Vivid: The First Citizen's thumbs-up to Twitter

Indian politicians & ministers are increasingly reaching out to the masses through social media which has become the buzzword for the new govt, says exchange4media's Annurag Batra

e4m by Annurag Batra
Updated: Jul 7, 2014 7:57 AM
Vivid: The First Citizen's thumbs-up to Twitter

Social media got an endorsement which is first of a kind recently from none other than the First Citizen of India a few days ago. Within hours of him joining Twitter on Tuesday, President Pranab Mukherjee’s handle @RashtrapatiBhvn had over 11,000 followers.

With this Mukherjee is the first Indian President to have actively joined social media, quite following a norm among world leaders adopting the information highway to connect with the masses. Sources say tweeting is President Mukherjee’s desire to be in constant touch with the public and making Rashtrapati Bhavan more accessible for them.

It is pertinent to note that Mukherjee already has a presence on Facebook and enjoys 5.4 lakh likes.

Stirring instrument

Over the years, the likes of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have become a mainstay for civil society activists, citizens, non-governmental organizations, companies, politicians, heads of governments, etc.  Social media has made inroads into all the facets of the society, and is defining how people access information and use it.

Be it the campaign against corruption, or an attempt to spread awareness, virtual media acts as a common denominator lending support. It emerged as a colossal force in mustering people for a cause as seen in the outrage against the Delhi gang-rape case, the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement, the Meter Jam campaign launched to protest the unreasonable fares charged by auto rickshaw drivers in Mumbai and during the Tahrir Square protests leading to the revolution in Egypt.

General Election 2014 saw the platform playing a pivotal role in connecting people, especially the young and spreading the message of higher participation of voters in elections and ethical voting practices. For the first time in the country’s history, social media was used to driving home the need for each member of the electorate to exercise their voting rights. No wonder analysts called the vote India’s first “social media elections”. No wonder too, that the 2014 Lok Sabha election earned the distinction of recording the highest voter turnout ever -- 66.4 per cent.

Though most political parties used the platform in their campaign, it was BJP, which effectively used the platform to its advantage. Its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi deployed an army of supporters over Twitter and Facebook during his successful election campaign. Political pundits attribute BJP’s sweeping victory to the effective use of these tools as it was able to connect with the people, especially the young.

“The social media effect was huge for the BJP … They really understood that social media is an extended version of the campaign trail,” said Michael Kugelman, a senior programme associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Buzzword of the New Government

Seeing the importance of this medium,  Prime Minister Narendra Modi has decided to put both Twitter and Facebook at the centre of his government's media strategies. After assuming office, the platform became the buzzword of his government with Modi tweeting from both the PMO India handle as well as the Narendra Modi handle. He is the fourth most “followed” world leader on Twitter and recently overtook the White House in terms of number of followers.

On Facebook too, Modi is the second most popular politician – behind US President Barak Obama – with about 18.9 million `likes’ against his name. “We think it’s really important that Facebook is used by politicians and by others because it’s transparent. The more politicians are using Facebook, the more they will be able to reach their voters,” Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said.

Modi has now permitted Twitter unprecedented access to his administration in a drive to put social media at the heart of his government. He had also asked his council of ministers to use Twitter and Facebook to disseminate information and to connect with people.

“I am a firm believer in the power of technology and social media to communicate with people across the world,” Narendra Modi wrote in his inaugural message on his new website.

Emerging as masses’ media

From elections to social evils and protest movements, social media is fast becoming the masses’ media in India to muster people for a cause. Media experts believe that it was social media which provided momentum for IAC and other recent social movements. “There was a common cause to raise voice against the atrocities of society and new media became the favorable platform to showcase their anger,” they said. 

Pertinent to note is that this media space has now become a hub for story ideas for journalists. An increasing number of reporters now monitor Twitter/Facebook for news as politicians, intellectuals, businessmen tweets as press releases. Recently, Bollywood actress/businesswoman Preity Zinta took her official Facebook page to make clarifications on a FIR filed against businessman and former beau Ness Wadia.

Award winning journalist Shaili Chopra, who studied the advance of social media in India, has this to say, “You don’t have to be media to share or talk. These new online platforms are a megaphone giving a voice to people wanting to get their message out there, allowing for the articulation of new political discourses, social ideas, a new audience, and opening all to others. These tools may have a positive or a negative influence but that’s for a user to figure out.”
“Social media is no longer a fad, it is a fact. It is a fundamental shift in the way we communicate,” says media expert, KSR Menon. 

The platform has also exposed disconnect between the government and the population. By sharing their posts, tweets, blogs, and following, people are now become more aware of what their leaders are up to and what the government is doing. There was a time when the government could pass laws behind closed doors without public knowledge. Gone are those days as people have become more alert and conscious. Thanks to social media, there is instant reaction and discussion on political and social issues and implications are widespread.

Social activists, intellectuals, governments and firms now use the medium as a parallel one to create a parallel discourse around their thinking. This is helping them to create a large base for their activities. Of course, there is a first mover advantage here too.

The flip side

However, there is a flip side too. While the medium allows people anywhere in the world to interact with each other at any time and reach out to new friends, it exposes them to new dangers too. Facebook had gone on record saying that close to 10 per cent of its members have fake identities. The tendency of people to misuse the tools sometimes leads to interference into one‘s privacy. Also the misuse can cause damage to the society as seen in Bangalore last year when social media was used to spread panic among people from North-eastern states living in Bangalore and Hyderabad leading to a massive exodus to their native places.

Nonetheless, it is beyond anybody’s imagination in which direction the 21st century’s every day evolving medium will take shape in future. As long as the Internet enables people to connect, the medium will continue to influence and shape the things to come.

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