Guest Column: Social media and the first-time voter

Carl Noronha, Head of Strategy, Raising iBrows takes a look at how various parties & poll candidates are strategising to woo the sizeable chunk of young voters & induct them into the voting process

e4m by Carl Noronha
Published: Apr 25, 2014 8:43 AM  | 5 min read
Guest Column: Social media and the first-time voter

The primary purpose of political advertising is to swing the perception of the people who have ‘confusion’ written all over their faces, and ultimately to win votes. For a larger percentage of politicians, it is all about obtaining and retaining power.

The economics of 2014 Elections
Reuters reports that Indian politicians are expected to spend around $5 billion (Rs 30,000 crore) on campaigning for the 2014 Elections – a sum second only to the most expensive US presidential campaign of all time – in a splurge that could give India’s floundering economy a temporary boost.

India’s campaign spend, which can include cash stuffed in envelopes as well as multi-million-dollar ad campaigns, has been estimated at Rs 300 billion ($4.9 billion) by the Centre for Media Studies, which tracks spending. This is triple the expenditure that the Centre said was spent on electioneering in the last General Elections in 2009.

Media is the largest beneficiary in the arsenal; and all related advertising turns into a medium to deliver promises, attack and counter-attack opponents, and function as the political game changer.

So, couple greed with the seven deadly sins of the Indian voters, stir in tonnes of cash and engage some of India’s leading advertising-PR-social media conglomerates to churn out propaganda, and you have a volcanic blitz of media madness.

The 2014 elections are very interesting as majority of the voters are very young. At a news conference in New Delhi, the Election Commission said that the process of voting for the 16th Lok Sabha will see the largest ever population of eligible voters at 814 million, 100 million more than in the 2009 elections. This time round, more than 23 million voters are aged between 18 years and 19 years. For the first time in elections in India voters will be allowed to cast a ballot for ‘None of the Above’.

Given the sizeable chunk of young voters this time, political advertisers are reaching out to the audience where they “hang out”.

With advertising and communication being churned out faster than widgets, there is no thinking time for the creators; hence, they all narrate versions of the same story – albeit with different overtones – over different platforms.

The story goes something like this...

Here’s the starting point: what does the party stand for? Why does the party exist? What does the PM candidate stand for? There are many causes on offer – secular, development, safety, jobs, prices, pride, honesty and governance.

The first-time voter is young, idealistic and seeks a motivating argument to come out and vote. The best argument for this group is economic – the promise of jobs and a brighter future.

Similar to brand marketing campaigns, the candidate who presents the best chance in the constituency is a combination of optimising many variables and micro-targeting, that is, ‘think national, but choose local’ – one of the most commonly used engagement strategies right now.

By creating syndromes of fear, uncertainty and doubt amongst the people, political advertising portrays competitors in an unfavourable manner, thereby benefitting the attacking candidate and not marring his image; eventually leading to winning more votes.

Everyone – from TV presenters to actors to former diplomats and government servants – offer their endorsements for the benefit of the voter. Such endorsements have multiplied gradually in these elections. Parties rope in influential social commentators and feed them with talking points to build preference, especially among the undecided voters.

According to a research by Autumn Worldwide, out of a million conversations on social media on elections in September 2013, first-time voters (overall 150 million) led 40 per cent of chats. They discussed issues concerning the rupee, price rise, women’s safety, governance and jobs. Their idea of accountability in politics will define India over the next 20 years. So, 2014 is a start.

What’s important here is not which party wins the elections this time, but the power of crowdsourcing and influencing opinion on the Indian social scene. This of course calls for a social and cultural mindset change, which is slowly experiencing what theologians call an ‘escatological breaking in’, or a foretaste of things to come before they actually occur.

While the political camps pore over rivals’ speeches looking for historical inaccuracies and discrepancies in political manifestos, a parallel analysis is unfolding across homes, public and individual spaces alike.

The relationship between politics and the youth in India has been pre-dominantly passive. But of late, with candidates such as Meera Sanyal have been active on social networks and are using their personal pages to promote their ‘brand’ and to reach out to the users by informing them about what they intend to do or what they are currently. This has helped them create a following amongst the dominant and previously dormant majority.

This adoption of new media by Indian politicians, even though late, provides a personal connect between the aspiring leaders and the janta, making the game a little more complicated than it previously was; keeping the users aware about the actual story, instead of depending on paid media for biased information.

There is another side to the story as well. Where there’s any form of advertising, there are advertising agencies, and this time they have come with all guns blazing on the digital front too.

The best example for this would be Narendra Modi, who has managed to carve up a decent spot for himself in cyberspace by making complete use of social networks, along with the help of his agency, by keeping the audience informed about his actions as well as sharing his opinions on different issues. Modi’s social pages also feature web applications that look towards gathering volunteers for various causes as well as send festive audio greetings to his fans on the web.

The author is Head of Strategy at Raising iBrows.

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