Survival of the Savviest

Elections in the Age of Data Power
Online
(Illustration: ANIRBAN GHOSH)

“I admit we resigned suddenly... no one expected us to and people were shocked with that... the decision to resign was fine, but it came as a shock. If we had to go to the people and explain, they would have been fine with it,” said Arvind Kejriwal, leader of the Aam Aadmi Party, in response to a question posed by TV news anchor Rajdeep Sardesai on his 49-day stint as Chief Minister of Delhi. Except, they were not on television. They were in cyberspace. It was an internet discussion—a Google Hangout session.

Five years ago, this may well have been a TV studio affair. Viewers would have comfortably settled in their drawing rooms after a long day’s work in the April heat, and over dinner, or a drink perhaps, watched Kejriwal dodge punches delivered by Sardesai and explain his association with gangster-turned-politician Mukhtar Ansari in his Lok Sabha contest against Narendra Modi in Varanasi.

This hour-long live discussion, however, was being conducted online on a Monday afternoon, set against a grainy pale wall and accompanied by a nagging hiss that often accompanies outdoor recordings. Also, it wasn’t just the TV anchor who had the interviewee on edge. Kejriwal, looking tanned and somewhat haggard, had to volley a series of questions posed by net users who had logged onto Hangout to join the action live.

There was a data analyst working with an NGO, a media analyst, and a banker who recently moved to India from Singapore, among others. In all, there were ten of them, politically inclined and internet savvy, and they had queries about Kejriwal’s economic vision, his stint as Chief Minister of Delhi, and the assorted slaps he has been subjected to.

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As India finds itself in the second phase of 2014’s Lok Sabha polls, newsroom chatter and tedious discussions have steadily been replaced by relatively vibrant platforms on social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, Google and even YouTube. The social media caters to an electorate that believes in instant messaging and ‘googling’ to find answers. With millions of first-time voters this time round and nearly 100 million users active on Facebook and Twitter in India, as estimated, social media sites have attracted much discussion and attention in this election.

But it is not the ‘swing’ effect of first- time voters alone that is expected to influence the election. According to Ankur Shrivastav, an AAP volunteer who manages the social media platforms of the party that owes a large chunk of its following and popularity to its online presence, says that the 16-35-year-old age bracket dominates the internet. “Nearly 70-75 per cent of social media traffic comes from this demographic,” he says.

According to a 2013 study by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IMAI), of the 543 parliamentary constituencies in India, nearly 160 are ‘high impact’ constituencies where social media may not only influence voter turnout, but also have a 3-4 per cent vote impact. In tight races, that is enough to influence the final results. High-impact constituencies are not limited to the metros because it is estimated that towns with populations of less than 500,000 now account for a third of India’s social media traffic. Instant, free-messaging platforms like WhatsApp have 40 million users in India alone.

Given a huge and dynamic electorate online, politicians and political parties are awakening to social media platforms, uploading their political rallies on YouTube, attending Hangouts and live talks on Google and Facebook, and posting images of posters on Twitter.

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Sensing a revenue potential in online ad material and publicity clips, many social media networking platforms have launched election-related features aimed at galvanising public opinion and influencing the political discourse. While just over one-tenth of India’s voter population is estimated to be on Facebook, according to figures provided by the company, the platform has about 52,000 pages for politicians and political parties. The company that runs this mega-website also claims that the BJP’s Narendra Modi has 11.8 million fans on Facebook, second only to Barack Obama, who has about 39.5 million fans—the highest among political figures in the world. Other features provided by the platform include an election tracker and a feature called ‘Election Menu-Facebook’ that help keep tabs on all candidates and political parties, a feature called ‘Register to Vote’ that spreads awareness of voter rights, along with ‘Facebook Talks’ and ‘Political Lit’, which aim to initiate interactions with election candidates online. Google’s Hangout session with Modi, the first used by an Indian politician, reportedly led to 166,000 clicks on Modi’s website and more than 70,000 tweets while the Hangout was in progress.

Twitter is virtually an online battleground for politicians and followers trying to outdo each other and taking pot shots at opponents in the 140-character format. Recently, a tweet by BJP leader Rajnath Singh of a poster of himself asking voters to vote for the BJP, and then its replacement with an image of Modi within 33 minutes of the tweet, created a media stir, sparking speculation of a rift within the party. While the IMAI estimates a user base of 33 million on Twitter, some of the most popular Indian hashtags on Twitter are #loksabha, #polls2014 and #elections2014.

This is also the first time that affidavits declaring assets and other personal details submitted by Indian politicians had details of their Twitter handles and WhatsApp numbers. Those mentioning their social media details included the former Urban Development Minister and Congress candidate Ajay Maken (for the New Delhi constituency), who remarked last July that social media couldn’t change an election outcome as it hadn’t reached India’s common man. He may have changed his mind since.

The apathy of the Sheila Dikshit government in Delhi, which failed to gauge the depth of the anger expressed by people via social media during the Anna Hazare movement—and after the Delhi gang-rape—contributed vastly to the rise of Kejriwal’s AAP and staggering defeat of the Congress in the Delhi Assembly polls last December.

“I don’t think the social media is the only reason for the reach that [AAP] has now,” says Shrivastav, who has a day job as director of a digital marketing and technology firm. “The party knows that nothing can replace groundwork done by party volunteers,” he says. “We have simply leveraged social media to achieve certain goals, which included spreading awareness of the party, communicating with state units, creating large scale interactions through Google Hangout and Facebook Live and mobilising resources for donations,” he says.

Through last year, Kejriwal reached out to people in India and NRIs in the US, Canada and Hong Kong through networks on Google+ to crowdfund political campaigns for himself and his party.

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The 2014 Lok Sabha election has also seen a slew of start-up ventures and a band of young political entrepreneurs emerge who are using technology to engage their political universe and converse with fellow online voters. Most of them have sprung up over the last couple of years, with the rise of social media, and have gained momentum this election season. Some of these ventures include IForIndia.org which is a web-based rating platform for local MLAs and MPs, Frrole, a social media consultancy that analyses tweets to generate market insights by understanding their context (and has struck big-ticket media alliances with the likes of Headlines Today and The Times of India), Jhatkaa.org, which mobilises protest petitions the way Change.org does in the US, and MumbaiVotes, a non-profit portal that keeps track of promises kept or broken by people’s representatives.

While social media platforms have been an effective tool to get unmediated access to voters, Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Centre for Internet and Society, a research organisation based in Bangalore, believes that unlike Barack Obama—whose online campaign is globally considered the gold standard for political campaigns—most Indian politicians seem unaware of the most effective techniques of using various social media platforms; they still talk down to the electorate, just as they typically do through newspaper ads and television messages. “We often talk about how many followers a particular politician has. But we never count how many people he or she is following,” Abraham says, “Politicians need to listen more if they want to engage in a truly democratic exercise.”

While data analysis and collection ventures have sprung up overnight in the run-up to this General Election, Abraham believes that politicians are yet to use it optimally. “During Obama’s campaign, every letter that went to the voter was well-informed. They knew everything, from the zipcode to their political leanings, their racial lineage and even the brand of cereal that voters endorsed. We are yet to utilise the ‘big data’ infrastructure made available to us,” he says. ‘Big data’ here refers to the vast and complex data collected online to study user profiles on social media platforms.

While social media usage in India is largely seen to be in a nascent stage, the one acknowledged downside of it is that it functions only as a transient platform, and that too, one that airs the voices of the most impulsive and aggressive. Consider, for example, the abusive campaign launched online against Jnanpith Award winner UR Ananthamurthy, who criticised Modi and threatened to leave the country if Modi were ever elected Prime Minister. What followed was a hate campaign against him, with Modi fans starting a mock fund to buy him a one-way ticket out of the country. A Facebook Live chat between journalist Madhu Trehan and BJP leader Arun Jaitley held last week saw several abrasive comments exchanged between AAP and BJP supporters on the website of Newslaundry.com, which carried a video clip of the interview.

“That is a downside that we have to face online,” says Nishith Sharma, co-founder of the Bangalore-based Frrole, “but you have to understand that there’s a huge chunk of online users who remain silent and simply watch. It comprises almost 40 per cent of the traffic online, so we cannot discount the opportunity to influence this group.”

According to Hatim Baheranwala, director of ‘capacity building’ operations at MumbaiVotes, India’s online constituency is simply too big to ignore, even if only one of every 13 internet surfers in India uses social media. MumbaiVotes has seen three elections since its inception in 2009. “We see huge—and active—online campaigning as well,” says Baheranwala. “The interesting voter is the undecided voter who may have pre-existing views but is still looking for more information to make a choice.”

Shrivastav believes that social media is playing a far larger role in this election than most candidates realise, even those who are relatively clued in. And in new ways, too. Delhi’s brief AAP experiment offered glimpses of the scrutiny that online crowds can subject governance to. Social media platforms were abuzz with every move made by this fledgling party, with highly vocal online activists raising questions on all kinds of issues. “Those elected have to address questions in real time; voters constantly question your stand, and you have to be answerable,” says Shrivastav, “I think all this is very good for a healthy political discourse within a democracy.”

Not everyone, however, is entirely optimistic about the impact of social media on Indian politics. With ‘big data’ ventures springing up and organisations like Facebook using data analytics to draw up profiles of target audiences that politicians can track and address, Abraham draws attention to the neglected issue of internet-user privacy. “Facebook ad networks and user trackers are capable of producing a granular picture of the average user by tracking his or her activities on the internet,” he says. “There is a possibility of manipulating the social media and using it for propaganda. There has to be more media literacy and plug-ins to counter propaganda and offer context to ideas.”