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Writer: Priyanka Nair - Friday, Mar 29,2013 6:17 PM

Politicians on social media: Is India ready?

Social media has become the breeding ground for controversies these days. Some of the biggest social media controversies that have happened in India over last five years have mostly involved politicians. Author, Politician and an avid Tweeter, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, who is now the Minister of State for Human Resource Development, is one of the best examples of an Indian politician who social media controversies have entangled.

In September 2009, Tharoor triggered a controversy with his ‘cattle class’ tweet. His tweet that he would travel ‘cattle class in solidarity with all our holy cows’ against the backdrop of an austerity drive in the government kicked-off a major row and Tharoor faced criticism. He had apologised then, saying he meant no disrespect to economy travellers but “only to airlines for herding us in like cattle”.

After this too, Tharoor was spotted to have said the wrong things on Twitter. Narendra Modi and Manmohan Singh are other senior politicians who have got into trouble for making statements that turned into social media controversies.

Having said this, there is a sudden phenomenon of political marketing taking the social media route. According to a report by the financial newspaper Mint, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government believes it has found ways to get better e-Press—by owning the Press—and understand the dynamics of social media, by creating a strategic media think tank.

The UPA is considering launching an online newspaper that will highlight its achievements, according to a cabinet note on a proposed new media wing that is to be created in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B).

Many social media activities have been activated already by the governing ministry. For instance, post the announcement of financial budget, Finance Minister Chidambaram organised a Google Hangout for a mass discussion. As part of its ongoing effort to generate a public debate on 12th five-year plan through various social media platforms, the Planning Commission will organise a 32-hour ‘hackathon’ in association with 12 major universities of the country on April 6 and 7.
The event which would be a first-of-kind initiative by any government body will involve students, youngsters and others, in preparing infotainment, story boards, mobile apps, etc. on the various initiatives mentioned in the plan.

The Commission has also started making extensive use of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, slide share Flickr and Google Plus for this purpose. The Commission’s Twitter account was activated few days ago and also its Facebook page.

exchange4media spoke to digital experts to understand if this move is right...

Just like another campaigning tactic?
It is a good move in principle but the timing is very risky, being just ahead of the 2014 elections, said Sabyasachi Mitter, Managing Director, Interface Business Solutions.

As with all brands, when one gets onto social media for the first time, there is bound to be a barrage of negative complaints. Some of this would be from genuinely aggrieved citizens and some could be generated by the opposition and competitive elements.

“The listening and response mechanism is bound to get tested in the immediate run and that is where the focus should be. If people see that their issues are being responded to on time and actual meaningful action is being taken, then the move would gain credibility and should definitely prove to be a positive differentiator for the government,” added Mitter.

An open communication platform: A risky move?
As far as governance is concerned, the single biggest pain point for the common man has been to have access to a forum to voice their opinion. The government can bring that much-needed change by establishing various communication channels accessible to general public and social media is a great option, given the present times,” said Vineet Rajan, Director, IndiBlogger.

The authorities should be careful about the ability to act on the inbound questions, ideas and opinions. If the social communities are not able to act and show results, they will soon lose credibility, like any other propaganda medium.

Ansoo Gupta, Chief Operating Officer, Pinstorm is of the opinion that, “This move will work only when the Indian government will be ready to be prompt, responsive and mostly important, maturely take things into control. There is nothing to be scared of. The Indian government should use social as a medium to both, listen and answer.”

Away ahead – wait and watch
According to Harshil Karia, Online Strategist and Co-Founder, FoxyMoron, it is a great move for Indian democracy since it is in the direction of leadership moving towards transparency. How much transparency this actually leads to at a national level, one has to wait and watch. “Initially, I believe, this move will be met with mixed reactions. There will be a section of the public who will scrutinise and criticise its every move on social media and there will also be those who will welcome this initiative and try and engage in proactive democratic discussion. The long-term impact of this digital trend will all depend on how the various departments decide to handle their personality,” added Karia.

If the authorities buckle down to criticism and stop responding, netizens will lose faith. If the authorities choose to make their social channels mere broadcasting channels, then too the activity will not generate scale, impact or interactivity. Anything could happen with this move, all that can be done right now is to participate and watch the system gets savvy in its political approach.

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