Fast, furious, unethical: social media is the emotional remote control for electioneering

Along with tried and tested traditional methods, modern technology is influencing voters like never before, to change the face of politics in India.

Govindaa hari Govindaa..
Munirathna Naidu Govindaa!

A video clip starts playing on the mobile. The middle-aged man watching it bursts into laughter. An imitation version of the popular chant that is chanted by people climbing up the Tirupati Hills in Andhra Pradesh has been used to project the misdeeds of Munirathna Naidu, a contestant from Rajarajeshwarinagar constituency in Bengaluru.

The constituency had been perceived as sensitive by the Election Commission, and the voting was postponed to May 28, instead of May 15.

The political material that lands up on WhatsApp like this is entertaining and opinionated, and makes people form their own opinion. It inculcates a sense of empowerment among people, who feel a sense of knowledge, without having to discuss with anyone.

Like other recent election campaigns in India, the Karnataka 2018 electioneering has been a lot about reaching out to voters through technology. On ground, it has been largely sober, without the glitzy surgical strikes of earlier noise and hoopla. Yet, the inter-party slug fights continue with more restatements in new ways using technology. More than the larger-than-life roadshows, noise and import of national leaders, the reliance has been on heavy use of digital technology.

Digital technology: efficient, fast, viral

Technology has been the gamechanger. Animations were used in local TVs to lampoon political rivals, while songs, cultural rhymes, jingles and poems helped to spread the message faster and better.

In the Uttar Pradesh 2017 elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s booth level WhatsApp groups managed to reach out to voters and win most of the seats in remote districts. While the fundamentals of political campaigning are still fundamental – including fundraising, getting feedback and convincing the people, technology is the new remote control lever of the emotional battle.

A high-technology social media information template was put in place by the Aam Aadmi Party in 2014. Ankit Lal, the social media head, used it feverishly to lure in the fence-sitters, who finally voted the party into power.

Today, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and Telegram platforms seem to be the biggest influencers of election campaigns. Recent data shows that with 19 crore internet users, 16 crore internet-enabled mobile phones, 9 crore new voters in the 18-23 year bracket and more 18-30-year-olds, there is a heavy impact of social media platforms. Hence, while earlier, dailies and TV channels and even websites were filtering content, the latest social media networks present unfiltered content, which is largely impacting voters.

Advent of fake news and feeble attempts to bust it

With technology being able to influence personally, fake news became prominent in influencing elections. For instance, a fake statement, “UNESCO gives Narendra Modi the Best PM award” was circulated widely. Most gullible people believed it blindly, and diligently forwarded it to their contacts. Twitter trolls and fake sites viciously try to create and rewrite news, by spinning facts to achieve their objectives. While the above example is not harmful, those who spread fake news don’t really differentiate between harmful content and jokes.

What is noticeable is the number of shares and likes fake news gets on social networking sites like Facebook. Facebook was in denial mode when they were rapped for helping spread fake news, but slowly they seem to have realised their own impact. For 2018 Karnataka election, Facebook partnered with Boomlive, an Indian factchecking agency, to counter fake news. However the impact of this partnership remained minor, says Huffington Post, an online news analysis magazine. “Facebook partnership was only able to debunk 30 pieces of misinformation — 25 in the run-up to the polls, and 5 in the immediate aftermath — in the month long campaign,” writes the magazine.

Is mass media polarising the masses?

It is interesting that social media platforms are enabling not only communication but also creating social and political groups. They can help just about anyone to air their opinions and “analyses”. Most political speeches are found on YouTube, hashed, rehashed and combined with fake photographs and entertaining or informative videos aiming at opponents.

Mass media activism is not limited to political parties. Socially and politically relevant organisations such as Bengaluru Political Action Committee (BPAC) and Citizens for Bengaluru used social media in different ways. It is a new and emerging trend, trying to push politicians to remain proactive. Such groups use social networks to bring about voter awareness, mobilise voter enrollment and increase voter turnout.

However, while the impact of social media platforms is high, it is not always enabling or enriching. According to Media Analyst N K Singh, “because it is a mode of mass communication, the quality of discourse will be affected. Social media is hostile and it cannot be called a breeding ground for a true public sphere.”

As Ankit Lal from AAP puts it:  “We wrestle on Twitter. The battle is on Facebook. The war is on WhatsApp.”

WhatsApp has been the biggest political lever for the BJP, and has played a major role in their victory. Between them, both the Congress and the BJP claim to have created 50,000 whatsapp groups, according to New York Times But it seems to have been a bigger boost to the right-wing party, as the IT crowd is solidly behind it.

For instance, the New York Times article quotes a young BJP youth leader from Mangaluru, Karnataka, admitting to have used WhatsApp to communicate with 60 voters assigned to him, sending them critiques of the state government, warnings against the ‘other’ community killings, fake news about 23 ‘RSS activists’ ‘murdered’ by jihadists, and ridicules of Congress leaders, especially Pandit Nehru and Rahul Gandhi.

Many voters thought they were becoming insecure in Mangaluru, with the ‘other’ community ‘gaining an upper hand,’ which decided their voting pattern. Incidentally, BJP was able to win six of the eight seats in Mangaluru in 2018 elections.

Future is going to be even more tech- savvy. What about ethics?

The Pew report says that about 68% of smartphone owners follow breaking news events and viewpoints. Beacons, a tiny Bluetooth device interacting with smartphones for the exchange of information is projected to be one of the methods for election engagements. The use of QR codes in the brochures and door hangers would enable a voter to scan the campaign literature with a smart phone and access updated information as well as videos. It also enables easy accessibility for new content even as it offers feedback.

Technology updates are making electioneering efficient but not more ethical. The new paradigm of electioneering is fast, furious but not necessarily just.

User data safety on social media has assumed more importance these days. Recently both BJP and Congress accused each other of being hands in glove with Cambridge Analytica, an institution of global reach, to leverage data for campaigning. The Indian government sent detailed questions to Facebook, which got meticulous responses, but Cambridge Analytica is yet to get back.

An article on The Quint argues that firms like Cambridge Analytica cannot influence Indian elections, because India isn’t ready yet. This could be true. But with more and more digital initiatives to reach every nook and corner of the country, it is just a question of time before we get there.

Note: Shree D N contributed to this article.

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