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HindustanTimes Fri,01 Aug 2014

Virtual war rooms: Parties turn to social media to reach voters

Hindustan Times   March 22, 2014
First Published: 23:44 IST(22/3/2014) | Last Updated: 09:46 IST(23/3/2014)

From Facebook pages and Twitter handles to Google+ Hangouts, political parties are using social media to reach out to voters. HT speaks to members of online teams and social media marketing agencies to understand how political parties intend to grab our eyeballs in the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections


Party profile | The number game 

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In the first week of February, a post with a picture of Shashi Tharoor with Hasiba Amin, the face of the Congress party’s campaign ‘Kattar Soch Nahi, Yuva Josh’ did the rounds on Facebook. The post accused Amin of being involved in a PWD (People’s Works Department) scam. One of the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) online content creators in Ludhiana had uploaded the post. “We sacked the administrator of the page. The message sent within the party is that we have to behave responsibly on social media,” says Ankit Lal, social media head and national council member of the AAP.

While a team of 15 members scattered across the world decides the party’s day-to-day online strategy, a 2,000-strong cadre identified by the party engages in conversations related to the AAP at any given time. The constant challenge for the team is to maintain coherence between the real and the virtual world.  On Facebook, the party has a two-tier structure — national and state. The team plans to add the district layer. On AAP’s state Facebook pages, all updates are in both English and state language. With more than 284,000 likes, AAP’s Kerala page is the most popular state page. -- Danish Raza

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Basant Gupta, 44, who recently quit the corporate world to volunteer for the BJP’s technology cell, says the social media blitzkrieg across Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and lately, Whatsapp, has been in the making for the past four years. Housed at the party’s office on Ashoka Road, the BJP’s digital team is headed by Arvind Gupta, an alumnus of IIT, and a PhD from the University of Illinois in the US, and includes many volunteers.

“The Digital Centre is divided into several teams that manage aspects such as social media, creative content, donations and distribution,” says Basant, an alumnus of IIM, who handles the donations team at the Centre. While the team at Ashoka Road looks after the party’s official website, Facebook page and Twitter handle, individual party leaders have their own teams to handle their social media activities.

Then, there are blog sites such as Niti Central, whose editorial director is former journalist Kanchan Gupta. Strategies across platforms vary: while Facebook is more about communicating with a smaller group, Twitter messages are public, says Basant. Namita Kohli


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Reports of alleged scams in the recent past have tarnished the image of brand UPA. Which is why the campaign for the upcoming 2014 Lok Sabha polls focuses less on party and more on Rahul Gandhi, the individual, who is being projected as an agent of change,” says a member of the Congress’ virtual campaign team, who did not wish to be identified.

Congress’ official twitter handle @INCIndia, has 144,000 followers as against AAP’s 574,000 and BJP’s 402,000. A team of around 1,000 volunteers monitors the conversations on the issues that Rahul Gandhi touches upon in his election rallies and press briefings. “The traction is really good when he takes on Narendra Modi,” he says.

After its launch in September last year, the party’s Facebook page was initially on auto-pilot mode, he says. “We were pasting news clippings and important announcements.” Now, the team is regularly told about the issues that it should play up. Rahul Gandhi’s views on the Supreme Court acquitting the assassins of his father and former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, his favouring the one-rank-one-pension policy, were both pushed aggressively on social media by the team. One of the deliberate decisions is to highlight how the UPA’s policies have benefited specific groups such as the poor and senior citizens. “One of the challenges is to develop a system to counter the online opposition immediately,” he says. -- Danish Raza


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The Telugu Desam party has an IT cell and a techie forum called Telugu Saanketika Nipunula Vedika. Nara Lokesh, son of former Andhra Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu and his friend Rajesh Kilaru (30) form the core team behind the party’s social network vertical. The two work with a group of nine members on concepts and delivery. The party’s online activities are also supported by hundreds of volunteers, most of them techies. The lead campaign now — ‘Bring Babu Back’ — has been created by a Naidu admirer. Most of the volunteers hold regular jobs or businesses and meet occasionally at Naidu’s residence to discuss their strategy. “The youth, especially first time voters only know Naidu as a great administrator. We tell them how he transformed Hyderabad into an IT hub,” says Kilaru. This is also the focus of the party’s social network strategy. The team’s high point came when ‘Bring Babu Back’ attracted over 20,000 supporters from all over the world. The team claims TDP has 3.1 lakh followers on Facebook. -- Prasad Nichenametla


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Until about six months ago, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) website was bland and outdated. Now, in addition to a user-friendly website peppered with photos, slideshows and ‘exclusive stories’, the party has an authenticated Facebook page and Twitter handle, a smartphone app, and Pinterest and Google+ accounts. This sophisticated online presence is the handiwork of a seven-month-old social media start-up, Driving Minds, to which the NCP has outsourced its online activities ahead of the 2014 general election. “By leveraging digital and social media, we want to reach out to Internet users,” says MLA and party spokesperson Nawab Malik. Next on the cards is a Google Hangout with party chief Sharad Pawar. So far, the highest point has been when the NCP’s Facebook page hit 1 lakh likes on January 13, within 90 days of being set up. --  Humaira Ansari


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It seems as if the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra has barely managed to put together its social media act. While several Facebook pages about the party thrive, the Sena does not have an  authenticated Facebook page or Twitter handle. Harshal Pradhan, Shiv Sena’s public relations chief, says many young corporators and Sena leaders do actively use their personal Facebook and Twitter accounts to disseminate party-centric news and information, make important announcements, and tag each other in celebratory posts. Aditya Thackeray, president of the Yuva Sena and Bal Thackeray’s grandson, often uses his Twitter handle to clarify the party’s stance on various political and civic issues, in consultation with his father, party chief Uddhav Thackeray and senior Sena party leaders, Pradhan adds. “With close to 47,000 followers on Twitter, the reach of Aditya’s tweets is almost that of a mini rally,” says Pradhan. For internal communication, Pradhan says, party workers, corporators, members and leaders are connected on various WhatsApp groups.  -- Humaira Ansari

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West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s page on Facebook has 656,006 likes and counting. The number is significantly more than what the party page enjoys on the same platform (19,814). “She is the face of the party,” explains Derek O’Brein, All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) National Spokesperson and Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha. “Two of our young leaders Abhishek Banerjee and Subhendu Adhikari also have a strong social media presence,” he says, adding “For us (TMC), social media is not something to access simply in the run up to the election.

TMC believes in a 360 degree communication process that runs on 12 different axes, such as wall paintings, small roadside meetings, processions and such. Social media is only a part of that.” O’Brien, who  has been very active on Twitter for a long time says the party does not have a Twitter army or a Facebook army. “We just have people passionate about Trinamool writing about it. Apart from an official Facebook page and party handle on Twitter, we also have a very proactive party website. A team of ten people, headed by me, handles the party’s virtual work,” he reveals. The high point of the party’s online communication was when a cabinet reshuffle was once announced on the website. -- Poulomi Banerjee

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