Election fever is on and so is the buzz about the likely impact of the internet and social media. Highly optimistic views claim that “twitter can topple governments” while pessimistssuggest that in a country like India it does not really matter.
A contention is that Internet is an ‘inherently democratising technology’ that can bring alternative voices into the public sphere. This can help challenge the domination by established political actors and commercial interests.
No wonder political parties have ostensibly been organising crash courses on use of social media. The Election Commission of India’s guidelines on the use of social media during elections are in response to the belief that we are in the age of online campaign and the politicians and parties are twittering away to electoral glory!
The big question is: are parties displaying an awareness of the potential power of the social media? We tried to address the question with reference to the forthcoming elections in Delhi – a completely urban state with a literacy level of 86 per cent, a pre-capita income that is three times that of the national average.
Conversational democracy online
Right from the mid-1990s the argument has been that online discussions will create a conversational democracy, where ‘‘citizens and political leaders interact in new and exciting ways’’. However, it is the emergence of interactive Web 2.0 applications such as blogs, microblogging, social networks, and photo and video sharing sites that are increasingly enlisted in political communication.
It should be noted that in absolute number, as of July 2013, 82 million Indians were on Facebook(FB) and 33 million on Twitter. While it is true that internet penetration is comparatively low in India standing at about 11 per cent, the FB users are almost equivalent to the entire population of UK. Seventy five per cent of Indians who are active Internet users use social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest etc.
The study done by IRIS Knowledge Foundation revealedthat Facebook could make a difference in constituencies where the number of Facebook users are more than the margin of victory in the last LokSabha election, or where its users account for over 10 per cent of the voting population.
Delhi seats and social media
It is to be noted that the IRIS study had identified all LokSabha constituencies in Delhi as high impact areas where Facebook could make a difference between winning and losing.
A review of the 2008 Assembly elections results show that, in 22 out of the 70 constituencies in Delhi, the victory margin was less than 5 per cent; in 6 less than 1 per cent. In Rajouri,the margin was .06 per cent and in absolute terms mere 46 votes differentiated between the victor and loser. Hence one would presume that there would be push towards the use of social media.
Not surprsingly, many prominent political leaders have taken pride in their social media presence. As for the contestants in Delhi, the chief ministerial aspirantof Aam Aadmi Party Arvind Kejriwal (with over 7.3 lakh followers) is far ahead of others in the raceon Twitter; Harsh Vardhan has over 12,000 followers and Sheila Dikshit has no presence. Presence by itself does not translate into usage; worse still many have presence. What is the situation in the 22 constituencies mentioned above? The position in two of the constituencies is given below.
In Rajouri, the Congress candidate Dhanwati Chandela and SAD challenger Manjinder Singh Sirsa do not have any social media account except an email account as per the affidavit filed before the Election Commission. The BSP candidate Anil Kumar Khanna does not even have an email account. The AAP candidate Prit Pal Singh does mention that he has a Facebook presence but when we tried tracking it we realised it is dormant.
In Patparganj constituency, the comparatively high profile AAP contestant Manish Sisodia is on Twitter and is followed by 41,596 and has 7 tweets as of November 23, 2013. This despite the fact that he is contesting the forthcoming election and filed his nomination on November 16, 2013. His Facebook page is liked by over 87 thousand people and most of his posts are liked by thousands. However he himself has only four posts in November so far. This is interesting given the fact that Patparganj is yet another constituency where the margin of defeat was .76 per cent.
The overall situation given inFigures 1 and 2, is based on the data culled from the affidavits filed by contestants from four parties, namely AAP, Bharatiya Janata Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and Indian National Congress. The total number of contestants mapped in figure one is 70 from each party or a total of 280.
Source:Affidavits filed by contestants from AAP, BJP, BSP and INC. http://www.ceodelhi.gov.in/WriteReadData/Affidavits/ECICandidateAffidavit.htm (accessed on November 22, 2013).
Note: the numbers given in the table are on total of 280 contestants.
Source : Same as above.
Note: The data given above is for 70 contestants in the case of AAP, BJP/SAD and INC and 69 for BSP.
Poor online presence of candidates, party sites
We do hope to map the actual use of the social media in days to come but we are pretty sceptical given the fact that very few are active. Even Harsh Vardhan started his twitter account after being announced the chief ministerial candidates.
The scene is not much better when it comes to the use of websites. Party websites are recognised as an increasingly important element in the media strategy of political parties. They provide a centralised forum for campaign information that is frequently indexed by search engines and provide key gateways for a variety of users (party supporters and activists, potential supporters, journalists).
A cursory look at the state-specific websites of AAP, BJP and INC shows that they have a long way to go. BSP does not even have state specific site. As for others, despite considerable data showing that an overwhelmingly large number of people access websites on the mobile phone neither BJP nor INC have a site customised for mobile phones; AAP enabled this recently. Also, none of them cater to people with disability.
Equally surprising is that none of the websites give a language option. While AAP does indicate a choice of language,the drop box does not function. Considering that all the websites are Delhi centric it is strange that Hindi option is not made available. Here it needs to be mentioned that BJP does provide the option in the State of Chattisgarh website and hence are privy to the need and yet opts not to do so in Delhi.
Both BJP and INC did not put up the list of contestants and a brief profile of its candidates. As a result, people wishing to know their candidates have to go elsewhere. While AAP did put up its list rather early it kept shuffling its candidates without highlighting it in the main page. This is in contrast to websites of parties in the UK where probable contestants’lists for Parliamentary General Election 2015are already up.
None of the websites updated their election-related activities on a day-to-day basis. The INC, the incumbent party, did not highlight their main achievements in the last three terms. In contrast AAP, in a mirror image of its off-line campaign, did not provide much input on what they stood for in areas like price rise or how they propose to deal with infrastructure requirements. The visitors to these sites will surely not have much inputs on what these parties did or stood for. The BJP in contrast did provide considerable insights on issues and it could be easily downloaded.
Only AAP has provision for online donation while the two established parties do not even mention donations. Considering all parties do have provisions for online membership and comments, they do not mention how they will safeguard the details provided to them as there is no statement regarding privacy.
Since use of online campaign is ostensibly to attract the “young” it is interesting that none of the parties have actually tried to target or motivate them to register, or give inputs on how to register. Considering that it is generally assumed that it is the young that are likely to be ‘swing’ voters in keenly contested constituencies this lacuna is rather strange.
In short, it appears that the websites don’t reflect the dynamic nature of the medium.
So, as of now the question is not whether the social media will play an important role in forthcoming Assembly election but are parties geared to use it?
(Dr Kannamma Raman is on the faculty in the Department of Civics and Politics, University of Mumbai and Ashwin Parthasarathy is a researcher. This a part of a larger project tracking the use of social media during elections. The focus is on social media, rather than newspapers and television, as it can facilitate a two-way dynamic interaction with a large number of people, connect people directly and make usage costs low. Feedback will be appreciated.
The authors can be contacted at:email@example.com
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