Whether the choices made in General Elections 2014, will be revolutionary and deliver us from corruption, low growth rates and inflation is yet to be seen. However, in one significant way this election season has already proven to be revolutionary. Campaigns and campaigning in Indian elections has always been vibrant and chaotic, the arsenal has grown now to include social media for the first time.
So after all the viral videos have been shared, the memes liked and posted, the jokesWhatsApped, it’s only logical to wonder what difference has all this digital campaigning had on electioneering and elections? A word of caution, I am not talking about who did digital and social better, but as whole what has the addition of digital made to the narrative of campaigning.
It’s not surprising that the parties that spoke “change” were the ones who capitalised on the new medium with far greater agility than parties that spoke of continuity.
The BJP, always very adept at adopting new technologies (it was the first party to have a media room at its party office in early 2000s) has used social& digital media extensively during this campaign. The party was first off the block and in many ways the campaign for this election started in the digital domain before any leader made a speech in any constituency. AAP has been cannier in its use of social media, its supporters use social media in an almost evangelical manner, spreading the word, building almost new pulpits from which the message of the leader can now be distributed. Its social media campaign is also targeted more at urban Facebookers and the Indian diaspora through the web. Being a party whose roots lie with the disenfranchised urban poor, its social campaign tries to build a new constituency for itself rather than speak to its core constituency. The Indian National Congress did not capitalise on social media, failing to use it altogether forget how effectively.
Digital campaigning has its benefits but it also has a few negatives.
For the first time the campaigns never stopped, forget what the Election Commission allows and does not allow this was the first 24X7 campaign. Everytime anyone dipped into the digital world there was a new meme, viral, joke, tweet waiting to be liked, shared, rebutted. This made the elections slightly harder to ignore as the campaigning infiltrated vacations, client meetings, midnight surfing, family dinners and birthday parties like never before.
When you look at the really popular stuff that’s gone around, you realise that it’s not issue based or propagating a thought process. It’s about poking fun at the opposing side or showing them in a negative light, it’s a witty description or tweet that is shared and commented upon. The message is kept very simple; it’s the cumulative impact that will count not the impact of one meme or forward. So each piece of content is only one strand of a campaign, its objective is singular. This takes away the focus from issues or debates or lengthy exchanges. The simplicity of the message, constructed for a laugh or a share is never able to delve into its subject matter. Its reason to exist is not to give insight or fuel thought but to garner an instant reaction. It’s the constancy of a million such content pieces that ends up creating a narrative of a campaign. The problem this creates is that throughout the campaign we never actually debate anything or reach any conclusion yet every day we are satisfied and content and feel a part of the elections. We never heard any leader explain anything, yet we feel we know the candidate.
A Hindi news channel has an amazing show that gives you 200 headlines in two minutes. At the end of the show, the viewer retains very little of the “news” as she bombarded with 200 headlines yet she feels she has watched the most comprehensive news show as she just went through 200 headlines.
This constant news cycle is also kept alive with the help of news apps and aggregators where again a scan of the alerts gives a user a feeling of following the news and being in the know. Campaign managers of most parties have been feeding us these digital tid-bits and influencing offline conversations as well. The result - a lot of real conversation this election has been about discussing digital content and not the candidate or facts and figures. Did you see that slap Kejriwal got? Did you see Modi’s mistaking toffee for trophy? Did you see the AzamKhan clip on his views on rape? Or Arnab take on Rahul Gandhi? No surprise that the main candidates even had their names shortened to Kejri,NaMo and RaGa. What got discussedand debated was the digital content itself and not the party or its manifesto or its candidate’s capabilities.
This digitisation made face-offs possible as every supporter of any party always had enough digital ammunition with him to take on the other side. For the first time it was possible to playback old interviews, forward a joke or a quote in order to take on the other side. Again this “paintball” exercise does not really help decision making or critical thinking but it keeps the voters engaged.
In sum though digital technologies helped us have a more entertaining 24X7 experience of the elections, it may just be that the technologies did not help us make better more astute decisions but like cartoons during dinner time, ensured we ate our food.