Social Media Irrelevant in 2019? War Rooms Won’t Influence Votes
Big numbers are staring us in the face again. We have come across reports of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) raising an army of cyber workers (in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh more recently) to push its social media campaign ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections with unfailing regularity.
The efforts are perhaps inspired by the perception of the windfall gains that accrued to the saffron party because of its near monopoly over social media in the 2014 general elections. Is a repeat of the same likely?
Days after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Financial Times published a report calling Narendra Modi “India’s first social media prime minister’’.
The New York Times used a variation of the same theme a few months later and wrote that “his social media success is not simply because of India’s population. It’s the result of a strategy to use social platforms to bypass traditional media outlets and reach supporters directly.”
According to a Quartz article, from the date of announcement of elections to the conclusion of polling, nearly 29 million people were engaged in 227 million interactions regarding elections on Facebook.
Almost half of all such people spoke about the BJP’s then prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi in their interactions.
The field was wide open for the tech savvy Modi to spot the trend early and pummel the then incumbent with effective slogans.
Incidentally, one of the weapons to beat the incumbent then was the widespread phenomenon of falling jobs in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. Jobs or the lack of them remained one of the topmost trending topics throughout the election process last time.
What helped the BJP then was its ability to build narratives around the politics of hope and the accompanying dream of achhe din.
Democratisation of the Digital Space
But that was more than four years ago. Now that we are headed for a first-of-its-kind election with digital footprint achieving a critical mass in the country, are we going to witness an action replay of 2014?
According to this report, “between 25 April and 15 May, Twitter saw more than 3 million mentions in relation to the #KarnatakaElections2018.” While the “BJP garnered 51 percent of the share of voice on Twitter, the Congress took 42 percent” of mentions. Reports suggest that in Gujarat too, the BJP’s social media domination did not remain unchallenged.
In fact, the likes of Hardik Patel (not strictly an ally of the Congress but he worked against the BJP) added weight to anti-BJP forces’ social media campaign. And the most dominant social media theme remained the one that mocked the Gujarat model of development (vikas gando thayo chhe or development has gone mad).
What has led to this change? The sheer spread of digital footprint across the country in the last four years has perhaps contributed to the democratisation of the cyber space, with competing voices squaring off constantly and therefore cancelling each other’s effectiveness.
Cyber Space Has Grown Exponentially
Only 200 million of the total of more than 800 million electorates had access to the Internet in 2014. The Internet base has expanded to nearly 500 million now. The average monthly usage of data has increased 15 times in the same period – from a mere 0.26 GB in 2014 to nearly 4 GB by the end of 2017.
With Indians spending nearly 4 hours a day on mobile phones now compared to very little few years ago, twists and turns in the cyber space are going to have huge implications on the elections. Here are some:
- With the digital hegemony of the BJP almost gone, we are back to the pre-2014 days when profiles of local candidates, views of parties on a range of issues, state of economy, job scenario, movement of prices etc used to matter more than anything else. Will this suit the BJP, which wants elections to be fought in the name of its prime minister?
- An October 2013 Google survey offers more clues about possible voting patterns in Lok Sabha constituencies with significant digital footprint. The survey covered 108 urban Lok Sabha seats and spoke to regular consumers of online content. An overwhelming 94 percent of the respondents said they would vote this time. As many as 42 percent respondents said they were yet to decide whom to vote for. When it comes to casting votes, urban Indians gave almost an equal weight to candidates as they did to political parties.
- According to the Google survey, 35 percent said their voting decision would be based on the party and 36 percent said local candidates mattered more than anything else. Only a fraction of the respondents said they would exercise their franchisee based on the profile of the prime ministerial candidate.
Elections sans a social media wave in favour of a particular party or candidate will revolve around the track record of the incumbent.
Given the strong phase of anti-incumbency we have been passing through (data shows that incumbents get re-elected only when governments deliver better on the growth parameters), will the BJP be as confident, as it has been the incumbent in most parts of the country?
My own hunch is that given the kind of fatigue we have had with a daily overdose of jingoism and accompanying mobocracy, shrill voices and boastful claims – both in real as well as in the cyber space – we are going to have an election that will be fought on real bijli, sadak and paani (electricity, roads and water) issues.