Whom can political parties reach on Facebook and why it matters

Indian Facebook users are skewed towards specific demographics. A Hindustan Times analysis of anonymous and aggregated data from Facebook’s advertising portal shows that the bulk of the platform’s Indian users are men, under the age of 30 and live in urban clusters. National averages further hide the massive state-wide differences.

india Updated: Nov 29, 2018 20:35 IST
Arjun Srinivas and Samarth Bansal
Arjun Srinivas and Samarth Bansal
New Delhi, Hindustan Times
Facebook,data portal Statista,political parties facebook
The numbers highlight the importance of Facebook as India gears up for what some consider will be an election that is fought as much on the dusty streets of Bharat as on the social media platform.(REUTERS)

Facebook is used by 270 million Indians in the age group of 18-65 monthly, meaning political parties can reach an estimated 36% of the voting age population on the platform. And the user base is growing: the number of Facebook users in India have more than doubled since the previous general election in 2014, according to data portal Statista.

The numbers highlight the importance of Facebook as India gears up for what some consider will be an election that is fought as much on the dusty streets of Bharat as on the social media platform. And it comes as the social networking platform confronts a global crisis as lawmakers and regulators across the world call for greater scrutiny to check potential abuse and misuse of it to sway election outcomes.

Indian Facebook users, however, are skewed towards specific demographics. A Hindustan Times analysis of anonymous and aggregated data from Facebook’s advertising portal shows that the bulk of the platform’s Indian users are men, under the age of 30 and live in urban clusters. National averages further hide the massive state-wide differences.

In theory, the same political party can show contradictory messages to two different people—without the other person ever knowing of the activity in a parallel Facebook universe. OP Rawat, the chief election commissioner of India, has called such technological interventions to sway elections the “biggest challenge” for the electoral process. “Instead of direct bribing of voters, it is now moving to technology and big data firms and services like targeted communication on social media and analysis on where to focus so as to tilt the voting behaviour in a party’s favour,” Rawat told HT in an interview in October.

Which section of voters can parties reach on the platform and what does it means for the campaign? HT used Facebook ads platform and official census data to calculate breakup of Indian Facebook users by gender, age and geographical location.

Facebook India, a men’s world

77% of the Indian Facebook profiles belong to men, compared to 57% globally.

This is not a platform-specific issue, but indicative of the gender inequality in access to the internet and technology. India ranks 170th among 178 countries on this parameter, according to the Digital Gender Gaps project anchored by the University of Oxford.

Political parties acknowledge this: Ankit Lal, social media head at the Aam Aadmi Party, said that “men aged 20-30” is the demographic that the party aims to engage with on Facebook.

“Parties and politicians struggle to identify, target, and mobilize women using digital platforms,” said Milan Vaishnav, political scientist and director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “This may be one reason that candidates across parties are devoting significant airtime to women and women’s issues in traditional rallies and large meetings.”

This is especially important because women have become an important political constituency in the past few years as women’s turnout has increased sharply in recent years and is likely to grow even further in 2019, he added.

The gender gap on social media also means that certain issues which generate much heat on Twitter and Facebook—such as allegations concerning the Rafale deal—might not have as much salience for certain segments of the electorate not digitally plugged in, Vaishnav said.

Youth dominates

Young people dominate the platform: 63% of all users are below the age of 30. When compared with Census data, 55 % of all Indians in the age group of 20-24 have Facebook accounts. This proportion steadily declines—less than 7% of Indians in the 55-59 age group use the platform.

Facebook will be most effective in reaching first-time voters: an estimated 140 million Indians will vote for the first time in the 2019 elections and around 53% of these, numbering 75 million , have Facebook accounts. In terms of the Facebook population, this age cohort of 18-22 constitutes nearly 28% of all Indian users.

India vs Bharat

Data from Facebook ads platform, which we used for this analysis, doesn’t provide a rural-urban population breakup. But user figures for major cities shows how the reach of Facebook beyond major urban clusters is limited.

For example, Hyderabad constitutes 19% of Telangana’s population but has 57% of the state’s Facebook users. Similarly, the Facebook population is skewed towards Kolkata in West Bengal; Mumbai and Pune in Maharashtra.

The limited reach in rural implies that issues that dominate political discourse on Facebook—both what people discuss and parties promote—would be mostly urban-centric.

State-wise differences

In addition, Facebook demographics vary across states. Close to 63% of the total population (age group 20-65) in Delhi-National Capital Region (NCR) is estimated to be on Facebook, while only 17.8% of Bihar is.

Around 81% of the current Indian Facebook users accessed the network through a high-speed 4G connection, data from the ads platform shows. This is due to the rise in access to smartphones and the declining cost of mobile data packs. This also influences the mode of information dissemination. It is more viable to share and consume video content on the platform. Ankit Lal from AAP said visuals and videos are the preferred mode of sharing content.

Even if political parties don’t spend money on advertising, the cost to share content through their pages is zero, which makes the medium appealing for campaigns.

“Social media is becoming crucial due to the scale of user base which is huge now. Further, the drastic reduction in the rates of telecom data enhances the longevity of interest across social media and increases appetite to consume digital content,” said Arjun Dutta from IPAC, a political consultancy.

First Published: Nov 29, 2018 20:34 IST