India’s new social media politics


NEW DELHI – What role has social media played in India’s election?

Conventional wisdom had it that, in the Indian context, one should always be sceptical about the reach and political impact of social media. But with some 625 million Internet users in India, and upwards of 80% of Internet use on mobile phones, there could have been 625 million pairs of eyes looking at social media during the 2019 election, nearly eight times more than in 2014.

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Though I was a Twitter pioneer among Indian politicians, my own view is that no Indian election can be won or lost on social media alone. While perhaps above 40% of voters use social media, there are no reliable studies of how frequently they use it for political news and views. They could be in WhatsApp group chats or sharing Facebook snaps of their beach weekend, rather than debating the merits of the political parties. There’s still no substitute for mass rallies, street-corner addresses, door-to-door canvassing, handshakes at marketplaces and busy junctions, and Jeep-top tours.

Twitter, the most ‘political’ of social media, has only 30 million active users in India. It is dwarfed by Facebook and WhatsApp, with over 240 million active users each. And, given parliamentary constituencies of some two million people, Twitter is of little help in political mobilisation. Twitter would be useless for organising a mass rally, it cannot be a substitute for conventional campaigning.

Nonetheless, political parties turned to social media during this election. Aside from its usefulness for issuing messages through memes, digital posters and WhatsApp forwards, social media’s indirect impact (as a source for ‘mainstream’ media stories) makes it an indispensable communications tool for politicians. And that’s where the trouble starts.

WhatsApp is the favoured medium because 82% of India’s mobile phone users have downloaded the app, and because it is targeted to specific people. A political party can create groups defined by their interests, caste or religious identity, or by a specific issue or cause, and bombard them with messages to reinforce their biases and convince them the party is with them. The ruling BJP is the master of this technique, running an estimated half-million WhatsApp groups across the country. Its IT cell head, Amit Malviya, declared in March: “The upcoming elections will be fought on the mobile phone… In a way, you could say they would be a WhatsApp election.”

The use of social media is not always benign. Disinformation is rife on the BJP groups, including concocted accounts of what leading Congress politicians (including me) have said and photoshopped images portraying traitorous behavior by opposition leaders. ‘Fake news’ exists because it has been manufactured to serve the political interests of its disseminators. The BJP’s attitude is that all is fair in love, war, and politics, but Indian democracy has become collateral damage.

WhatsApp took steps to limit the damage, restricting forwards, for example, to just five recipients in order to impede lies from going viral. It blocked numbers identified by the Election Commission as spreaders of ‘fake news’. Guilty parties quickly find alternative numbers and create more groups, however. The BJP benefits from vast armies of people, paid and volunteers, whose job is to feed the WhatsApp groups.

The fears of democrats are not unfounded: people have been killed on the basis of fake WhatsApp rumours. Social media offers a marvelously useful set of communication tools that democratises public opinion. But in the hands of unscrupulous politicians who see it as a means of manipulation, social media can undermine democracy itself. Once you have voted for the wrong people on the basis of false information, there is nothing you can do about it until the next election. In that fact lies the danger posed by social media to Indian – and not only Indian – democracy.

© Project Syndicate

Shashi Tharoor, a former UN under-secretary-general and former Indian Minister for External Affairs, is currently an Indian National Congress MP. He is the author of Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century.

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