Apr 182013

My column in today’s DNA

The 2008 American elections — also called the Facebook elections — were different from any other that was held before it. It was the first time that candidates across the board attempted to connect directly with the voter-using technology. Facebook, Myspace and email — twitter was not that popular — were all brought into play in the attempt to woo the voter. None of the candidates used the technology as well as Barack Obama did in connecting with the young, technology-savvy demographic. Obama, then an unknown minor representative from Chicago, used the power and ubiquitous nature of social media to interact, to put out messages, to raise funds, to organise and to campaign to an audience that did not watch television, and was not interested in the discourse of the older generation. That audience — the under-25 American voter — in turn voted overwhelmingly for him. The rest, as they say, was history.

Since the 2008 US elections, the promise of social media impacting elections has been held out in India. But, a parliamentary election is different from a Presidential one. Mr Advani tried to use social media in 2009, but internet participation was still at a nascent stage, and it really did not make any difference in the elections. Since then the Indian-right has effectively used social media to counter views, put forth opinion, and build credibility. The Indian National Congress has woken up to the fact that there is a social media audience that speaks a very different language from those of traditional campaigns, and has begun participating in the discourse. It seems like there is a battle on for the hearts and minds — not to mention votes — of those who inhabit cyberspace. But, unlike the US, the internet is neither as pervasive, nor as well utilised.

There are approximately 140 million internet users in India — about 11% of the total population. Facebook is increasingly popular with the Indian audience. Most of us have a story of an office boy or a grocer who has a Facebook page and has sent us an invite. According to leading social media monitoring agency, Social Bakers, Indians are the third most populous nationality on social media — the US is number one, and Brazil is number 2. In March this year, there were 61.5 million Facebook accounts out of India. By April this figure jumped to almost 64 million accounts — 76% between the ages of 18 & 34, and 75% male. While the numbers in absolute terms are impressive, this represents 5.44% of the total Indian population.

In the last general elections, there were 716 million registered voters and 417 million of these (58%) chose to exercise their right to franchise; 28% (200 million) were below the age of 25. In the coming elections, it is estimated that there will be approximately 800 million voters. It is also estimated that 110 million will be first-time voters — for whom old equations of caste, class and community do not matter, and who are more worried about jobs and law and order than labels. These statistics are what are going to make a major difference to elections — because no one knows how the young voter born in a liberalised India is going to vote.

So will social media make a difference in the 2014 general elections? A recent report seems to think so. A study carried out by the Iris Knowledge Foundation and the Internet and Mobile Users association seems to think that the 64 million Facebook users (who will swell to approximately 80 million by 2014) will have a considerable impact on key constituencies — 160 of them — across the country. They study has an interesting methodology and that is to look at victory margins in the last general elections and correlate it to the number of Facebook users from that constituency. They call those constituencies in which the number of Facebook Users is greater than the victory margin, or where the number of Facebook users is over 10% of the registered voters as High Impact constituencies. Medium impact constituencies are those where ‘a Facebook user can influence one other voter who may not be on Facebook” and more than 5% of registered voters are Facebook users a — 67 constituencies fall under this category. The rest are low or no impact –where social media will have little or no impact.

The report is excessively optimistic about the role of social media transforming electoral apathy into involvement. There are two major issues. The first is that not everyone who has a Facebook account and is eligible to vote is registered as a voter. The second is that not everyone who is registered to vote exercises their franchise. What is not evident in the study is whether there is a correlation between Facebook users in a given “High Impact” constituency, and whether they are even registered voters in that constituency, or even interested in voting and politics. Also important is that a large proportion of this Facebook population lives outside the constituency in which they may be registered. Furthermore, the view that one politically motivated person on Facebook will influence another — as suggested in the study — is far-fetched. They may act that way on issues that directly impact them — jobs, careers, security — but there is no evidence to show that it translates to voting for one candidate or the other at a constituency level.
Is there a role for social media in the forthcoming elections? In a roundabout manner, yes. It is possible to use the power of social media for two very important things. The first is a campaign to get voters to register and the second is to get them to vote on election day. It is only when GenNext registers and participates in the voting process that it can impact elections.

Maybe that should be the focus of social media — to motivate GenNext to participate. Because without their participation there can be no change.

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