Social media politics: Can parties get across the message?

  • Smruti Koppikar, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Sep 17, 2014 19:36 IST

It had to happen. After Narendra Modi demonstrated the considerable power of the social media in the general election, politicians priming for a place in the Maharashtra assembly election have boarded the bandwagon.

To have one’s website is now kind of passé. Candidates, or those who fancy themselves as candidates because seat-sharing and therefore seat allotment is still some days away, are busy finalising Applications or Apps, WhatsApp groups, promoting oneself on Facebook, Twitter, pushing notifications on social media that they believe will help their campaign.

The trend is most visible, as can be expected, in urban constituencies, where even voters of modest means have mobiles and access information of various kinds through it. The “missed call” method of marking out potential voters and reaching out to them in a targeted manner, also demonstrated by Modi’s expansive and expensive social media strategy earlier this year, is being picked up by potential candidates.

Suddenly, it seems as if the medium – rather than the message – is of overarching importance in election campaigns. The template of using social media and big data to reach targeted voters was set by Barack Obama’s team when he contested the US presidential election in 2008 and upped his social media profile when he ran for the second term in 2012. That template has been tweaked and adapted to local conditions.

So, while the conventional campaign methods, including advertisements in the mainstream press and television, will continue, expect to be flooded by social media outreach of individual candidates too. Good times are indeed rolling in for social media professionals or even green-horns, who can advise politicians on social media strategies.

On their part , politicians are discovering the possibilities of directly interacting with their audiences instead of relying on mainstream media. The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) recently held an e-karyakarta (e-worker) training that opened up the social media sector for many of its semi- urban workers.

The BJP, with deeper roots in social media than all its rivals, started the ‘Samvad’ cell to connect with non-BJP voters. The Congress came to the party late and has yet to tap the potential of t he s ocial media.

The Shiv Sena’s approach can be summed up in today’s development: a party spokesperson sent out messages asking journalists to not be taken in by a Twitter account that appeared to belong to party chief Uddhav Thackeray. When asked why Thackeray would not launch a verified account, he said his boss did not feel the need to do so.

What should politicians/candidates do with the social media? Some of the insights from the Obama campaigns for social media use are have clear objectives, drive action, be relevant at all times (and civil, if one may add), engage your electorate at multiple levels, interact and respond to changing situations, track every email and e-conversation, combine the online with the offline.

What the social media do is make the political, or election, conversation two way, as electors can engage with candidates. This is a major shift from the essentially one-way and top-down campaigns our politicians are used t o conducting. They are subject to closer scrutiny and closer tracking of their views and plans – a good move away from the mai-baap culture that politicians encourage.

Sure, the culture will not change in one or two elections, but the very character of the social media allows us, the voters, better access and oversight of candidates, and then the elected representative. It empowers voters with information. And, there can never be too much information about our politicians.

Recognising the role of the social media, the Election Commission set down guidelines in October last year for using social media in campaigns. It held that expenditure on advertising through such media must be included in a candidate’s total election expenditure. In the excitement, however, the emphasis should not remain on the medium and its many opportunities at the risk of losing focus or worse, the message itself.

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