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Political communication can be defined as the flow of information and messages among political actors, citizens, and media. Political actors utilize social media for election campaigning and for parliamentary communication. Modern citizens, like the ancient ones, have an ardent desire to be well-informed about policies that may benefit them and about leaders who are or who may administer them. Political communication is beneficial as it keeps the citizens cognizant of political happenings and enables them to make informed choices.
With the advent of social media , the mode of interaction between the political actors and the citizens is fast changing . Thomas Fujiwara, Karsten Muller, and Carlo Schwarz, in their research paper titled "The Effect of Social Media on Elections: Evidence from the United States" , concluded that Twitter did influence presidential elections by "lowering republican party's vote share in 2016 and 2020 presidential elections ." In this age of technology, social media has become a tool of both empowerment and oppression.
Social Media can be defined as a group of internet-based applications that allow for the creation and exchange of user-generated content resulting in two-way communication and enhanced participation. Social media is an arena of diversity and it has made Indian politics more inclusive. It enables people to participate in the political process by breaking barriers of geography.
There are broad opinions about the role of social media : One, that it creates a space of ‘filter bubbles’ and ‘echo-chambers’, where only one-sided information is consumed either with the help of algorithms or with the user's self-preference for reading material that inclines with one’s ideology. The contrary opinion is that social media enables an individual to have exposure to a diverse range of opinions, even more so than traditional media.
The involvement of the Data Analytics firm ‘Cambridge Analytica’ in the Trump and Brexit campaigns, and subsequent accusation of a data breach involving millions of American voters, urged a discussion on how social media can be used to influence voting behavior. In this case, it was claimed that Cambridge Analytica harvested people's Facebook account information, specifically targeting the voters with personalized political advertisements to influence their political decisions.
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Social Media in Indian Campaigning
The cost of mobile broadband prices in India has gone down significantly in the past few years and India has one of the cheapest mobile broadband prices in the world. This price reduction in part can be attributed to the advent of Reliance Jio, which shook up the Indian market in 2016 by providing high-speed affordable mobile data and economically cheap calls. Some reports linked a reduction in data prices with deepening smartphone penetration rates in India.
Affordable internet connections and smartphones have made the social media space very democratic in terms of access.The advent of social media has revolutionized the way political communication was conducted in India. The 2014 general elections was dubbed as India's first “social-media election” due to the prevalence of a great amount of social-media conversations between all important stakeholders on a scale never seen before. Around 56 million election-related tweets were posted during the general election campaign. Social media has provided leaders with an immensely personal and productive way to communicate with their political supporters.
We must recognize that the presence of social media has benefits. It allows political representatives to engage directly with the citizens. It has also made it much easier to get access to the events, schedules, and election agenda of the particular leader through their social media account. It can also help the government to reach out to people to seek their active support in social campaigns.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has an impressive presence on social-media with more than 70.1 million followers on Twitter alone . Usha M. Rodrigues and Michael Niemann in their paper “Social media as a Platform for incessant Political Communication: a case study of Modi’s Clean India Campaign” talk about how Prime Minister Modi effectively used the Twitter platform to promote the clean India campaign. As a prominent member of the Twitterati, he invited 9 celebrities to contribute to the clean India campaign and asked them to invite 9 more people, thus forming a chain reaction to assist the mission. Public figures invited by Prime Minister Modi included Priyanka Chopra, Sachin Tendulkar, etc. who already had the following in millions, thus expanding the reach of the mission. Almost every @narendramodi tweet on Clean India was reported in the news.
The Two-Edged Sword
Social media is a two-edged sword. It has also contributed to making politics more polarizing and divisive. It is often being misused for propagation of fake news and misinformation campaigns which are hard to fact check. We must recognize that in India the problem of fake news becomes more serious as people lack critical digital literacy. Social media is incessantly being used by political parties for targeting voters and influencing their voting behavior.
WhatsApp groups propagating fake messages are common. Propaganda and false lies are being disseminated and even qualified people sometimes don't bother fact-checking them. Minorities are demonized, sexist jokes are propagated. Hindustan times investigation has revealed that platforms such as ShareChat and Helo , with 50 million and 5 million registered users are ripe with misinformation and these are popular regional language social media platforms. It would be dangerous for any democracy if people rely on platforms that publish unverified false claims as news for obtaining information.
A more data driven model of campaigning is coming into place which focuses on harvesting people's social media profiles for targeted political news and advertisements. Often in this system , people who are not strongly partisan and have not yet made up their mind in favor of any specific party are targeted and flooded with information to influence their vote in favor of one's party or campaign. Thus , data is misused and voting preferences altered .
In India, we follow the concept of universal adult franchise and thus have a right to vote. We have to integrate the right to informed voting in the discourse on the right to vote. Voters must have access to correct information , they must privilege development over divisive identity politics, should be immune to electoral malpractices, and should be empowered to have quality deliberation on critical issues and policies. Archit Lohani and Priyal Pandey have observed in their paper "Towards Informed Discourse and Voter Education: A Critique of E-Campaigns" that there was a humongous percentage of tweets that were related to campaigning and propaganda during the 2019 National Elections in India and 2020 Delhi elections.
They observe that the focus on policy, manifesto, and past performances were rare in tweets. Social media has democratized the election landscape in India but at the same time it is also used for propagating fake news and for running disinformation campaigns. We must empower citizens to be responsible and analytical while using social media. Fact-checking and research are no longer reserved for the scholarly class, and in a world where fake news is pervasive, analysis and fact-checking indeed becomes a necessity for survival and peace.
By Preet Sharma
Preet Sharma is a third year student of Political Science Honours at Hindu College. She is a simple girl who loves engaging with complicated political theories. She is also deeply passionate about cooking other than reading and writing.
Political Communication ,Frank Esser and Barbara Pfetsch in Comparative Politics, Fourth Edition , Daniele Caramani , 2017.
The Effect of Social Media on Elections: Evidence from the United States, Thomas Fujiwara, Karsten Müller Carlo Schwarz, 14 July 2021.https://economics.princeton.edu/working-papers/the-effect-of-social-media-on-elections-evidence-from-the-united-states
Archit Lohani and Priyal Pandey, “Towards Informed Discourse and Voter Education: A Critique of E-Campaigns,” ORF Issue Brief No. 466, May 2021, Observer Research Foundation.https://www.orfonline.org/research/towards-informed-discourse-and-voter-education
Social media as a platform for incessant political communication: a case study of Modi’s “Clean India” campaign, Usha M. Rodrigues , Michael Niemann, International Journal of Communication,2017.