The biggest live entertainment extravaganza in India, General Elections 2019, is about to begin and will be the biggest ever test of the role of digital media in elections in India. Social media and data analytics are going to play a pivotal role in how the political parties reach out to their vote bank in the upcoming elections.
India already has close to 900 million eligible voters, and an estimated half-a-billion have access to the Internet. The country has 300 million Facebook users and 200 million on Facebook's WhatsApp messaging service – more than any other democracy; and millions use Twitter. In addition to that, there are 450 million smartphone owners against 155 million at the last election in 2014, according to Counterpoint Research. That is more than the entire population of the U.S. This implies that the 2019 elections in India are likely to be as hotly contested in the virtual world as in the real one.
Data based techniques will race ahead of traditional election approaches
Political parties, on their part will leave no stone unturned to reach out to the vote bank and last mile connectivity through a digital channel only makes it easier. Thus, there is going to be more targeted messaging, deeper interaction with different representatives, and instant feedback through digital polls.
In the recent Rajasthan elections, while traditional methods like public speeches and poster campaigns were widely used during the state poll, Congress and BJP party workers also used dozens of WhatsApp groups for campaigning. With the smartphone at the fingertips, and its steadily increasing penetration, it is this season the tool of choice for the campaigners.
When there is so much data being generated, can analytics be far behind? The 2014 elections was an excellent example of using data-driven techniques to create an effective digital interface and interaction across India, in real time.
This time round, the growing trend of using data-driven techniques will surpass the traditional electioneering techniques in India, as data will be used to make critical decisions regarding party tickets, campaigning stand and how to make it a game changer in this large, geographically complex country. Political parties are now increasingly leveraging big data tools to increase voter turnout and swing the elections in their favor. Technology is also finding applications in monitoring of campaign performance and election tracking as well as supervision of polling booths with real time voting data.
In the United States’ last presidential campaign, pundits compared the competition between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to a fight between a large tanker and Somali pirates. This turned out to be particularly true of the digital campaigns: a massive data battleship lost to a chaotic fleet of social-media speedboat. Mrs. Clinton’s campaign was arguably the most data-driven in the American history. Donald Trump's campaign dramatically expanded the use of Facebook and other social media on his way to victory; and although the next presidential election is more than two years away, Trump and several potential Democratic presidential candidates are already using social media to engage voters.
The citizens of India too seem to be keen to interact with their political representatives online. With 43 million followers on Facebook and 45 million on Twitter globally, PM Modi is among the world's most followed politicians. Rahul Gandhi, President of the Congress Party also has 8.1 million followers on Twitter and 2.2 million on Facebook.
Pull vs. Push Content in Elections
The flip side of this rapid acceptance of digital media is the fact that the end consumer is looking for content of choice – which is pull content.
Campaign communication is primarily push content. There is a thin line that is easily crossed when push content becomes unwelcome and the people turn away from it. The PR pundits driving the digital frenzy need to keep this fact in mind as they create new case studies of how digital connects the common man to the leaders of the nation.
Another thing that we need to note is that the potential for abuse of digital power to connect is immense. Fake news can influence people and, in some cases, even cause panic. Government is already running a TV campaign against people believing and forwarding such news on What’sApp; FaceBook has released guidelines in relation to campaigning through their platform. This just goes to show the immense power social media has and the fact that it should be utilized with care and consideration.
How growing acceptance and prevalence of social media pans out during the elections will be interesting to watch. One the one hand, the common man from both rural and urban parts of the country is likely to get a front row seat to the process of political opinion formation and dissemination. On the other hand, the potential for negative news dissemination and false communication opens manifold. Chances are another regulatory watch dog will need to be established to ensure fair practices are followed by all, especially in the digital arena.
Free and fair elections are the expression of democratic emancipation and technology can certainly smooth the way. The biometric identity database of Aadhaar could be used to streamline the electoral rolls and veracity of the voters. Using digital platforms, Election Commission could connect with voters directly to hear complaints and concerns. Steps must be taken to ensure that the voting public is assured their vote is correctly recorded, verifiability of the counting process should be there, audits should be made available for public scrutiny and improving physical security practices would make Indian elections much more trustworthy than they are now.
Anurag Mittal is director, NewsVoir.