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Can social media influence elections in India?

12th December 2013


As India is just getting over a most significant round of state elections in key states such as Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan; the question people are asking is how much of a role social media is playing in Indian elections. In the run up to general elections 2014, this question will gain more importance.

According to a report released in October this year, “Social Media in India -2013”, by the Internet and Mobile Association of India and IMRB, social media users in India are expected to grow by 19% between June and December 2013. The report also says that 19.8 million users access social media platforms via their mobile phone in urban India.

The report claims that based on the number of eligible voters, and the data of actual voter turnout from the Election Commission of India and field interviews, there could be a vote swing of 3-4 percent in 24 states –where the internet users are sizeable.

The swing indicated is considerable. However due to the absence of other data the report has not clarified whether the influence is due to pure social media, or other factors such as avenues of traditional communication. We put the question to a panel of experts regarding the extent of the influence of social media and here’s what they had to say:

Can social media influence election results?

Chetan Mahajan, Managing Director of 20:20 MSL, thinks the answer is clear cut and he has no doubt about the influence of social media on elections: “Of course it does. If people are consuming content on social media it will reflect in their perception about the Political Parties or candidates. Times of India has over 35 Lakh fans on FB, Hindustan Times  has over 12 lakhs, Dainik Jagran has over 16 lakhs and the Economic Times has over 14 lakhs which is more than double of its circulation. When traditional media has such a strong following on social media one cannot ignore the impact of social media and its influence on the elections. Social media is in fact the fastest way to directly engage with your audience especially when there could be last minute coups."

Dr. Ranjit Nair, CEO, Germin8, says the impact of social media in rural India will be very limited in the upcoming elections. But he adds that: “In urban India, I definitely believe that social media will have a huge role to play in the upcoming elections, influencing the opinions of undecided voters, in getting the apathetic middle class to care enough about a party or giving a reason to go and vote. It may also help in galvanising the support base to vote in large numbers and influencing others to vote.”

This may already be showing in states like Delhi, where the normally apathetic middle class voter turns out with large numbers to vote. This previously resulted in the Election Commission having to extend polling hours well into the evening and a record number of voters (67%) was set, a massive jump of 9 percent from 2008.  In fact according to the Times of India, voter turnout percentages in states like Chhattisgarh (75%), Madhya Pradesh (72%)  and Rajasthan (75%) , all showed unprecedented turnout compared to the 2008 figures.

While social media may not be the only reason for this increase, states like Delhi regularly dominated the top trends on Twitter with hashtags in relation to parties such as the Aam Admi Party (AAP). On Monday the #Arvind Kejriwal, for example, was part of the top ten trends on Twitter and showed over 10,000 tweets on the trend.

How to best use social media for election messaging?

Yu Yu Din, Head Digital Strategist, Genesis Burson-Marsteller, points out that the first thing a political party needs to do is ensure that they are listening to their constituencies and analysing sentiment online. "Hashtags such as #pheku and #pappu are popularly used on Twitter when commenting on candidates – and there’s a lot of negative sentiment there. Knowing what the majority of the conversations are about will help the party address sentiments the right way. Be disciplined in responses – there is no need to get into a dogfight online just to combat negativity.”

Yu Yu Din adds that political parties should concentrate on making sure their messaging remains consistent both online, offline and in traditional campaigns. “You don’t want an entity talking about two different things on two different platforms. Social media is the platform you need to leverage to reach out to the masses all at once, on real-time. EC guidelines require approvals for all online advertising – so ensure all advertising language, keyword permutation /combinations are approved well in advance. You won’t have the time to get them approved once you’re running the campaigns.”

Yu Yu Din also says that social media gives a chance to build ‘perpetual conversations on issues well beyond the election results: “No matter what the election results are, because of the social media build-up the parties will be doing during the election, they can continue to talk about the relevant issues, and drive opinion. This will be most helpful when parties are debating on bills, deliberating on issues, or deciding on budgets.”

Chetan Mahajan says that social media strategy is not any different from traditional outreach. What is important is to: “Choose the social media channels which best cater to your stakeholders (Facebook followed by Twitter, purely based on the penetration of the platform), Be prompt, transparent and consistent across multiple channels including the party website, which is usually ignored once built, and adopt new formats of storytelling including infographics, videos and vine.”

What segments of society can be better targeted via social media?

According to the IAMI study, the vote swingers are mostly young men and non – working women whose affiliation towards social media is high.

Experts don’t completely agree with this assessment where women are concerned. Ranjit Nair says that according to a study done by Germin8 in September 2013: “Women are very disengaged when it comes to the elections. Less than 15% of the online opinions relating to the upcoming elections came from women. This is extremely low even when considering the skew in social media users in India – by our estimate about  a 3rd of all social media users in India are women. This is an opportunity for any party who can connect with this segment and can share a message that galvanises them to vote in droves.”

According to Yu Yu Din, parties can ensure that the right issues are talked about online in the right locations and devices. “A recent comScore report found that over 50% of the Internet is accessed via smartphones. Parties need to keep that in mind when targeting voters – especially women. For example, cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, and Pune would be most important in targeting women voters if the issue is Women’s Safety. They need to disseminate targeted messages which will resonate with the women electorate.

For Chetan Mahajan the answer is very simple: “If you can engage with your audience you can influence them, especially the youth where the consumption of social media is much higher than any other traditional form of media. In fact they consume traditional media on social platforms. Can you imagine Economic Time’s Facebook likes to be more than its circulation; 14.2 Lakhs vs. 6.6 lakhs.”

Conclusion

While we may not yet have reached the point where social media can swing elections like in the US; the fact is that social media is definitely reaching a point where its influence is growing. Like with all things social media, the quantum of influence may be a matter of debate but social media and politics is a bond that is here to stay. As we enter 2014, the general elections are already complex and will now also will take place under the 24x7 focus of social media – no political party can afford to ignore that.

Written by Paarul Chand


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