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2019 polls likely to be fought on smartphones, writes Rajdeep Sardesai

To fight an election through WhatsApp forwards or Facebook likes or Twitter trends is to manufacture a digital reality that can be both toxic and intoxicating

columns Updated: Jul 19, 2018 22:08 IST
Twitter,social media,Facebook
The dangers of WhatsApp being used to create a digitally orchestrated fury have been revealed in recent weeks by a spate of lynchings over child lifting rumours spread through the messaging site(REUTERS)

Amit Shah is often credited as the BJP president who has converted Indian elections from routine local fights into an all-out war. Little surprise, then, that Mr Shah was quoted as having told a gathering of BJP social media activists in Pune that they must see themselves as “soldiers going into battle who take no prisoners”.

Mr Shah may have only been trying to motivate his flock but the sharp rhetoric reflects a new election dynamic in which a tweet, a Facebook post or a WhatsApp forward are the modern-day arrows and bullets aimed at bruising political opponents. If 2014 was the election where the poll battleground shifted seamlessly from the maidan to a television screen near you, then 2019 will be an election which is likely to be fought on the smartphone in your hand.

There are more than 300 million smartphone users in India today, more than 200 million WhatsApp connections and more than 270 million Facebook accounts, massive numbers that mirror the country’s ever-expanding social media revolution. Effectively, social media can directly connect with almost a third of the voters in the country, making it potentially a huge election influencer. Narendra Modi has been ahead of the curve: he is the third most followed world leader on Twitter, and is the world’s most liked or followed leader on Facebook and Instagram. His official Facebook page is liked by more than 43 million people, which is almost double that of the US president, Donald Trump.

By contrast, Rahul Gandhi, a late and reluctant entrant into the social media universe — he joined Twitter, for example, only in 2015 — has been forced to play catch up. In the recent Gujarat and Karnataka elections, the Congress, for the first time, showed some enterprise in using social media to connect with potential voters and even took the fight into the enemy camp by instantly responding to any attack from their rivals. A core part of the Congress election war room in Karnataka was a more dynamic social media component headed by its former Mandya MP, Divya Spandana. However, the obsessive focus of its leadership on technology gives the BJP a distinct advantage in the battle to attract smartphone voters, especially in the 18-25 age group, and could make a difference in the 2019 elections.

And yet, to fight an election through WhatsApp forwards or Facebook likes or Twitter trends is to manufacture a digital reality that can be both toxic and intoxicating. The dangers of WhatsApp being used to create a digitally orchestrated fury have been revealed in recent weeks as a spate of lynchings over child lifting rumours spread through the messaging site. When propaganda can be electronically messaged to millions in real time, then it is obvious that a political party has been given a lethal weapon to use without any checks or accountability. The election commission cameras may monitor a political speech at a rally or keep an eagle eye on news channels, but who will monitor the millions of tweets, WhatsApp messages and Facebook posts that are being sent out with the explicit purpose of muddying the political waters with a mix of fake news and hate mongering?

To expect citizens to act as fact-checkers in a polarised political environment is for the major social media platforms to shirk responsibility for unleashing an unchained monster in the digital jungle. Merely marking a message as forwarded is hardly a reliable, hi-tech solution to a problem created by technology’s unique ability to bypass all legal scrutiny. So far, the laws have always been a step behind the social media warriors. Tracking those who, often under the guise of anonymity, are able to launch missiles of misinformation, has proved to be well beyond the scope of the policing agencies. Does one seriously expect a police constable or a district official in rural Madhya Pradesh to monitor what potentially inflammatory messages are being spread through social media? A clash between a semi-literate local constabulary and a technologically well-equipped political force can only have one winner.

In 2014, the BJP rewrote the rules of election campaigning by pushing the boundaries. So, an election manifesto was released on the day of voting; live rallies and roadshows were telecast while voting was on in a neighbouring area. In each instance, the model code of conduct was reduced to a worthless piece of paper, a seemingly helpless Election Commission unable to enforce its writ.

In 2019, expect more of the same. At least the indiscretions of politicians are visible and can be called out; the social media armies that are being unleashed now are a potent, but invisible force, that are outside the realm of any jurisdiction. They are poised to change the template of our election campaigns forever.

Post-script: During the Karnataka elections earlier this year, at a village tea stall, a young man told me that he would never vote for the Congress because Rahul Gandhi had three wives! He then obligingly showed me a WhatsApp video of the Congress leader praying in a mosque with three burkha-clad women. A fake video distributed in Karnataka yesterday may well go viral across India tomorrow!

Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jul 19, 2018 19:06 IST