Editor's Take

Elections 2019: Social Media Reaps Popularity but Credibility in Testimony Box

The social media war in election 2019 surely has gotten bigger with gargantuan and regional political parties pulling off interactive and immersive communication through online campaigns. Even though it executes major league in a lesser time, the credibility of social media is still questionable. But, why?

The 2014 General Elections in the country tapped the millennial demographics on social networks like never before. An experiment of using a modern electioneering tool of e-media by a traditional political party in the country actually evinced as a game changer and constructed a serious role of social media in political campaigning. The social media war in election 2019 surely has gotten bigger with gargantuan and regional political parties pulling off interactive and immersive communication through online campaigns. Also, there have come a general perception that television will play a lesser role in this upcoming election and digital media will play a never before seen influence on voters. However, the data shows the ad spend on television has not decreased but increased than in the last election.

“Prior to 2014, the ad spends of political parties were driven by outdoor, print and TV. But since 2014, digital and social media have played a big role. In fact, digital media has grown the fastest, eating into traditional media like print and television. But let’s not forget India’s unique demography. Even as digital will play a major role in 2019 elections by addressing a large segment of the voter base, TV and print will continue to be relevant for the other segments, especially in the hinterland. And the pie is big enough – it is expected that the 2019 campaign will see nearly double the political ad spending of 2014. So, although the share of digital has increased, TV and print still command a hefty slice of the spending despite the digital onslaught. Also, let’s remember that ad spends on the coverage of political ‘events’ are estimated historically. So they will be benchmarked against 2014 TV figures this time. But time spent on media/individual has changed,” speaks political campaign advisor and a practicing political & policy professional Dilip Cherian.

Aam Aadmi Party’s Social Media and IT Strategist Ankit Lal avers that the overall expenditure this election has increased. “The amount of expenditure has surely increased but the percentage is what I believe we need to look at and not the absolute numbers. Social media influence has grown than before there is no doubt about that but as we have observed, the amount spent on TV ads have increased too in this year’s election.”

Tanveer Ahmed, National Spokesperson at Janata Dal, says, “Social media is a double-edged sword. It is a place where you vent out your frustration. However, when it comes to television, it’s a medium that solicits monologue where the viewer does not have an opportunity to question, debate, or discuss with the spokesperson. Social media backfires or misfires. That’s the reason how the traditional politicians have understood both the influence of social media through which you can gain not more than 10 percent of votes, but definitely damage 100 percent of votes because of a single mistake.”

This accounts for the reason why social media’s influence remains persistent and politicians increasing budget for social media. But they still prefer traditional media because of its nature being an old school of politics. “I would not totally deny the influence of social media. But to convert the votes as much as the monologue media does, I don’t think social media can be that powerful,” adds Tanveer.

Social media is a dessert and the traditional media is the main course. You can live without a dessert but you can’t live without the main course.

The digital media entered and cemented its impression in the political world when the credibility of other mediums like television and print were questionable. Tajinder Bagga, BJP Spokesperson, Delhi Unit recalls how through the advent of social media people who were involved in controversies came in the limelight. “In the elections of the year 2009 or earlier ones, only television media was the key player. But after 2009, a motion of social media started. We saw the growth in the use of social media platforms like Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter, and all. So the things we were told before 2012, even if they were a blatant lie, nobody had the cognizance to decipher and differentiate. Moreover, people could hardly counter what we were told through television media. After the advent of social media, even a common man got an opportunity to start his or her own web portal. There were celebrities and even journalists, who were involved in controversies or got caught on sting operations. Their videos were released later on YouTube. Had there been no social media, people could not have known the culprits, who were exposed on this medium. With social media, the common people started to expose the national media.”

However, Social Media Eminence – a Glory Short-Lived?

K.S. Dakshina Murthy, Associate Editor with The Federal and Prof with IIJNM, Bangalore concurs the growth of digital media and its increased footprints but also broods over the fact how fake news become so prevalent. This in a way puts social media’s nature in a dicey position. “Now political communication is easier because through social media you can reach a lot of people in lesser time. But then there is also a question mark about the credibility of social media. It suffers a serious issue of credibility because no one really knows what to believe and what not to. Fake news is very prevalent.

“In 2014 we still had social media. It was always there amongst a certain section of the population. All the things that you see today were already present in 2014. The variation is in the emergence of fake news. In 2014, not many people were talking about fake news. Also, not many were questioning the credibility of social media. The credibility in the last elections was higher than now,” Murthy observes.

Professor KE Radhakrishna, Vice President, Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee expresses his concern over the multiplicity of media channels that only serve a commercial purpose to earn quick money and destroy integrity. “The print media wants to race with the digital media also fell prey to this quirky journalism. But fortunately for India now, print media is regaining credibility. I won’t say they lost their credibility but they are regaining it for sure. The print media I would say has come up in front as a parallel narrative in the time of fake news.”

Ram Subramanian, Ad Filmmaker, Handloom Picture Company and Founder Voice of Ram speaks on how television and print are getting stronger given the fact that there is a huge amount of distress when it comes to a non-traditional form of media. “People don’t believe the internet entirely. Even though the parties have spent a lot on social media, the truth is that it will still be a fraction of what will be spent on regular mediums because people still buy newspapers. The vote banks are in tier-II cities and rural India where the reach of the conventional medium is higher than the electronic medium. And, over the last years, we have seen that what we see on Whatsapp might not be true because of a lot of fake news being floated on WhatsApp. Thus, there is an inherent belief that anything which is coming on the e-medium cannot be entirely true.”

Variation in Current (2019) Political Communication of Tier-I, Tier-II cities, and Rural India

The electoral campaigning patterns in Lok Sabha, as well as state assembly elections, reflect perceptible differences and variations across regions, groups, communities, and constituencies. One such significant variation is found in the urban and rural pattern of party campaigning. The political parties, of course, would engage their strategists to study the electoral patterns in different regions in order to attract rural and urban voters. Tanveer delineates how people in a tier-III city or rural area are much aware of their actual requirement. “A villager would know his wealth requirement and exactly how much money is he getting under the government schemes. So with the rural population, it is the face-to-face communication of the parties. The communication in tier-III is the least expensive one as it is one-on-one. In tier-II cities, you are again making the leader accountable to get the work done. The leader has to talk to the people directly. In the urban setup, anyone can go through any modem because there is no accountability.”

“The Congress Party’s mode of communication is – we hear and then speak. We hear from the common people and thus listening to us becomes the most important part of communication. The party tunes itself to receiving information more than giving. We are therefore grounded with the rural as well as urban,” outlines Radhakrishna.

Explaining BJP’s campaigns Tajinder voices out, “We have two types of campaigning: one is on-ground and the other one is on social media. On social media, we have been engaging people with interactive graphics and share the achievements of our ministries. For on-ground campaigns, we are personally meeting the beneficiaries of schemes like Mudra and Ujjwala Yojana. Apart from this, we have been continuing with the rallies and road shows. Our current signature campaign ‘Main Bhi Chowkidaar’ has been a massive hit.”

“Aam Aadmi Party’s communication is very well focused in the Delhi state. Our communication is based on a single and focused topic and is not wavering in that sense. The other big parties have numerous things to communicate. However,  we have chosen what we will stick to throughout our communication strategy,” vocalizes Ankit.

As expected, we are witnessing an intense, high-stakes battle. If in 2014 social media played a key role in the BJP’s win, this time all parties, including regional parties, have upped the ante and scaled up their digital communication. “Using the study of voting patterns is not new, but digital tools and analytics have enabled deeper analysis and insights. While no party has given up reliance on traditional initiatives to reach voters, those who are able to craft their voter outreach strategy on digital platforms will surely have an edge,” Cherian noted.

Voters and Reception of Mediums (Traditional and Electronic) During the Election Wave

The current debate is about declining media trust which is related to the disruptive changes in the media. Are voters influenced by social media? If yes, people of which regional setup are most affected?

“People who are least aware of political situation and scenario and get easily influenced are people of urban society. If you go and ask people a well-educated working guy of from where does he get his ration card done from, he would do a simple search on Google. It is more difficult to handle those people who are living in villages. The influence of social media is high on urban society and thus they get effected easily without knowing the ground reality which the people of smaller areas are much aware of,” Tanveer adds.

Nabeel Mehdi, a research student and a voter, finds it quite apprehensive about trusting social media. Nabeel says, “I remain dubious when it comes to believing in content circulating on social media. Since the platforms are inundated with fake news, it becomes hard to rely on online sources. Nevertheless, if the information is shared by a credible person, I do take it seriously.”

“Indian voters are too heterogeneous to be gauged by the same yardstick.  Senior Citizens are hard to be influenced since they have more inhibitions about caste, religion than the millennials. They are the ones who are mostly influenced by fake content on WhatsApp. For the younger generation, it depends on their level of education and rationalism to be able to see beneath the fake news and emotions and make an unbiased decision,” points out Nabeel.

Dhananjay Singh, who is a farmer and a voter as well communicates his view on the rural campaigns he has been witnessing throughout his life residing in a small village. He opines, “Every political communication tries to weave its advertisement campaign around the basic rural needs, through simple and repetitive messages to appeal simple rural minds, who are not educated enough to look beyond their basic needs and are too naïve to be perceptive of hollow rhetorics. Reality or not, this forms the bedrock of every political communication intended for rural India. The attention span is short and needs non-intellectual, so messages need to be short and full of promises of immediate materialistic fulfilment. Freebies, waivers and exceptions thereby abound in these campaigns. The instances of influencing people through petty favours like cash and alcohol are not infrequent and thus affirm the credulousness of rural people.”

Let’s Conclude

Given a country of the size of India, digital’s penetration will only grow over time. So TV and print are expected to continue their domination. Interestingly, digital’s advance has not been at the cost of TV, which maintains its reach among large sections of the population. As for print, regional print media has bucked the global trend by continuing to grow rapidly. There are still many areas where people are still heavily dependent on TV. So long as they continue to grow, these traditional media will draw political advertising.