The internet has become a new avenue for campaigning by political parties but they must counter false narratives
Surfing a news website to read about the latest developments on the Indian election, a digital advertisement smoothly glided over the screen and displayed a beaming picture of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with a caption: “Making India a Global Super Power in Space: Modi Once More.” The advertisement exhorted the readers to vote for the incumbent. Ten years back, for political parties, this virtual ad space was hardly an avenue to tap. However, ads have today become a small yet noticeable part of most parties’ campaign expense. Google’s report, aiming transparency in political advertising during general elections, released last month figured that Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party and its affiliates spent a combined Rs 1.49 crore across 89 Google ads between February and March 2019 while the BJP spent around Rs 1.2 crore and the Congress Rs 54,100.
It is a fact that the internet user base in India has been growing at an impressive rate and is expected to reach 627 million by 2019, according to estimates by market research agency, Kantar IMRB. In fact, internet usage had already exceeded half a billion people in 2018, with the latest surge driven by increasing rural internet usage. More and more people than ever before are reading news, shopping and playing games online. With a significant portion of an individual’s waking time spent browsing, the online space has become a hotbed for political warfare.
Shaping opinions, the digital way: Twenty years ago, what was the main mode through which citizens could engage in active political debate and discussion? Village chaupals, community gatherings and drawing rooms, where people assembled to meet, acted as impromptu platforms for political debate. Today, a major chunk of this discussion has shifted to the virtual space with people engaging in heated political debates even with strangers. With a smartphone in everybody’s hand, most people are gauging the nation’s mood through opinions being pedalled on social media.
Digital media is also the space where most new content is being created. Political parties today are actively using platforms like YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter to launch their campaign videos. An entire breed of youtubers and stand-up comedians are voicing their opinions and indulging in political sarcasm entirely through the digital medium. This trend has brought about a visible shift in the idea of political brands. It has forced political parties to change their traditional communication tactics and adopt an active digital presence as well. While the BJP has been initiating video, print and digital ads mainly themed around its campaign of ‘Main Bhi Chowkidar’, the Congress is using the medium to highlight the missed promises of 2014 and projecting Rahul Gandhi as a credible alternative.
As many as 8.4 crore first-time voters are expected to have cast their votes in this election, with 1.5 crore of them in the age group of 18 to 19 years. The possibility is that a majority of these social media-savvy voters would have come across all political pitch points — be it from parties or supporters — on digital media rather than on TV or any other medium.
Counter fake news conundrum: Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, a vocal critic of the current regime, recently found himself at the receiving end of serious allegations of financial misconduct pertaining to his tenure as Chancellor of the Nalanda University. The allegations being vociferously circulated on social media turned out to be untrue when fact checks were conducted.
The emergence of ‘digital’ has added a new dimension to the way political campaigns are conducted. It has also created a dangerous trend — of fake news and forwards being circulated to gullible consumers. The creation of dedicated IT cells by political parties has been the driver of this trend. Most parties today have an active force of social media workers, who work morning until night to lend credence to the narrative being pushed by the concerned party. It all began with the BJP’s dedicated IT cell, whose dedicated army has actively worked to sway public opinion since 2014. Most other parties have caught up today; they have social media workers of their own to shape and counter the narrative online. Hence, pedalling of fake news and false narratives has become a major problem in this phenomenon of ‘manufacturing consent.’ While using the digital medium to connect to young citizens, political parties today also have to be extremely alert to counter false information.
As internet literacy grows and more people hop on to the digital bandwagon, its importance as a mode of mass communication is only expected to increase. Parties do not just need internet warriors but also coherent strategies to use this medium effectively to propagate their viewpoint while countering false narratives against them.
(The writer is director and creative strategist of an advertising and consulting agency)