With elections around the corner, the chatter and speculation about the impact social networks will have on the outcome has been quite rampant. Specifically, with the way it has fuelled some recent developments.
It’s worth looking at some vital statistics to appreciate the power of the medium.
As per a recent Google survey, social media can have an impact on around 30 per cent seats in Lok Sabha Elections 2014.
It is likely to influence 160 of India’s 543 Parliament constituencies, making Facebook and Twitter users the nation’s newest voting bloc, according to IAMAI.
IAMAI released a report showing that increasing spending on social media campaigns can swing three to four per cent of votes in 24 states where internet usage is sizeable. Social media marketing can play a decisive role as a swing over one per cent can change the outcome of elections, it claimed. Four out of every 10 urban voters (or 37 per cent) in India are online, just a little less than the number (42 per cent) that are undecided about whom they will vote for in the 2014 General Elections.
Younger women are increasingly using social media. In small metros, college going students show the highest proportion of social media usage. Working women demographic segment is observed as having the lowest proportion of social media usage in ‘other, small and non-metros’, whereas they show a moderate proportion of social media usage in the top four metros.
Current social media users are pegged at 85 million and slated to hit 91 million by December 2013.
An experiment in the US found that a reminder to vote combined with photos of your friend who had voted lifted turnout by around 300,000 votes or 0.6 per cent among those who saw it.
In India, BJP’s Narendra Modi and Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi are the two most searched politicians.
In my view, social media plays a very pervasive role throughout the election process and the above statistics and insights substantiate it.
The role of social media in the upcoming elections can be broken down into the following:
Searchability, conversation and influence
New and existing voters go online to seek information, address queries and most importantly, to form opinions. The same is widely influenced by the social media chatter, information provided by political parties, agility to dialogue with the voters and the overall sentiment prevalent around the leaders up for voting. The conversations also become an enabler for the undecided voter population.
Rub off on traditional media
Social media influences other media (TV/ newspapers pick up a lot of news from Twitter these days). Traditional media channels such as television / print leverage social media conversations and discussions to share real-time news and views around political parties.
Word-of-mouth transported to physical world
Word-of-mouth is carried offline wherein those who are passively consuming / engaging with the chatter carry the opinion offline to peers, family and colleagues. Thus, making it a huge source of influence even in the physical world.
Freedom to be a citizen journalist
It enables every person to be a reporter / journalist and educationalist on Facebook, Twitter, Quora, etc. and share information / news of national interest. There is a small but very active Twitter base in India that is highly political and there are constant fights between the right-wingers and the rest, which can be read as BJP-Congress fights. Major political episodes in the country become trending topics and both sides are able to make TV news headlines quite regularly.
Opportunity to influence female audiences
Last but not the least, with increasing female internet penetration, it becomes an active source of influence and education for the female voters, which constitute close to 49 per cent of potential voters; the same being a huge number surely not worth ignoring.
There are increasing expectations that more campaign staffers actively use Twitter and Facebook to promote the campaign and engage voters. Possessing a more social DNA is now becoming critical for political parties.
Political parties have earmarked two to five per cent of the election budgets for social media. However, campaigning on social media has its own set of pros and cons:
The facts and opinions below make social media less potent than believed so...
• Many of those who actively debate on social forums include late teens, who are either minor (under 18 years of age) or do not have their Voter ID card yet
• The semi-urban and rural masses, whose votes matter, are not yet into social media
• It would be safe to assume that most middle class Indians experience political activity on Twitter through news reports on TV
• There is still a significant amount of people that don't use internet, or are not ‘advanced’ internet users. Official media controlled by government is their main source of information
• It doesn’t, and it cannot, guarantee transforming the same into turnout on polling day; same what used to be the case with election rallies
Actor and activist Gul Panag sounded a word of caution at Social Media Week, saying it is important that politicians are not judged for not being on social media. “It is not the only line of communication. Especially, in a country like India where less than 20 per cent of population use social media,” she said.
However, the government now cannot afford to overlook the citizen activism and their overdrive to voice sentiments, protest and influence key decisions. US is taking more and more cognizance of the same and hence has a Data Act in place which seeks to mandate the use of data standards such as XBRL (eXtensible Business Reporting Language), enabling transparent, efficient, timely and consistent information to its citizens.
Thereby, as the government moves slowly and gradually to fulfil the promise of C-Governance or Citizen-led Governance, the next logical step in E-Governance would be to make all government information shareable via Facebook and other social networks. Here in India, IRIS Knowledge Foundation is seeking to do the same.
So, whilst the speculation continues, we also need to wait for the next few months as they are crucial since all political parties have gone into the overdrive of pouring millions to revamp their fortunes by trying to attract voters through social networking.
The author is a Digital Consultant and Trainer
Sources for the above article include Google & TNS survey, The Hindu, DNA, Livemint, IAMAI report, Quora discussions, Slide Share and Social Squared.