Social media in K'taka politics: hype or game changer?

Social media in K'taka politics: hype or game changer?

A man navigates in his mobile phone in a group in which Salvadoran migrants organize a caravan to the United States, in San Salvador. AFP

Social media, the new age battlefield, has transformed the conduct of Indian politics. The use of social media by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the 2014 election campaign was an eye-opener.  Karnataka, the IT hub of the country, is in the thick of things. Boardrooms have turned into war rooms to politically capitalise on the digital space.

These are the days of tweet and hashtag wars. Social media has transformed the way political parties connect and reach out. It is not just a campaign tool but also a platform for free expression. Most political parties in Karnataka have their own IT cells and/or hire professionals. 

Let’s take stock of the role of social media in politics in Karnataka, in view of the fast approaching parliamentary elections. One needs to look at the extent to which social media is used by political parties as a tool to influence voters and masses. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs and WhatsApp are seen as campaign tools and potential opinion-creators. In the May assembly elections, BJP youth wing general-secretary Tejasvi argued that Twitter set the political agenda, WhatsApp acted as a distributional channel and Facebook helped disseminate information in Kannada.

Typically, the process starts almost a year before an election and involves three stages — field research, handling social media and electioneering. It may be recalled that in the May assembly elections, Facebook was the social media partner of the Election Commission. As Chief Election Commissioner Om Prakash Rawat pointed out, “any aberration cannot stop the use of modern technology. Bank frauds have taken place, but we don’t stop banking”. In that sense, social media is a given. 

Some studies suggest that almost 3% of the votes in the May elections in Karnataka accrued as a result of social media influence. Most politicians and political parties are now in search of data, analytics and technologies to enhance their electoral prospects. Even in the May elections, all the major parties — the Congress, JD(S) and BJP — did all they could to enhance their online platforms. All parties are playing hard, with their IT cells putting out hashtags and tweets of their leaders frequently. Many of the tweets tend to be blame games and get highly personalised. The challenge before the voter is to handle the huge flow of information and misinformation.

Most campaigns are driven by data about voters and target groups. So, what matters is targeted/micro-targeted  messaging. The challenge is when the electoral dynamics of a constituency changes, in which case the electoral strategies may have to be accordingly modified. Even when election campaigning formally ends, the social media war continues — the online tweets and images of Rahul Gandhi as ‘pappu’ and Narendra Modi as ‘feku’, for example, go on. The propensity of the mainstream parties has been to exaggerate the failures and downplay the achievements of one another.

Approximately 39% of the registered voters in India are online users, and that number is growing fast. In Karnataka, the use and reach of social media has been largely limited to the urban areas.

The challenge for the parties is to reach out to the rural folk in larger numbers. The May election saw almost three million references to it on Twitter. In this context, Twitter acts as a platform on which all dimensions of the political conversations pertaining to the elections take place. Political parties and candidates increasingly use this platform. 

Urban voter apathy in Bengaluru has been a phenomenon in successive elections. Hence, the chances of urban Facebook users coming out to vote in large numbers in the next parliamentary elections are comparatively less vis-à-vis the rural voter.

Though social networking can make an impact in terms of mobilising opinion, it may not necessarily help mobilise urban votes. The greatest challenge is to reach out to the rural voter through social media. Hence, social media is yet to become a medium of mass mobilisation in India.

However, political parties see investing in social media as a long-term investment.  It is not only meant to be a strategy during elections, but to also help make opinions.

The controversy over British poll consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica harvesting the data of millions of Facebook users for its clients’ electoral gains in the 2016 US elections has opened a Pandora’s box.  In the May elections in Karnataka, the Congress and BJP traded charges over the use of Cambridge Analytica’s services. Social media cells tend to get their seed data from major data aggregators like the telecom providers. These developments have injected an element of caution among the mainstream political parties in sharing data. 

Though the digital battle of one-upmanship will be an important factor in the forthcoming parliamentary elections in Karnataka, it may not be the sole determinant to ensure victory.

The May  assembly election results reflect this assessment. Social media support for a candidate or political party can sometimes turn out to be a political mirage. Yet, social media is an additional and new tool of advantage to engage the electorate, without necessarily being the sole deciding factor in the elections.

(The writer is Professor and Dean (Arts), Department of Political Science, Bangalore University)