Opinion

Social media will have the casting vote

M Muneer | Updated on October 27, 2020

Like it or not, politicians not adept in social media mechanics, like the Opposition today, cannot survive

The Wall Street Journal claims Facebook was biased in not implementing its hate and fake news policy in India. Did Facebook use the personal data of Indians and provide analytics to help one party win elections in return for money or other considerations? Has it subliminally controlled Indian minds with a reach of over 500 million exclusive users across FB and WhatsApp? Will social media decide which party wins in 2024 by persuading the voters without them even knowing it?

To paraphrase a famous saying, “everybody complains about government but nobody is doing anything about it.” The absence of a strong opposition in Indian democracy is obvious when leaders compete with tweets in the virtual world but not on the streets where it matters. By not “walking the talk”, the opposition is perhaps killing the largest democracy, without realising it. The WSJ report, whether true or not, became a handy excuse for them to hide their poor performance in social media.

The BJP has been masters of the social media and the opposition construed that as the major reason for their election victories. Using bots and paid followers in Twitter, FB and Instagram, political leaders aspire to win the polls of the future. While they are at it, real issues on ground are getting neglected and becoming missed opportunities. Worse, the capitalistic conglomerates closer to the winning horses monopolise the data world and subliminally swing voters who matter; not the Twitterati who don’t even vote.

It is rumoured that the BJP has created a 1,000+ team just to manage social media and formed thousands of WhatsApp groups across Bihar. And, today, WhatsApp has an unmatched persuasive power, and it propagates freely all types of news, and is totally unregulated. Imagine the impact on a vast populace still unenlightened about social media ways.

Whether or not a Parliamentary Committee examines the allegation of FB bias, the fact remains that social and digital media will have to be mastered to win elections of the future. The new normal post-Covid behavioural metrics have become clearer now. That means, whether or not politicians are adept in social media mechanics, they need to fear it — or respect it — for their own fate.

Given that over 50 per cent of India’s population is Gen Y and Gen Z, the reading habits have shifted from traditional media to digital. Even others are moving towards the same with WhatsApp, and are getting disillusioned with their morning newspaper’s credibility. Print media access will diminish and people will depend more on news in bytes without depth. They access news whenever they get a break and from wherever they are — office, public transport, home, park, etc. A politician cannot afford not to be part of these engagements at some level.

Awareness level

How many politicians know what the people are saying about them or their party? Do they know how their relatives and party workers use social media? What they say can have a serious impact as we have seen in the recent mob violence in Bengaluru. How can one control this is another challenge.

Making personal lives separate from political will raise a lot of ethical questions. Perhaps, party functionaries should abide by a policy of ‘how to do’ and ‘what not to do’. Perhaps, they should have a private second social media profile in FB for family and close friends like many industrialists and CEOs do.

Most veteran leaders have not yet entered social media even in a small way. There are some who don’t even have an email ID. These people still depend on fax, and what do you think will happen to their public image and political base when their constituencies get younger and younger? Those leaders who entered social media started with Twitter and then FB, but with no clear purpose or strategy. Have they done this because everyone else seems to be doing it? Such people will never see any results from this. When you don’t have goals to meet, how will you measure results.

Of late, social media has become expensive. You need resources like the BJP to acquire followers and to consistently push out messages, whether hate or praise, depending on which side it is aimed at. Politicians will need qualified staff to manage the handles regularly as they don’t have much time at hand. Engaging with audience, analysing political issues and being present in the right debates are essential. The roles of staff will need to be redefined.

Even when resources are available, the party needs to ensure that the efforts of key leaders collectively bring higher traffic to the party. There’s a need to build a cohesive strategy with websites — YouTube, FB, Twitter and Instagram — which should see different areas allocated to different leaders with expertise to handle. Treat social media as a gathering arena — feedback, information, discussions, trust, new connections, and so on.

Project the best

If, as a senior party functionary of the party, you think your supreme leader is not great at anything, keep him/her out of the media. People assume that the leader should be the face and voice of the party online as BJP has made Modi its poster boy. This need not be the case. Do you think it is Modi who is doing all the tweets and app messaging? He simply does not have the time for that. There is always a group of people that decides what he should do and what he shouldn’t. They also draft his speeches. One can alawys find passionate people in the party, but use them well. And prepare a code of conduct for them — avoid non-parliamentary language in TV debates, for instance; this has a tendency to go viral.

Yes, social media is not for everyone, but you just cannot be without it today. Get the right resources to manage a good strategy for social media, and stick to it until the goals are achieved.

With over half the Indian population between them, the Jio-FB-WhatsApp trio will not only control our minds but also sell the services to the highest bidder, which as of now will be the ruling party given the war chest they are building up with power.

During the election, all unregulated media should be banned or must be brought under a regulator. In the absence of any such moves, and given the inability of India to formulate and enforce stringent privacy laws that prohibit subliminal messaging, the 2024 elections will be decided by the social media totally.

The writer is Managing Director of CustomerLab, and Co-founder of Medici Institute, a non-profit company

Published on October 27, 2020

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