Indiaʹs WhatsApp elections
With Indiaʹs general election a few weeks away from its conclusion, a crucial question needs to be revisited: what role have social media played in them? Conventional wisdom once had it that, in the Indian context, one should always be sceptical about the reach and political impact of social media.
In 2013, a year before the last general election, the IRIS Knowledge Foundation and the Internet and Mobile Association of India conducted a study suggesting that in 160 constituencies (of 543 in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Indiaʹs parliament), the margin of victory was smaller than the number of social media users, or over 10% of the population was on social media. It estimated that by the 2014 election, as many as 80 million Indians would be using social media and asserted that this was a vote bank that no politician could afford to ignore.
If that was true then, itʹs a lot truer now. I havenʹt seen a comparable study recently, but the numbers have of course grown since 2014. With some 625 million Internet users in India and upwards of 80% of Internet use on mobile phones, there could be 625 million pairs of eyes looking at social media during the 2019 election – nearly eight times more than in 2014.
Social media alone does not spell electoral victory
At the same time, 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 a bit more than a third of Indiaʹs population and perhaps above 40% of its 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 contending in their constituency. Thereʹs still no substitute for mass rallies, street-corner addresses, door-to-door canvassing, handshakes at marketplaces and busy junctions and Jeep-top tours.
And then there are the numbers. 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 each, Twitter is of little help in political mobilisation. Unlike the U.S., Twitter would be useless for organising a mass rally, or even convening a large public meeting. It cannot be a substitute for conventional campaigning.
Meming the political message
Nonetheless, political parties have been turning to social media extensively this year. Aside from its usefulness for issuing messages through memes, digital posters and WhatsApp forwards, social mediaʹs indirect impact (as a source for "mainstream" media stories) makes it an indispensable communications tool for politicians. And thatʹs where the trouble starts.
WhatsApp is the favoured medium, because 82% of Indiaʹs mobile phone users have downloaded the app and because it is targeted at 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 Bharatiya Janata Party (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 that, "The upcoming elections will be fought on the mobile phone….In a way, you could say they would be WhatsApp elections."