General Elections 2019

Development news, polarisation and social media in times of Lok Sabha polls

Polarisation of development news in social media makes its impact partisan and non-effective

 
By Richard Mahapatra
Last Updated: Tuesday 16 April 2019
Representational Photo: Getty Images

“Is this India’s first social media election?” asked the BBC on its website in April 2014, during India's last general elections. That time the country had just 20 crore (200 million) people with access to internet. Such was the engagement of the then prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi on social media platforms that everybody feted him as a moderniser and a powerful campaigner who could only be compared to Barack Obama. The former president of the United States of America was considered as the most social-media friendly candidate who reaped the benefit of interacting on these platforms.

India is once again in the middle of its general elections. In the last five years, the novelty of social media has not wavered. Rather, it has become a natural part of election campaigns with all political parties and leaders marking their presence.

India now has 560 million people with access to internet. It is also the largest market for Facebook and WhatsApp in the world, while Twitter treats the country as one of its crucial and expanding markets. News reports indicate huge advertising budgets being earmarked by political parties for social media.

But there are cautions this time. The threat of fake news looms large. Starting from the Election Commission of India (ECI) to the respective companies, there is a seemingly deliberate effort to curb misuse of these platforms. But, the social media platforms have also been used by civil society and advocacy groups for disseminating development news.

A casual Google search with the key words “social media”, “impact” and “development news” shows up close to 215 million results. It is not humanly possible to verify all the results, but it gives a peep into how big the virtual world is and how vigorously people are sharing content. We are certainly making a transition from a “searching” to a “dissemination” mode in the virtual world. And the social media has emerged as the clear driver of this transition. This is particularly true for development news.

The question is: Will the development news influence voters this election season? This question takes credence because polarisation on communal lines, through social media, is turning out to be effective. To change the narrative of the elections, can social media be effective in replacing this with development news? Or, to simply put: Can a development agenda be brought into focus using the social media?

The social media is unique as it is highly informal, yet, is the most organised congregation of people. Users are immediately organised based on their choices, trends they are following, and also by their geographical locations. This is what is fuelling the rise of the social media as a powerful platform for dissemination as well as the organisation of opinion around social issues.

Whether it is about a small movement to save a patch of forest in Peru or a jalsamadhi campaign against a big dam project in a remote district in India, the social media is not only the first place to break news, but is also a powerful platform to build a campaign. For a journalist like me, it has become almost a necessity to refer to Facebook as frequently as to television channels that supposedly break news first! It is the new common pool resource that is being aggressively pursued.

The flipside

But the social media has its share of problems that may impact the very cause it is promoting. First, it has emerged as the biggest strategic decision that has yielded results in terms of achieving fast dissemination and seeking immediate reactions for a social cause. This means that even before an issue emerges in its entirety, it is open for public opinions.

Second, many campaigns around development issues are exclusively targeted at the social media. There may be logical reasons for this, but the strategy seems to be dominantly focused on certain sections of the society that use it.

The threat is that by default, social media has become a polarising factor, even though most debates are not well informed. It has become a free space to throw personal biases and park opinions without any restraint. Therefore, any cause disseminated on the social media immediately polarises the debate. This is particularly true for campaigns having political overtones.

The social media played a decisive role in generating the perception that the government is “anti-farmer” or “pro-business”. But in the passionate debates that colonised the virtual world, the debate simply got polarised into “pro and anti-government rhetoric”. Such situations have forced political parties to deploy substantial resources to intervene in such debates.

The third threat is from the social media itself: Will it disconnect the people and the groups from those self-mandated to fight the battle on their behalf? If there is a disconnect, then the strategic leadership of a campaign shifts to the latter. This is not an ideal situation for public advocacy where the subject concerned doesn’t get active participation.

Development campaigns in India involve people who are very poor and the least advantaged in terms of access to communication. A mobile phone might have become a bigger necessity than a toilet in rural areas, but this doesn’t mean that the instrument is being used to directly involve them in campaigns that talk about them.

Researchers are currently studying the impact of the social media on social causes. Though the trends are positive in terms of garnering attention for such causes, we are not sure whether it has impacted positively on the outcome of the campaigns. In the meantime, we should continue to “reset” the virtual world, but with caution.

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