Election infowar goes digital

The use of the social web has found a dominant role in campaigning for local elections, especially as the countdown to the 13 May local elections ticks away.

Wall posters have been replaced by Facebook posts, loudspeakers on jeeps by jingles, and soundbites from candidates on YouTube, and even TikTok music videos.

More than in the previous election in 2017, Nepal’s political parties, activists, and the general public have gone online to campaign or promote their preferred candidates. And like in elections of old, this new medium is also used for calumny, fake news and personal attacks.

In April, a video went viral on social media of K P Oli and Bishnu Poudel of the UML apparently being chased out of Butwal by angry locals. The story of the video was that two leaders had gone to Butwal to inaugurate a view tower that had been built instead of a hospital.

But the watchdog group Nepal FactCheck flagged the video as being from a protest in March 2021 when then Finance Minister Poudel was laying the foundation of an industrial zone in Butwal.

Another video showed Nepali Congress leader Gagan Thapa being harassed by crowds, interspersed with out-of-context clips of him poking fun at the government headed by his own party.

Targeted content such as these show that Nepal is also suffering from the misuse of social media platforms by political parties at election time to further their populist agenda. In the 2013 Constituent Assembly elections, only a quarter of Nepalis had access to the internet, and smartphone use was still very low. Things picked up in the 2017 federal elections, but in 2022 mobile telephony has changed the election landscape.

Deepak Adhikari, editor of South Asia Check, sees an increased impact of social media on elections. Political parties have woken up to its power and are using it to the fullest for propaganda as well as slander on opponents.

“Increased effort by parties to influence voters through social media in campaigning also means that there is a greater risk of the public getting false and misleading information,” says Adhikari, adding that political parties, activists, hate groups, foreign powers, as well as digital portals are active participants in the process.

Last July, UML leader Prabhu Sah set up the ‘IT Army’, after Mahesh Basnet of the same party and former disgraced Information Minister had announced plans to form a ‘cyber army’. These troll factories were designed to support Prime Minister K P Oli when he was under attack from Pushpa Kamal Dahal from within his own NCP in a power struggle.

The digital media landscape has changed dramatically since 2017, with 65% of Nepalis connected to the worldwide web and 91% owning mobile phones, 65% of which are smartphones (see graph below). Parties are now delivering speeches and holding public meetings on Facebook Live, releasing election songs and campaign materials on YouTube, and lobbying on Facebook and Twitter.

The Sharecast Initiative survey put the number of Facebook users in Nepal at nearly 13 million. Twitter and Instagram accounts are far fewer, but continue to grow. One-third of Nepalis now use Wi-Fi to access the net and 91% mobile internet. Half of Nepali mobile phone users have 4G services, while three-quarters of the population has access to some form of the internet. Nepalis are therefore relying less and less on the mainstream press for information.

The two major parties have racked up a significant digital media following since the last election. The UML’s Facebook account has 357,000 followers while the Nepali Congress has 308,000. Independent mayorial candidate Balen Shah boasts 465,000 followers on Facebook.

The Maoist Centre has lagged behind, and has even fewer followers on the platform than the newly-minted Unified Socialists.

The UML has seven IT experts employed full-time at its headquarters in Kathmandu. The party’s official website contains a systematic documentation of its history in government and Parliament, other relevant documents, up-to-date information on party events, while its social media accounts regularly share interviews and live speeches.

It has also launched a separate app for its cadre after last year’s general convention.

“The app is designed so that communication among party cadres is centralised,” explains Bishnu Rijal, head of the UML’s publicity department. “More people on social media prefer to watch short videos or live speeches, to reading long content."

The Nepali Congress is not as prolific but has also ramped up its social media campaigning as election day closes in. The party used to put up paid advertising on Facebook, but is now concentrating on its ‘Let’s go door to door’ voter campaign on social media.

The alternative Bibeksheel Sajha Party has 107,000 followers on Facebook and 35,000 on Twitter and also uses social media extensively for campaigning. Says IT expert Prakash Jha: “Use of social media has contributed significantly to the political success of Bibeksheel Sajha Party.”

Rabindra Mishra (Bibeksheel Sajha), Baburam Bhattarai (JSP) and Gagan Thapa (NC) all prefer Twitter to Facebook, and have more than 1 million followers each. On the other hand, the UML’s K P Oli who is known for his pithy repartee, is popular on TikTok. His personal account has 17,000 followers, and his videos have received more than 1.2 million likes.

Subash Adhikari, an election strategist for the NC in 2017, says  targetted Facebook advertising yielded dramatic results, especially as the NC reached out to Facebook consultants in India.

“We took his advice to form our election strategy with Facebook at the centre,” Adhikari recalls. “We were able to target demographics in specific geographical areas.”

Samriddha Ghimire, who has worked on Indian elections with noted strategist Prashant Kishore, says party leaders in Nepal have no idea or vision on how to conduct an effective digital election campaign.

“All they know is how to spend some money in order to boost Facebook posts,” says Ghimire. “There is no election strategy in general, and specially in using digital platforms.”

No matter how much social media is used for electioneering in Nepal, Ghimire adds, much of the work is in vain without the collection and analysis of data on voters crucial to charting a strategy.

Says Ghimire: “Statistics is the raw information that drives an electoral strategy, as it is planning on what kind of message to send to potential voters.”

Social media, after all, he adds, is just a medium.

“Prashant Kishore’s team chose to categorise their target voters from specific communities in a way that the election-related messages were catered to voter’s interests and opinions,” he remarks. “It is a successful exercise in influencing the vote.”

Prakash Jha of GAMA Nepal agrees, adding that most of the candidates and parties lack even the basic skills to listen to voters, or even write up election manifestos.

“Electoral and political communication in Nepal lack the professionalism required to influence voter behaviour,” says Jha.

Because of this, electoral communication falls back on misinformation and fake news to attack rivals, rather than to highlight the party’s election agenda.

To this, adds Kundan Aryal at the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Tribhuvan University: “Although social media has provided an opportunity for a two-way communication, dominance of certain groups has led to the misuse of the platform,”

When social media is used as a propaganda tool to spread false information, it threatens to undermine the very fabric of a liberal democracy, he says.

According to Madhu Acharya of Sharecast Initiative social media has been misused to spread misinformation because mainstream media has not done enough to inform public opinion, making way for the likes of ‘reporters’ on YouTube to fill the information gap by making a mockery of serious public issues.

“Not everything that one sees on the internet is to be believed,” Acharya says: “If media users consider their source of information, it could stop the spread of misleading and false content to a great extent.”