Social media, emerging key political communication channel

Prime Minister Narendra Modi  has advised the cabinet ministers to use social media (SM) regularly and issued a diktat to all his ministers to be present on Twitter and Facebook and interact with the masses.

Desiring his ministers to be pro-active, Modi’s IT team will be monitoring the ministries to elicit firsthand feedback.

He is keen to use SM platforms effectively for transparency, authenticity, speed and ultimately better governance, in addition to reach out a large section of the people, youth in particular. Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar requested the various ministries to employ this initiative to disseminate information.

Barack Obama’s 2008 US presidential campaign has been described as the first electoral campaign in which the use of SM had a decisive impact.

While it is great for marketing, entertainment and individual users, does it work for politics and governance? Is SM inevitable? Does the unabated influence of this mode of communication add new insights to democracy?

Modi apart, the other ministers like Ravishankar Prasad, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj and Nirmala Sitaraman are already active players in social media. Modi has two twitter accounts, one in his personal capacity and the other in PMO twitter account. Modi’s personal website has been given a spanking new election upgrade, as much as his other platforms like Twitter, Facebook page, Youtube channel etc.

It doesn’t need to be interpreted that the mainstream media’s intolerance and bias against Modi that forced him to go over to social media.

While SM usage in 2009 was miniscule, the 2014-LS polls will be commemorated for large-scale use of technology, online chats and mobilisation of opinion.

This election is more about combating corruption, controlling inflation, securing jobs and restoring governance, and these were the main FB themes. Whether the “likes” of FB can be turned into votes or not, Modi’s FB fan base crossed 17 m.

The transfer of modern approach to communication could usher in far-reaching changes to the style of governance after the taciturn Congress Prime Minister
Manmohan Singh’s dismal failure on the vital subject of communication with the people. Modi’s main rival, Rahul Gandhi, the Congress party’s undeclared PM candidate, doesn’t have a website and doesn’t use any of the major social networks.

Today, FB has 150m users and Twitter has about 35m accounts in the country. No serious politician can afford to avoid SM altogether. It is possible that data collated through SM can, in future, be used for replacing opinion polls and evaluate sentiments.

Though cynics infer that most of the people are illiterates without access to the tech-savvy ambience, the medium will continue its march.

Gripping it is to observe that more politicians are realising that more people are directly accessible, the digital media is, hence, more to welcome. Stepping into the virtual world is seen as an effective way of reaching out to the people at large, deepening the democratic process.

Fake following

SM can also be subject to significant snipe, as some politicians can be accused of fake following and tarnish the rivals. Dissemination of sensationally corrupt video clipping may abet spark deadly clashes between different groups. Compared to the national television networks, the SM tools are accessed by a larger global audience. Personal communications like letters and phone calls simply didn’t reach enough people, if not outdated.

When events occur that the government likes to downplay, news spreads rapidly via emails, text messages, blog posts and online videos.

Information is making easier to be informed. People can check facts effortlessly, have access to more points of view. Everyone feels they need to be heard. Internet has also opened things up and made it difficult for censors to keep the world in dark. 

Responsible reporting aside, there are dangers involved when the reporting turns particularly malicious, reputations damaged, and genuine personalities hurt by the actions of mob mentality.

When people get their political news from their social networks, it woefully informs less, because they often get sources of news in their newsfeed which are unreliable and not factually scrutinised by commonly accepted standards of journalism. The political choice, consequently, based on half-truths received from like-minded individuals would vitiate the authenticity.

It can also be a many-headed hydra and progress may just as easily be impeded by it as facilitated by it.

As different things mean differently to different people, it requires more time to educate the common man and comprehend how people use social media all over, implying that exchange of information and authentic communication is understood in perspective.

While politicians can check the pulse of the people with an understanding of issues in trend, there is the likelihood that political parties and candidates will become more astute and increasingly versatile in their use of social media as it becomes more familiar.

The non-traditional media is an easy and inexpensive way to organise, provide information and get feedback.  Businesses do it every day. Why shouldn’t our representatives?

Though it is premature to believe that the modern media provide alternative source of news, it, nevertheless, is emerging as an important political communication conduit, enabling the parties and the electorate to directly interact with each other.

The new breed of politicians are learning to use and manipulate SM in the same way generations of politicians have done alike with other media. Whether social media will supplement or supplant the traditional channels, it will be a curious wait-and-watch.

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