A recent report indicated that the impact of social media on the next parliamentary election in India would be significant. Sponsored by the Internet and Mobile Association of India and conducted by IRIS Knowledge Foundation, the study contends that the outcome in 287 seats out of India’s 543 parliamentary seats would be influenced by the discourse on social media, Facebook specifically.
The study juxtaposed the number of Facebook users in each parliamentary constituency with the margin of defeat or victory in the last parliamentary poll in 2009. Based on the differential, constituencies were categorised as High Impact, Moderate Impact, Low Impact and No Impact – in so far as the impact of Facebook is concerned.
High Impact seats are those where the numbers of Facebook users are more than the margin of victory. Moderate Impact, Low Impact and No Impact are graded accordingly. Close to half the seats – 256 to be precise – have been termed No Impact constituencies.
Predictably, constituencies that the study says will be impacted by the social media are urban seats while the No Impact constituencies are those that are among the poorest in the country.
While the results of the study cannot be ignored, especially by the political class, depending too much on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites to secure votes would be repeating the mistake made by the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2004. Back then, its leaders mounted a television-centred electoral campaign believing that winning TV debates was all that mattered in politics and votes would come naturally thereafter.
In terms of its poverty indicators, India presents the peculiar spectacle of a fall in absolute numbers of the poor while registering an increase from 22 percent in 1981 to 33 percent in 2010. One does not need knowledge of missile technology, on which India has significant spending, to unearth that those live in such abysmally poor conditions have no understanding of the world of social networking.
Even in the ‘Impact’ constituencies, it would be politically myopic to make political calculations and draw campaign strategies solely by focusing visibility on social media. In most urban constituencies also, the extent of urban poverty is acute and for those who live on the fringes of humane existence social media has little recall value.
Data is cited to contend that India, which has currently around 66 million social media registered users is bound to see this number rise to 80 million by the time polls in India are likely to be held in mid-2014. Indian voters are poised to swell up to the 800 million mark by the next hustings thereby meaning that 10 out of every 100 Indian is a user of social media. But then these 10 do not speak to the 90 others, but they primarily make ‘friends’ within the elite group.
Moreover, even regarding the numbers of registered Facebook users, there is an anomaly. For instance in the Thane constituency adjoining Mumbai, there are 400,000 registered social media uses while the total number of electors in 2009 was 1,800,000. On the face of it, at 25 per cent of the electorate, Facebook users are an impressive number. But therein lies the larger story that unless accompanied by overall economic uplift, users of technology – both hardware and software – is reaching the saturation point.
There is also the issue that all registered users of Facebook are not regular users. A significant number of those who have registered have rarely lasted more than a few visits but information pertaining to them and their traits have become open secret after the data has been harvested. Making formulations on likely electoral behaviour on the basis of such questionable figures belittles the political acumen of the Indian voter.
Campaign techniques have evolved constantly from the first parliamentary poll in 1952. The one for the next House will also witness a huge blitzkrieg which would be lapped up by the media, especially television channels because its consumers would believe that they are shaping India’s destiny.
But there is a lot of India that is outside the realm of the social media which is silent and whose responses never surface in the run up to the polls because the media rarely reaches out to them. Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites would give fuel to the evening discussions of the chatterati, but the poll outcome will resonate with the lot of teeth gnashing that is ignored because it carries with it uncomfortable reality of large tracts of India.