The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is on a social media alert, as is evident from it boycotting NDTV over an alleged tweet against Narendra Modi attributed to senior leader Sushma Swaraj.
@ndtv had tweeted that after the BJP’s Central Election Committee meet on March 8, Sushma Swaraj had allegedly questioned the move to let the party’s prime ministerial candidate Modi contest from the Varanasi seat. Swaraj was reported by NDTV to have tweeted that if there was a Modi wave across the country, what was the need to have him contesting from Murli Manohar Joshi’s seat.
Senior BJP leader Joshi is the current MP from the constituency and as per reports, he has shown his unwillingness to step aside in favour of the Modi.
Although NDTV has regretted the error on account of the tweet that never was, it is interesting to note that another news channel, Aaj Tak, ran a similar report on its website’s breaking news section claiming sources at the BJP meet had highlighted Swaraj’s comments. The news has since ceased to exist on Aaj Tak’s site post the NDTV fracas.
This is not the first time that BJP has fallen under the double edges of the phenomenon called social media, despite the fact the party perhaps has been a trendsetter and most aggressive within the medium. Take the case of Varun Gandhi, a prominent young face within the party. First he praises estranged cousin Rahul Gandhi for some of his work in Amethi, then tweets a clarification: “It should NOT be seen as an endorsement of any political party or candidate,” he said.
Later in Sultanpur, the BJP’s Gandhi said, “I want to bring in a new form of politics. We need small-scale industries, the kind of self-help groups that Rahul-ji has set up successfully in Amethi, though I haven't seen his work personally.”
All that the embarrassed party could do was let its spokesperson Prakash Javadekar blame the 140-character limit of Twitter that “creates the problem". According to NDTV.com, a statement sent out by Varun later, however, was almost the same.
Observers feel the BJP has all its flanks open and no safety net to address the Twitterati blows rained upon it for such strategy disasters. Others cases in point, apart from the above, are: Nirmala Sitharaman’s re-tweet that “if only Shushma had stood for Seemaandhra in Lok Sabha just like Venkaiah & Jaitley did today” on February 20, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh addressed BJP’s concerns on Seemandhra and the bill was passed by the Rajya Sabha; Shahnawaz Hussain’s dig at Digvijay Singh that the Congress General Secretary takes out his problems and frustration by tweeting daily in the morning, as his party never gave Digvijay any good position when it was in its full power for years; even party spokesperson Meenakshi Lekhi revealing on Twitter the surname of the female journalist who accused Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal of sexual assault following which the National Commission for Women had sought an explanation from the BJP.
Understood that social media has become an intrinsic part of the electioneering in the country, what with traditional media giving way to -- apart from Twitter -- Facebook, Google Hangouts and WhatsApp to connect with the tech-savvy voters; understood that the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and the Mumbai-based Iris Knowledge Foundation predicts that FB will "wield a tremendous influence" over the results of the polls in 160 of India's 543 constituencies; understood that the parties have earmarked 2-5 per cent of their election budgets for social media (perhaps the allocations should have been more). But does it not call for parties like the BJP -- the parties prime ministerial candidate Modi was among the first Indian politicians to set up his own website and is on Twitter, Facebook and Google+ too, thus has a first-mover's advantage -- to tutor their leaders better not only about the benefits of the virtual world but also how devastating a negative impact in new media can be as compared to the traditional?
First and foremost, leaders across the spectrum, not just those in BJP, must realise that those times when they could be loose cannons are passé. In this era of data and information exchange and delivery, there absolutely nil scope of not having a thought-through, orchestrated conversation with the media and masses at large.
The BJP must realise that though the social media platform allows politicians to circumvent mainstream media to publish their messages to an audience that has explicitly chosen to 'follow' or 'friend' them it is more likely to put politicians at a disadvantage if make bad mistakes, which can quickly turn into major issues, especially once they're picked up by mainstream media, according to Professor Axel Burns of Queensland University of Technology says, The party leaders also must know that usage of social media also requires a lot of responsibility and transparency on the ground. Before using products like Twitter, politicians have to know that it lets the voting public learn more about their personal side. At the same time social media also requires that leaders become transparent, process oriented and that pledges are honoured on time.
At the same time, the leaders of the land must understand that the risk of they have to rise above the risks of public, permanent online gaffes. As per US-based National Post, media might keep politicians from fully engaging in the web experience, they "fret, stunting the potential social media could offer for bringing voters and politicians together in an extraordinary conversation.
“The world has gone mobile. We live in an information society and are connected to information anywhere we go, and whatever we do, 24x7. And that has changed how we as people behave. We never look up anymore.” Time the Indian politicians started doing so.
It is important that BJP takes note of the fact that Twitter is not just about creation of content, but also keeping a close control over negative news flowing from its stables. For example, BJP stands accused of EVMs being tampered in Assam, which may in turn impact its overall impression among stakeholders.