This article appeared on the LSE’s South Asia website and is reproduced here with the kind permission of Dr. Sangeeta Mahapatra and the London School of Economics and Political Science. [Opinions expressed in blogs on this website do not reflect the position of the Round Table.]
In around four months, Indians go to the polls. With an estimated 900 million Indians expected to vote Dr. Sangeeta Mahapatra (Institute of Asian Studies, German Institute of Global and Area Studies, Hamburg) asks how will India’s two major political parties use social networking sites, messages services, websites, blogs and apps to bypass the mainstream media and speak directly to voters in 2019?
The idea of social media as a force-multiplier in politics has gained virality in our minds, especially after the 2012 U.S. Presidential elections. From the Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s WhatsApp campaigns to influence voters to the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte’s use of Facebook and troll armies to broadcast and amplify his support, social media has been used by political parties both as a tool of empowerment and oppression. In India, the world’s most populous democracy and the second largest online market, political parties, through a suite of apps, websites, blogs, social networking sites (SNS), and social messaging services (SMS), have gone up a notch and made social media political communications a part of the peoples’ daily lives.
Given the dizzying range of diversities and the multi-hyphenated identities of the electorate and their varied opinions, concerns, and stakes, how are the parties engaging them? Complicating matters is the fact that the Indian general election happens to be the world’s largest voting event with an estimated 900 million Indians expected to vote for 543 Parliamentarians from 930,000 polling booths in 2019. Here comes the communications cachet of social media. Aided by affordable 4G internet connection and smartphones, social media has been a godsend for parties who can save on time, resources, and efforts of physical coverage of these areas by reaching out to more voters on a personal level, in an interactive format. Unmediated access between politicians and the people is rewriting the rules of political interactions and processes, creating a new software of democracy. The party that has been ahead of the curve in maximising returns from social media has been the centre-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Four Year Social Media Shift
In the past four years, there has been a marked shift in social media content and tactics of the BJP and the major opposition party, centre-left Indian National Congress (INC). While the BJP’s 2014 election campaign centred on development, the countdown to the 2019 election seems to be ticked off by more and more polarising posts by both the BJP and the INC.
In 2014, when the ruling INC-led coalition government, buffeted by scams and accusations of policy paralysis, were faring poorly on the development front, the BJP had muted its Hindutva (a cultural-political ideology that emphasise on Hindu values and a Hindu nation-state encompassing South Asia) agenda and focussed on one issue: “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas” (development for all). Using technology and analytics, including SAP, Oracle and Microsoft- and social media driven public relations firms and advertising agencies, they captured voter profiles at booth level and tailored strategies accordingly.
A parliamentary election was converted into a presidential election with the focus being on the star-campaigner, Narendra Damodar Modi, then Chief Minister of Gujarat. Social media acted as a game changer. Modi had been ostracised by the traditional media for the Gujarat riots of 2002 happening under his watch, where more than 2,000 people, most of them Muslims, had died. He bypassed the media embargo by taking to social media in a big way to project the image of Gujarat as the beacon of development in India. The BJP invested around USD 100 million on Modi’s campaign, with heavyweight advertising companies like Madison World, McCaan Group, and Ogilvy and Mather building “brand Modi” as a technocratic, development-oriented leader and someone accessible to the people. The populist portrayal of Modi was contrasted with the INC projected as an elitist, anti-people, and pro-corporate party. Through the whizbangery of hi-tech 3D rallies, tea-booth conference-calls, live streamed messages via the Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, and several websites and apps, Modi spoke directly to millions of voters.
Many social media users got swept in the Modi wave, which supplanted the Saffron wave (the colour symbolises the Hindutva forces). The traditional media, doing a volte face, started piggybacking on the social media, which was trending Modi, and added to headline management campaigns of Modi ushering a new era of development. But in states where religion seals the votes, Modi projected himself as an alpha male Hindu nationalist leader – covering different support bases through a multi-pronged targeting strategy. The election witnessed the highest voter turnout with 160 of the 543 constituencies identified as highly impacted by social media, especially Facebook.
In the 2019 election, it is expected that all constituencies are going to be impacted given the extensive penetration of social media in previously dark median areas. Social media users are no longer just urban professionals and students. Hyper-segmentation of voters using social media analytics has made identity politics a viable social media campaign strategy. As Web 2.0 becomes more compatible with vernacular scripts, the poor gate-keeping function governing messaging platforms like WhatsApp, ShareChat and Helo, makes it easier to spread polarising messages and disinformation faster.
After the BJP’s 2014 victory, its social media strategy linked its identity driven ideology with a development pitch. Two things happened: first, Modi became the face of BJP’s positive messaging, that is, he reached out to citizens through his app and BJP’s SNS, actively seeking their participation in his policies, and second, the party’s negative strategy of ridiculing and discrediting the opposition and polarising the public along mostly religious lines took off. Alongside this, the BJP-led government censored several social media sites critical of Modi and the BJP and its affiliates.
Currently, their social media posts, which are guided by the Hindutva ideology that play up sectarian differences, are designed to conscript people into their version of patriotism. Anyone who opposes the BJP/the RSS or Modi is branded an anti-national by the BJP’s IT Cell and its supporting sites. Then starts the abuse offensive that is scaled up systematically. It begins with name-calling (for example, “sickular”, “presstitute”, “Libtard”- by labelling an opponent they foreclose any debate or discussion), memetic warfare (using humour to destroy reputation), and hashtag warfare (for example, #BreakupIndiaGang), which pin-point the enemy and marshal online forces against them, especially the troll army who abuse, threaten, and quell opposers. Often videos of polarising speeches by BJP leaders are streamed on their social media sites. The number of such speeches by politicians (majority from the BJP) have risen by 490 per cent compared to the tenure of the previous government. While it is difficult to establish a direct link between these posts and the rise of hate crimes offline, it cannot be gainsaid that there has been a spike in hate crimes in the same time period.
The INC, a self-proclaimed secular party, seems to be following the same script as the BJP. In 2014, the INC had been a late-comer to social media campaigning. In 2017, a new social media cell revived the INC’s social media profile. Through the use of clever, simple, and shareable infographics, they started a stalking strategy of Modi, where his promises and announcements were presented as a lie or a brag. They used memes, hashtags and their troll army that used both humour and abuse to berate Modi and dub his supporters as blind followers. They employed the same rhetoric that the BJP had used in 2014, this time portraying Rahul Gandhi, the president of the party, as the star campaigner and his party as the party of the common folks against the corporate-loving BJP.
Now the INC, too, is cranking up the identity politics rhetoric with a “soft Hindutva” strategy. Since 2017, Gandhi has started showcasing his Hindu Brahmin pedigree by posting photos in the social media of his visits to temples, invoking Hindu deities during campaign trails, and not mentioning Muslims in his speeches or fielding enough Muslim candidates in state elections in 2018.
The future of social media for both parties
In both cases, the social media cells of the BJP and the INC seem to be projecting their star campaigners as populist leaders, demonising each other’s parties and supporters, and polarising the voters along religious lines. Their social media cells and army of volunteers have created WhatsApp groups (and in some cases, ShareChat groups for non-English speakers) for each locality in a city and each village for micro-targeting voters with daily messages. While social media has been used positively to make voters more politically aware and part of political discussions, its negative use has increased in the last four years in terms of the spread of disinformation and propaganda that create false backstories of opposition leaders, negative stereo-types of Muslims and to a lesser degree, Christians, and revises history to promote a mythical Hindu past as imagined by the Hindutva screed. In the cycle of propaganda and counter-propaganda, both parties have normalised negativity and abuse online.
This has impacted Indian democracy; one the one hand, user generated democracy has allowed people from rural to urban areas to get a direct entry into the process of political opinion formation and dissemination. On the other hand, there has been the creation of filter bubbles and echo chambers, enabling the quick and pervasive spread of polarising politics, especially by political parties that are flush with funds. Social media has also been used as a call to action platform to mobilise supporters; the underside of this is that the flashpoint of a communal conflict can be quicker.
Given the growing salience of social media in politics, will political parties repurpose the social media to censor opposition and control the flow of information or will the pluralist make-up of this platform counter this? The 2019 election will show whether the politics of polarisation works or not but the instrumental role of the social media needs be regulated to avoid the vector of hate from spreading.
Dr. Sangeeta Mahapatra is a Visiting Fellow at the GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies, Hamburg, Germany. Her current research focuses on social media and politics.
India: Death by social media – Commonwealth Update, Round Table Journal