Don’t underestimate online’s performative power

  • Sumit Pande, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Oct 13, 2015 22:40 IST
Representative image (Shutterstock)

In adversity politicians invariably resort to the victimhood card. Here again the sense of timing is often the difference between success and failure. For politicians, however, the victimhood refrain is often the bulwark against any breach within the core constituency and also serves to get sympathy from outside.

Narendra Modi’s retort to Mani Shankar Aiyar’s ‘chaiwala’ taunt is a good example in this genre. Nitish Kumar in Bihar similarly mounts a campaign on the PM’s DNA remark. Scholars argue that leaders wield enormous power over their supporters by effective framing and proliferation of the ‘being persecuted’ argument. US media researcher Daniel Kreiss, in his analysis of the use of Twitter in the 2012 US presidential campaign, illustrates how online interventions are used to mobilise resources — both monetary and otherwise.

Drawing on theories of performative power, Kreiss demonstrates the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney campaigns could influence and trigger certain actions from their support base. Obama poll managers generated huge support by tweeting a picture of the president sitting in his chair with a caption, ‘This seat’s taken’. This was in response to a 11-minute monologue by the Hollywood star Clint Eastwood at an empty chair in the Republican convention with an imaginary Obama sitting in it.

The incident shows how supporters rally behind when leaders are most vulnerable or are under attack. The timing and framing of the message, to elicit a certain reaction from the audience, is of importance here. This — according to Kreiss — is the performative power of Twitter. In my study on the use of social media in the Delhi assembly polls, I found similarities between some of AAP’s online tactics and those used in campaigns in high-income economies with a high Internet penetration. Interestingly, even in the relatively low-income demography of Delhi with a limited Internet footprint, these moves yielded similar outcomes to those in the US elections.

An example is the special online campaign run by AAP seeking donations on the day the party was accused by a renegade group of ‘dubious funding’. The appeal to its supporters and the people at large to ‘give a befitting reply to those casting aspersion on donors who shelled out clean money for clean politics’ generated the highest per day monetary mobilisation in the entire campaign. AAP was successful in evoking a certain response from its supporters by framing the message in a certain way and then timing its dissemination when it was being pummelled by the BJP and Congress. The case study exemplifies the performative power of online platforms in political communication funding.

Sumit Pande is political editor, CNN-IBN. The views expressed are personal.

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