Social media and Politics

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Imagine our netas with their rotund bellies and paan-stained teeth putting up pictures of their latest public stunt on Facebook and Twitter. Find it too difficult too picture? Well, this scenario is not as far out from reality as many may presume, given the astute use of social media by prominent national figures like Omar Abdullah and Anna Hazare. The role of social media in Indian politics is rapidly going the Obama way.

The Twitter Pioneer

Politician Shashi Taroor with his hand raised, addressing the mass.
Courtesy: Joseph Sebastian

He may have got into trouble for it but he sure did grab eyeballs. The great Indian Twitter story might have actually begun with the (in)famous Shashi Tharoor.  The diplomat-turned politician shot to fame with his controversial tweet about Indian flights and crowds. But the Minister of State for External Affairs stands vindicated with 645, 715 followers on his Twitter account. He may have well kicked off a Twitter storm among politicians. Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat Minister and S. M. Krishna, Minister of External Affairs are among the several politicians that have leveraged Twitter to enhance their popularity meters.

Though he raised several people’s hackles initially, Tharoor eventually gained a reputation for transparency and honesty thanks to his frank Tweets which is an apt indication of the power of social media to influence minds and opinions. Surprisingly, some prominent figures like L. K. Advani and the Gandhi family are missing from the Twitter sphere. They do have a presence on other social media platforms though. Of course, Twitter is a double edged sword. Those who found themselves on the undesirable end include Sushma Swaraj, Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha. Transparency may be a good thing but brazen bluntness isn’t, even in the new generation social media.

Twitter can be used effectively in moments of crisis as well, as the recent Arab uprising proved. Earlier this year, Indian Foreign Secretary, Nirupama Rao kept the relatives of the Indian sailors that were being held hostage by Somali Pirates, updated on Twitter.

Anna Hazare’s Tryst with Social Media

Anna Hazare sitting at a political gathering.
Courtesy: Ramesh Lalwani

While our netas have aced the field of self-promotion, here is one man who employed the marvels of social media for mobilizing the masses and firing up their righteous indignation against corruption. He is the maverick of social media campaigns and the figures are there to prove it:

  • 15 Lakh fans on FB page
  • 1.9 lakh ‘likes’ and 37,000 Comments.
  • 150 other pages (created unofficially in support of Anna)
  • #isupportannahazare with more than 8,000 tweets, was the top Trending Topic on Twitter (India) on August 17
  • More than 1.7 lakh tweets mentioned ‘Anna Hazare’

When Hazare was detained in Delhi, supporters, including celebrities like John Abhraham, thronged social networking sites to speak out against his arrest. A wall post on the movement’s Mumbai Facebook page read, “A HUMBLE REQUEST: Democracy can’t be murdered so brutally. Please change your profile pic to ‘Black’ at least for a day to oppose the arrest of team ‘Anna’. Co-operation expected.” Like in the case of Obama, Hazare hardly initiated all of the activity in the social media sphere. The movement gained so much momentum that content was self-generated, which is the keystone of any successful social media campaign.

Changing Winds

No politician’s public repertoire is complete without a website, a blog and a social media presence today. But why hasn’t this widened to encompass entire online campaigns? The answer may lie in the supposition that Internet penetration in India is still majorly limited to urban areas and ultimately in politics, everything boils down to vote banks. But this assumption may not be true anymore. According to Nitin Mathur, Senior Director at Yahoo! India, Internet penetration in India is rapidly extending to non-metro cities due to a variety of reasons like:

  • Spread of cyber cafes in small towns and rural areas
  • Government led initiatives such as National e-Governance Plan (NeGP), State Wide Area Network (SWAN) and Common Service Centers (CSC) and private initiatives such as Google Internet bus project
  • A spurt of low cost 3G handsets from the domestic players such as Micromax, Karbonn, Lava Mobiles and international players such as Nokia and Samsung

Given these factors, the politician who dares to go the social media way in the next elections will have the first mover advantage and perhaps the winning weapon too. The problem with most Indian politicians is that they fail to interact with the general public, choosing to merely share information from their side. One of the few politicians to buck this trend is Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah who tries to replying to each comment he gets, including the negative ones. Earlier Abdullah used to blog but found Twitter a more viable option after he began receiving hate emails.

Social Media & Politics: Omar Abdullah's social media activity on Twitter.
Omar Abdullah twitter account

Studies have shown that people tend to react to individual figures rather than collective entities. A politician’s account thus shouldn’t ideally be used in lieu of a party account. The trick is to connect with the public directly. It may not be time to let go of traditional media just yet, but to leverage social media may be a move that decides whether you’re a winner or a loser.

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