hosting small segments focused purely on Twitter when they gave their viewers morning updates during election season. Most newspapers began carrying a selection of tweets posted by politicians as part of their daily election coverage. Twitter engagement, it was clear, had a transmedia effect.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Social Media 

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