Socially networked election

Author - Baijayant 'Jay' Panda

Posted on - 10 May 2013

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This article was published on 'The Indian Express' on 10th May 2013





Is politics in India about to experience an internet-powered tsunami in the next general elections? A recent study that claims 160 of the Lok Sabha’s 543 seats are poised to be highly impacted by social media has been dismissed by many sceptics. But some politicians are taking a closer look.

This is,of course,an old story elsewhere. In the 2008 US presidential election,a relatively unknown,middle-class candidate made history,first,by massively outspending opponents backed by the establishment in both major parties. Though Barack Obama also went on to make history as the first African-American president,neither would have been possible without his path-breaking use of new technology.

The skyrocketing numbers of Indians using social media points to a stunning conclusion. By 2014,they will be more numerous than the total votes garnered by any one party in 2009. The study by the IRIS Knowledge Foundation and the Internet and Mobile Association of India makes some compelling arguments about the impact this can have on voting.

Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter helped Candidate Obama level the playing field in many ways. These included fundraising — he collected a record half a billion dollars,mostly from millions of small donors,trouncing his opponents’ smaller numbers of large donors — and mobilising an army of supporters and volunteers.

The instant reaction of most Indian sceptics is that even in the America of 2008,73 per cent of the population already had internet access,almost a third of which were high-speed broadband connections. In contrast,present-day India’s nearly 150 million internet users represent barely 12 per cent of the population. Furthermore,very few of them have broadband connections,which make possible more engaging ways of connecting with users,for example,by streaming high-quality videos.

But India’s internet user base is growing rapidly and is projected to reach 200 million by 2014. Meanwhile,the number of eligible voters is growing at a much slower pace,from 670 million in 2004 to 720 million in 2009,and expected to reach 800 million next year.

In other words,the number of internet users will be 25 per cent of the number of eligible voters next year. That won’t quite translate into one in four eligible voters,after accounting for minors. There is also the question of how many internet users — generally conflated with middle-class India — will actually bother to vote,in contrast to the denizens of Bharat,who invariably do vote in much larger numbers.

This is where the role of social media becomes interesting. While plain vanilla internet access is revolutionary enough,it is the seductive “engagingness” of social media that is transforming activism of all kinds. A 2011 study by the Pew Research Centre concluded that internet users in general,and social media users in particular,are more socially and civically engaged.

The skyrocketing numbers of Indians using social media points to a stunning conclusion. By 2014,they will be more numerous than the total votes garnered by any one party in 2009. The study by the IRIS Knowledge Foundation and the Internet and Mobile Association of India makes some compelling arguments about the impact this can have on voting,not just directly,but even more so by mobilising volunteers and supporters.

The 160 constituencies designated as high impact by the IRIS study are those where Facebook users are either more than the incumbent’s margin of victory,or at least 10 per cent of the population. Take Thane in Maharashtra,where the more than 400,000 eligible voters,who are also Facebook users,dwarf the current MP’s winning margin of 49,000. Clearly,it is in his interest,as indeed of his opponents’,to engage with voters online.

Of the Congress party’s current 206 seats,fully 75 are similarly high impact. And of the 144 constituencies where it finished second,43 are high impact. For the BJP,44 of the 116 seats it won in 2009,and 50 of the 110 seats where it came second,are high-impact constituencies.

In what forms should we expect to see the impact? Among the many ways the internet has changed the world,two are particularly relevant to politics. First,the phenomenon of rapidly mobilising “flash mobs” was made possible by the group interaction that is the special métier of social media. This is already happening in India,seen repeatedly in the mobilisation of protesters during Anna Hazare’s fasts,the anti-rape gatherings,and every now and then,by the Aam Aadmi Party. We are surely going to see more and more of this as established political parties and would-be candidates get familiar with it.

The other internet phenomenon of “disintermediation” happened even before the advent of social media,and disrupted many businesses. By directly connecting vendors and consumers of various goods and services,companies like Amazon,Priceline,Expedia and eBay made redundant hordes of middlemen. Shops of various kinds have disappeared,as has the neighbourhood travel agent in many countries; at the same time,it has become possible for niche vendors to serve a widespread clientèle.

But is Indian politics ripe for disintermediation? Could potentially attractive candidates,who have so far been stymied by entry barriers to politics,make a direct connection with voters? What about with donors,or volunteers? Could candidates mobilise groups of motivated supporters for campaigning,bypassing party cadres? That would mean a levelling of the playing field between established and new contenders,and usher in significant changes. Cronyism and nepotism in candidate selection could come under increasing pressure from contenders who are able to garner public support without depending entirely on parties’ established networks. And where parties resist such contenders,they will find at least a few of them running viable independent campaigns.

Between the evangelists and sceptics of social media’s impact on Indian politics,there are cautious optimists like me. I believe that while we are at least one election away from this being a gamechanger,it can nevertheless have a noticeable impact this time. Which is why,though relatively few of my rural Kendrapara constituents are online,I am active on it,gradually building a network and waiting for the inevitable surge in numbers. In the meantime,I am engaging with a large online diaspora,a significant number of whom are already volunteering to help my upcoming campaign