On April 15, in the middle of a dead-heat election, Arvind Kejriwal sent out a fundraising tweet: “Need clean money to fight Modi and Rahul.” Within two days, the Aam Aadmi Party leader’s appeal raked in `1 crore — a spectacular example of the role social media have played in the 2014 elections.
India’s Facebook and Twitter users have likely influenced politics and elections significantly, making them the nation’s newest voting bloc.
No party has recognised their potential more than the BJP. In July last year, BJP’s PM candidate Narendra Modi put together a cutting-edge online team headed by Rajesh Jain and BG Mahesh, two well-known internet gurus.
A mid-election review of trends shows Kejriwal outstrips his rivals — Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi — in almost all aspects of online activity, including unique mentions and jump in Twitter followers, except searches. But, most media watchers, such as the analytics firm Simplify360, have put Modi ahead on their social media scores based on his broader impact.
A recent study found that the social media could influence electoral outcome in 160 of the 543 parliamentary seats, where 10% of the voting population uses Facebook or where the number of Facebook users is higher than the winning margin in the last election.
Of India’s 814 million voters, some 100 million are first-time voters, the ones mostly active on social media — theoretically sufficient to swing votes. In the 2009 general elections, the winning margin in 54 out of 543 constituencies (nearly 10% seats) was less than 10,000 votes, for instance.
However, psephologists say that without hard evidence, such a “primary effect” sounds overstretched. “The real significance has been the secondary impact. The social media have significantly impacted mainstream media coverage. The media’s stance has changed considerably,” Rajiv Karandekar of the Chennai Mathematical Institute said.
Once the results are fully studied, social media users could well emerge as a swing factor, Karandekar believes. Their real influence for now has been in shaping the political discourse.
Facebook and Twitter have created a forum for political participation that “circumvent the established structures of political authority”, according to media scholar Sahana Udupa of Germany’s Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity. “Educated youth are excited with the opportunity to see their voices circulate on an unexpected scale,” she said.
A darker side of India’s social-media election has been the amplifying effect on narrow, polarising issues. “The social media no doubt have created a forum much harder to control,” Udupa said.