Quick. Imagine voters equal to the size of the population of Europe. That's roughly the number of voters who can potentially be reached by the social media in India, this election. According to the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) since 2014 the Internet base in the country has more than doubled to almost half a billion users.
Today there are 300 million urban internet users in India.
At the same time, cheap data plans and affordable handsets are further driving the penetration of the mobile internet all over the country, if not as quickly as it is for urban areas.
Therefore, if 2014 was marked by the BJP's canny use of social media to drive awareness, channels such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter, may just end of setting the discussion agenda for General Elections 2019.
Tushar Panchal, founder and CEO, WarRoom Strategies, lays out the political use of social media with a colourful metaphor, he says, " Twitter and WhatsApp is the battleground for political parties where they try to do 'virtual booth capturing'.
Panchal explains this saying, "While earlier booth capturing used to be done by stuffing the ballot boxes with voter slips, now it's happening online."
Vishal Gaba, senior director, Digital Studio, Genesis BCW agrees saying, "Facebook and
Why WhatsApp is the king of distribution for political parties
Panchal terms WhatsApp as the 'direct to consumer' model of content delivery which is mostly one way. He adds that the immense power of WhatsApp lies in its usefulness for political parties as a vehicle of distribution to voters.
How WhatsApp works for political messaging
The art of political canvassing via WhatsApp is a well-oiled machine.
According to political communications expert Anup Sharma, political parties follow a hub and spoke model where: "The central teams send content and strategy to WhatsApp groups with state social media heads, who then pass it along to groups with constituency-level coordinators or conveners. The message thus travels on till it reaches the districts and then, the booths who then pass it to the public at large."
Explaining the process once the content is shared, Sharma says, "Based on the response the campaign is either killed or taken to the next level."
As examples, Sharma shares "The latest campaign of #MainBhiChowkidaar by BJP or the Congress party's 'Vikas Gando Thayo Chhe' campaign during the last Gujarat Assembly elections which took potshots at the BJP's much-vaunted 'Gujarat model of development' and became viral. Parties also use technology and analytics, including SAP, Oracle and Microsoft- and social media-driven public relations and communication firms."
Twitter's impact on the Indian vote
If you log on to Twitter at any given point today, political trends will be part of the top 10 trends, swiftly changing positions and topics, peaking in about four hours.
Panchal explains this saying that one of the primary roles of Twitter in an election is to shape media influence.
Sharma elaborates saying, "Even the media wakes up by logging on to Twitter first to see potential stories and later read the news. Understanding this Twitter is also focussing on curated Twitter Moments, Twitter Chats, Blueroom events and going regional. From promoting the use of local languages, hiring regional bloggers, social media influencers, regional think tanks to organising road shows to educate people more about the platform, Twitter hopes to gain a chunk of new users from rural India next year."
There is another benefit for parties on Twitter apart from awareness and media influence. While still considered an urban phenomenon with limited voter influence, Twitter's value for political parties lies, Panchal says, "In its ability to mobilise party workers and as a platform for sending out messages of strength to party cadres."
Sharma explains that "The IT cells of the political parties use trend alerts to mobilise supporters online in different ways from getting a topic trended to diverting attention from some other topic or opposition led activities."
Stealth Content and Fake News
A big part of the online messaging campaigns by parties is stealth content. Panchal explains how this works, "Parties will set up a Facebook page with an innocuous topic it could be about culture for example. Closer to the elections, the tone of the posts will change pushing party agendas."
This might become tougher to do with social media firms committing to better monitoring mechanisms. Earlier this month, internet and social media platforms in India including Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Google, TikTok and ShareChat presented a voluntary code of conduct for the elections to the Election Commission.
As per a release by the Election Commission (EC), "The companies have agreed to create a high priority dedicated reporting mechanism for the Election Commission of India and appoint dedicated teams during the period of general elections for taking expeditious action on any reported violations."
According to the code, the social media firms will also, "Provide a mechanism for political advertisers to submit pre-certified advertisements issued by the 'Media Certification and Monitoring Committee'."
One of the issues that the code will have to resolve, is the presence of Pro-Modi pages on Facebook offering free merchandise. Which, extraordinarily enough, were also tweeted by Modi from his official handle.
While the BJP insists that it's not illegal to sell merchandise, the fact is that much of this was being offered for free.
As we draw closer to the election, the digital election wars will only sharpen.