Facebook might have tightened the virality of political content, but still has a large number of users who political parties can’t afford to ignore. But parties are now clearly looking beyond third-party platforms.
The social media war this election surely has gotten bigger but has it gotten better, we decided to find out.
• Last week, phones across the country beeped with a message from ‘INC-IND’ which read that Congress had released their manifesto with party president Rahul Gandhi himself assuring there was something for everyone in it.
• On March 17, not only the Prime Minister but several other BJP leaders and party supporters decided to add a prefix to their names on Twitter — Chowkidar— in support of the ‘Main Bhi Chowkidar’ campaign.
Just two instances that show how political parties in India are going out of the way to ensure that they do not undermine any communication channel available to them, especially the social media platforms that offer direct access to the country’s large cache of young voters.
Twitter is flooded with political hashtags, some that genuinely trend and others that trend with a bit of push from vested interests. Facebook might have tightened the virality of political content, but still has a large number of users who political parties can’t afford to ignore. But parties are now clearly looking beyond third-party platforms.
The best example of this is the NaMo application, possibly the most popular app by any political party in the world. People across the country have downloaded the app to stay in touch with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the party’s information. “The focus has been to directly connect with over a crore people. Since we believe elections are such an important event of the country and while we make our presence felt on all platforms including Facebook, Twitter and even Instagram, we thought an application would be even better,” explains BJP national spokesperson Gopal Krishna Agarwal.
The evolution from 2014
The use of social media for political campaigning has only grown exponentially since 2014, which was India’s first social media elections. The evolution and growth of large social media platforms such as Youtube, Instagram and Snapchat has only offered new access points for political parties.
Vaibhav Walia, the social media national-in-charge for Indian Youth Congress, says Whatsapp, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube are all being used to ensure they can reach out to their audience and urge voters to take a look at what they have to say. “While door-to-door communication and traditional way of campaigning is an ongoing effort, we believe that digital media campaigns are a great method for two-way communication.”
The trouble with trolls and the promise of positive posts
However, political dialogue on social media platforms has unleashed a lot of negativity, thanks to aggressive trolls and tasteless memes. Ankit Lal, the social media incharge for Aam Aadmi Party says as a policy they do not encourage trolling of any sort. “However, healthy banter is fine. We do not want to stoop down to low-level campaigning that Congress has indulged in, but ensure that we speak on the issues that need to be focused on.”
Recently, AAP and BJP engaged in an ugly Twitter spat clash where Arvind Kejriwal’s party went after the Saffron party after its website went down and displayed a‘Coming Soon’ message for over a week with the former comparing it to most promises that BJP had failed to deliver on. Commenting on the duel, Lal says, “On social media, BJP has laid its trap and want parties to talk about issues that they want to talk to. The Congress has easily fallen prey to but we have decided against it and want to have a discussion on real issues that we want to take up.”
Not everything emanating from the social media war rooms of these parties is negative. Congress claims its focus is on ensuring that they inject positivity into all the negativity spewing across social media platforms by speaking about the party’s schemes and campaigning against fake news. Walia says the focal point of Congress’ strategy remains to reach out to people and the priority is still to promote our party’s ideology. “The BJP has indoctrinated so much negativity that we have decided to inject positivity back. Our target audience is the youngsters and the Congress party with IYC are working on this strategy,” he says.
AAP seems to follow suit as East Delhi candidate Atishi is often seen sharing videos of her speaking on issues of education and governance on her Twitter handle.
Meanwhile, the ruling BJP prefers to share reports of their delivery track record, thus increasing awareness regarding the various programmes aimed at public welfare. “We believe in the ‘push model’ and not the ‘pull model’ where we inform our voters of the benefits in store rather than them having to come to us seeking information,” says the BJP spokesperson.
What to post and when
Even as the online cells of these parties work overtime on content strategies, all sides refused to accept they have a content bank ready. They agreed that they had a set of guidelines for candidates representing the party, apart from conducting workshops to ensure skilful training on their conduct on the public domain.
Reiterating the party’s method of providing workshop and training, Mahabal Mishra, former Congress MP from West Delhi said, “For candidates like us who are not very tech-savvy, a thorough guideline if helpful. It keeps us in sync with the party’s agenda and yet we can run our independent campaigns.”
NaMo, RaGa or Kejriwal: A campaign of faces
While the parties maintain that issues take centre stage in the run-up to the elections, personality-driven campaigning has hit a peak as is the trend globally. IYC social media head Walia explains that their motive has been to carry out a pro-Rahul Gandhi theme. BJP has been ahead of the race with its not just its NaMo app but the launch of NaMo TV and NaMo merchandise.
AAP’s Ankit Lal drives the point home as he recounts the time when Arvind’s name was used before AAP got its broom symbol and even before that, the movement was called ‘Anna ka Lokpal’.“In today’s times, it has become essential to give a face to the idea of the mind if we want to cater to the audience. In order to communicate, personification has become essential,” Lal explains.
The Model Code of Conduct factor
The tricky aspect now is how to stick to the Election Commission’s Model Code of Conduct on digital media platforms as well. The poll watchdog has clearly barred the parties from indulging in any social media campaigning during the 48-hour ‘silence period’ before a constituency goes to polls.
Having burned their fingers with elections in other countries, especially the United States, the platforms too are cleaning up user timelines. Recently, Facebook removed over 700 pages, groups and accounts from India relating to the Congress and BJP citing ‘inauthentic behaviour’ and there could be more takedowns as digital electioneering hits a crescendo.
BJP’s Agarwal says the BJP does not bank on falsehood like the Congress. “This has backfired and that is why the pages and accounts were pulled down.” He also slams the AAP and says the party’s strategy was to lie and run off rather than proving anything, thus harming their own credibility.
Out of 900 million people who have registered to vote this election season in seven phases from April 11 to May 23, nearly 500 million have access to the internet. Nearly 84 million are first-time voters aged between 18 and 19 born after the year 2000. With over 294 million and 250 million active Facebook and Whatsapp users alone, there is no arguing the fact that 2019 will be more of a social media election than the one five years ago.
(This story originally appeared on The Indian Express)