India has a very low number of people actively using social media networks though its increasing at a deafening pace. As late as December 2013, the number of such users were considered to be a little less than 100 million. However, this was a rapid increase of around 20 per cent from earlier figures during the same year. These numbers, although insignificant, considering the billion plus population in the country, became one of the major platforms through which general elections 2014 was seen and fought. Why such a platform would be significant even though it has a low base? Does Social Media have an impact on voters choice and even people’s attitudes and beliefs? The Centre for Public Policy Research (CPPR) survey of young voters across selected constituencies in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh tried to analyse these questions and find answers. For the purpose of the analysis, CPPR identified young voters meaning people who are in the age group 18 to 40 years.
Preference for social media
CPPR attempted to get answer to the preference for social media and the internet for our young voters by asking two key questions. The questions were the following:
1. Do you prefer to vote online?
2. Do you thing that your decision on a particular candidate is influenced by the use of social media?
It should be noted that the first question was intentionally asked to check the readiness of the voters for new methods of voting. The logistics involved in such a transition might be huge and the issue of management of the process of online voting is understandably difficult. But the question provided us with the immediate perception towards internet/social media usage in India and understanding of its use. Across the constituencies in which the survey was conducted majority of the voters responded that they did not prefer to vote online. For instance in Lucknow constituency out of the total people surveyed and who have voted in earlier elections only 16% of the respondents preferred to vote online while remaining 84% did not. However, while the preference of the majority indicated this, there was a substantial minority who considered that they would like to vote online. For instance in Tamil Nadu, while in one constituency approximately 40 per cent of the users preferred to vote online, in another constituency, this number was much lower. The only place where there was a substantial preference for online voting was in Mumbai. However they still did not constitute a majority. The reason suggested in most cases was the lack of trust in online voting. People considered the internet to be a site of maleficent activities and hence susceptible to corruption.
On Social Media Influencing Decision Making
The same trend is seen in the case of the second question on influence of social media. While the number of people who used the social media on a regular basis constituted less than 10 per cent of the respondents in majority of these constituencies, the respondents had lucid opinions on its influence. The case of constituencies in Mumbai is different from the other places. Just like the high preference to cast online votes, people also held the strong belief that social media could influence their voting decisions. They profited for instance by considering such platforms as sources of informative debates and constant updates on leading issues. However, in spite of the high preference to cast online votes in selected constituencies in Tamil Nadu, there was a stern belief that social media could never influence voting behaviour of individuals. Pew Research which conducted a Global Attitude Survey in India on the use of social media found that only 35% of the respondents used it to share political views. This was based on the monthly estimates between December 2013 and January 2014. This might have changed given the daily interactions and height of interactions just before elections.
Reports indicate that Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu are the two states in India which has the largest number of internet subscribers. While Maharashtra has the highest number (close to 40 million), Tamil Nadu follows (with close to 25 million). Given the above inferences, it is unlikely that internet usage or social media as a tool in the election process is aimed at particular category of users. Today, however, Facebook has 93 million users and Twitter has an estimated 33 million accounts in the country. There also seems to be a group of people actively exposed to social media who feels that it could have no influence in their voting decisions. If these findings in anyway indicate that people exposed to the media could have split decisions on who should receive their votes, it is logical to conclude that the intention of the candidates was not to influence voter decisions but to use the social media as a platform to advertise themselves.
On the Use of Social Media
CPPR’s survey attempted to capture this by asking a specific question on the respondents’ opinion on politicians using social networking to propagate their ideas. Across the surveyed constituencies, majority of the respondents felt that the use of social network was part of the trend in India and essentially a marketing strategy. Very few people believed that it was a sensible site to formulate opinion or reach out to the people. An analysis of Facebook and Twitter, the major social networking tools used by candidates or their parties shows how important is for them to engage the people, emphasise youth here. In FB alone 29 Million Social Media savvy Indians made 227 million interactions with twitter hastags like #narendramodi #IndiaVotes attracting the most tweets. Incumbent Prime Minister, Narendra Modi’s official FB page shows that around 1.6 Million users have been interacting with him through the platform by liking, commenting, sharing, tagging on his page. Even the #selfiewithmodi was a major raze in the twitteratti population. While no one can possibly estimate how many of them voted for his party, because of his influential postings. There is considerable truth in the way people have visualised or were influenced by the keywords ‘development’,’economy’ and ‘growth’ which Mr Modi has been effectively used as his campaign slogans. Its further interesting to note how his Party fares in this ‘talking about this’ strategy used to vow voters. The official Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Page had considerable less engagement at 0.5 Million compared to Mr Modi’s page; showing how individual engagement matters at the social media platform. Compare this to the Congress who has fared badly in election with an engagement of 0.3 Million, or even a highly supported youth party, the Aam Admi Party (24,000), it largely shows how the youth reacts to the current trends. At the individual level, Arvind Kejriwal of AAP who has substantial following in social networking platforms have lost out his leadership with Narendra Modi. Brand Modi has been effective in more individual engagement than Kejriwal or unofficial pages of Rahul Gandhi and others. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee would romped home in Parliamentary elections has around 0.75 Million likes to her credit with her ‘Thank You’ posting getting high traction. Other major politicians who are active in social media are Milind Deora (South Mumbai, Maharashtra) and Naveen Jindal (Kurukshetra, Haryana), both of whom representing Congress Party had lost their place in the current election. Meanwhile Shashi Tharoor who was voted again from Thiruvananthapuram Constituency in Kerala is one of the first social media active politician from India , thanks to his stint in UN is still the favourite for twitter fans. Ruling BJP party has Sushma Swaraj (Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh) and Varun Gandhi (Sultanpur, UP) taking the lead among followers in twitter. The latest Nielsen survey throws interesting insights on the social media war, largely between BJP, Congress and AAP. It mentions that AAP had lost its Share of Voice (SoV) to BJP and Congress after Kejriwal resigned. However, AAP is most impactful party (1.7 Impact per post) based on interactions compared to BJP which has been the most active party. It also shows that Narendra Modi drew more response (61%) than BJP while Rahul Gandhi drew 29% response compared to Congress’s 71%.
Irrespective of how people believed on the influence of social media, we see one important trend across the state. This result contradicts the direct opinion collected from people on their belief in networking and social media. What is observed across the three states of Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu is that when divided between people who use internet and those who do not, there is a clear preference on what they feel would be decisive issues in general elections 2014. For both these categories corruption was a major concern. However, the line which divided the user from the non-user was the overwhelming preference to economics issues (availability of electricity, water, housing, inflation and growth) and to a lesser extent concern and support to issue of violence against women/minorities. For the non-user the decisive factor was candidature and leadership.
What this indicates is that the young voter exposed to social networking is more objectively attempting to evaluate the merit of the candidate while the passionate non-user is more attracted to the charm of the candidate and his leadership skill. Now the question is could this then have been the intention of the candidates who went for online campaigning? This intention could vary from understanding the passion of the crowd to addressing each of them specifically for their choices. A candidate knowing this differential views of the population could mend his strategies differently for different electorate in different constituencies. For the urban Mumbai voter he would guarantee water irrespective of the voters’ internet/social media usage but for an average Tamil Nadu voter the candidate could well rehearse a verbose election speech without once guaranteeing anything secure. But these can only be our best guesstimates; the fact remains that elections in India come and go while the voters’are still in a trance.