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2019 Lok Sabha Elections And Social Media

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The media plays a vital role in a democracy; informing the public about political issues and acting as a watchdog against abuses of power. During election campaigns the media provides information and analysis about the political parties’ programs, policies, candidates and performance. Electronic communication seems to make politicians seem more remote; there is still no connection between politics where power is brokered, and the network society itself.

Social media is playing a considerable new role in Indian democracy. With the changing politics of India political parties and politicians have found a new ways of reaching out to a younger and aspiration population.

Indian Politics has observed a whirl of change over the period of time and its dependency over social media to connect with people experiencing the fellow democracies and its effect. Over its diversified nature, 40% of the total populations constitute of Indian youth and concerning to the popular culture, Indian political parties are holding to internet and social media to connect with youth for their agenda and political events.

Observing the famous 2014 general elections of India, social media was the battleground of various political campaign and tremendous flow of varied political opinions.In 2014, India had around 250 million internet users. More than 560 million people are now online.2014 elections saw the rise of leveraging much youth and their minds over social media for any political campaign and serious notice was found on both the occasions: Regional as well as state election.

In India’s last election, social media was used as a tool. This time it could become a weapon.It is 2019.  Another election — this time, the general election — is upon us. The stakes are much higher, after all, India is the world’s largest democracy and over About 900 million Indians are eligible to vote in the election, which will take place over about five weeks starting on April 11, to vote members to 543 parliament seats. The party or coalition with more than 272 seats will form the government.

The scope for social media to be abused to manipulate voters has never been greater. 90 crore citizens are “The narrative of who’s up or who’s down, who’s smart and who’s not… that agenda gets set by social media in a way that TV was never doing before.” (RAVI AGRAWAL, AUTHOR OF “INDIA CONNECTED” AND A FORMER CNN INDIA BUREAU CHIEF). 

Political Parties and Social Media

2018 saw a rise in the use of social media by Indian political parties With the general elections a few months away, parties have been using platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp to woo voters, especially the youth. In the past one year, we have seen most parties stepping up their game and using social media platforms effectively to woo voters, especially the millennial. Although, the use of social media platforms is not new, its use for political outreach has exploded in the last few years.

A number of political parties have already started creating parodies on leaders of rival parties, which are circulated incognito through Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.

Keen to extend the power of social media mobilised in the 2014 election, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is trying to target smartphone-owning voters at the grass roots. More than 900,000 volunteer “cell phone pramukhs” are creating neighborhood-based WhatsApp groups to disseminate information about the BJP’s development achievements and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign activities. Meanwhile, the opposition Indian National Congress party is playing catch up with the launch of its “Digital Sathi” app and the appointment of their own volunteers to coordinate local digital campaigns.

We need a more well-rounded understanding of the emerging links between digital politics and the public sphere. How is (mis)information circulated by messaging apps related to more traditional forms of political campaigns, such as door to door canvassing, rallies and speeches? And how do these different spheres influence political participation and allegiance in different ways?

“As the election approaches, this is going to become more aggressive and there’s always a chance that it can lead to loss of life or property,” said Pratik Sinha, founder of Indian fact-checking website Alt News. “In the heat of the elections, such kind of misinformation triggers any kind of violence,” he added.

Impact of Fake News in Social Media on Elections

The use of social media to spread misinformation and fake news has been a huge concern in India. Doctored videos and information have been blamed for a spate of mob lynching’s and even riots in India.Political parties have frequently accused each other of intentionally spreading fake news intended to cause social unrest and given them political points.

To tackle fake news, WhatsApp has taken a series of steps like slowing down the spread of fake news by reducing the number of forwards at a time and by undertaking awareness campaigns through newspaper ads and workshops. But WhatsApp groups are still rife with political content of questionable origins and credibility.

“But the thing with social media is that there are so many layers of plausible deniability. There are thousands and thousands of accounts that are not ‘officially’ connected with political parties, but help carry their messages. All of this stuff will happen through them,” he told the BBC.

India’s WhatsApp Election

With over 250 million users, WhatsApp by far has the biggest reach in India. And the platform is known to be a source of fake news and misinformation. But there’s good reason to think the widespread popularity of WhatsApp in India could have a damaging effect on the election. For one thing, the 2018 Brazilian elections and recent state-level elections in India exposed how WhatsApp is being used to rapidly share messages intended to misinform voters for political gain.

According to reports, the instant messenger was used in recent elections in Brazil to deliver an “onslaught of disinformation,” to Brazilian voters. Far right congressman JairBolsonaro’s win in Brazil was allegedly sealed with the help of disinformation spread on social media.

India’s 2019 national elections are widely anticipated to be the “WhatsApp elections”. Against a backdrop of rapidly improving internet connectivity and rising smartphone use, the number of people using private messaging service WhatsApp has soared since its India launch in mid-2010 to more than 200m – more users than in any other democracy. And now the country’s political parties are moving to capitalise on this mass communication channel.

But given WhatsApp has already been used to misinform voters in other elections and spread damaging “fake news” that has led to serious violence in India, there’s a danger this could also pose a threat to the democratic process.

Ultimately, the role of WhatsApp in Indian politics needs to be understood through the interaction of technology with wider social and cultural issues. WhatsApp is a tool that amplifies certain tendencies that already exist in Indian society. For example, incidents of lynching might have much more to do with incitement to violence in a divided society than with an app that potentially facilitates the spread of rumours. Similarly, messages that promote hatred on religious, caste and gender lines rely on prevailing social cleavages.

Social Media- A Road To Reach Out To Youth

It’s no hide truth, that youth of this generation is highly invested in politics and the round of ideas around it. Social media has become a platform of voiced opinions and charges and even though politicians for their campaigns still use posters, cut-outs, fliers and graffiti for their rally, but becoming digital and being attentive over digital platform has changed the picture or urban India and politics. As per various surveys and reports, after 2014 elections, 2-5% of budget is set for every elections’ political campaign on social media (which is roughly around 400-500 crores for major leading national parties).

The social media have practically buried the physical and social gaps. They are also considered as horizontal media of communication. They provide the benefits of participatory democracy and development in modern society. Modern political parties have utilized the social media to enhance their political strategies and gain public support. The political parties have also joined the ‘cyber world’ mainly to multiply political transactions and engineer the support of various sources.

Presently, emphasis is laid on the setting of ever lasting relationship between political parties and people. Social media practice is one of several forms of political communication and needs to be examined from the point of view of ‘social engineering’.In this age of paradigm shift, new media practices are required to focus the attention of the people on electioneering process with special reference to Parliament Elections – 2014.

CONCLUDING NOTE

The use of social media for political activities influences peoples’ political efficacy, political knowledge, and political participation. Social media users may discover political activities in social media and by this way intensify their political knowledge, increase their political efficacy, and improve their political participation. Moreover, the social media usage for political activities was influenced by frequency of general social media use. The more often they use social media, the more often they use social media for political activities.

(Note: Image credit: Author)

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