Can social media be used for an effective political communication in India where access to Internet is still limited, asks Taberez Ahmed Neyazi.
Social media has emerged as a vital tool of communication and has created new ways of mobilizing public opinion and encouraging participation in political and civic activities – ranging from joining online petition and social groups, posting short messages on Twitter, expressing supports through blogs and uploading videos on YouTube. The recent WikiLeaks disclosure online of US foreign policy clearly demonstrates the disruption caused by social media, which is now forcing the mainstream news media to turn to political blogs and citizen-users for materials. Such disruption has enabled citizens to discuss and share political information with friends and networked citizens, and critically monitor the actions of governments and corporate interests. This has also posed a profound challenge to the state about how to regulate social media and face user-generated challenges. At the same time, the uneven level of access of different social groups to new media, a phenomenon known as digital divide, has raised concern about the limitations of its democratic potential.
Can social media be used for an effective political communication in India where access to Internet is still limited? To what extent political parties and candidates as well as oppositional politics are using social media for political campaign? Is it possible to reach to the non-internet users through social media? Before answering these questions it is important to look at some of the statistics about the internet penetration and social media uses in India. A report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India shows that as of June 2012, there were 137 million claimed Internet users: 99 million in urban cities and 38 million in rural villages. Of these 137 million Internet users, 111 million (80 million in urban cities and 31 million in rural villages) are active Internet users, i.e., they use the Internet at least once a month. In terms of percentage, only about 11.4% of India’s population uses internet, which might not be considered significant.
Similarly, in their recent report entitled “Social Media in India – 2012”, estimates the number of social media users in Urban India at 62 million as of December 2012. The report also reveals that the internet users are spreading fast in areas beyond the top eight Indian metros as one third of the social media users are residents of smaller towns with population of under 500,000, while a quarter of them are residents of towns with a population of less than 200,000. However, it is estimated that majority of the social media users use it for entertainment than for political activities, although we do not have data on the behaviour of internet users. The small percentage of the internet users and the users activities on social media, have led many political analysts to discount the capacity of the social media in having any significant impact on political communication. However, one needs to look at the recent uses of social media for political communication before ignoring its credibility.
Two cases of effective political communication
In the recent assembly election in Gujarat, the chief minister Narendra Modi effectively used the social media to connect with online citizens. Besides being active on Twitter and Facebook, Modi also went for a live chat on Google plus with netizens. The event was anchored by bollywood film star Ajay Devgan. By going online for live chat, he became the first Indian politician to do so. Through his social media campaign, he was able to capture the first time voters, the youth, who certainly are more attuned to digital culture. At the same time, the middle classes are also quite active on social media. It cannot be argued that the proactive presence on social media helped Modi win the assembly election. But it is evident that despite being a controversial figure, Modi has been projected as more forward-looking politician. He has also been able to connect with the youth because of his style of political campaigning and his social media skills.
Similarly, it is well known that Anna Hazare, in his agitation over the issue of the Jan Lokpal Bill, effectively used the social media to mobilize the youth and the middle classes. The effective use of social media not only brought the issue into cyber space and made it more global, but also garnered huge support for the anti-corruption campaign. Although the movement lost its vitality because of many factors including internal dissention among its core members, it showed the effectiveness of social media for political mobilization. In a statement, the then Law Minister Salman Khurshid said, ‘We were caught unawares because Anna’s movement was a remarkable combination of traditional politics and unconventional modern practices. We were at a disadvantage because we did not use the social media as effectively as Anna’s movement did.’ Such a perception is not without reason, as a report released by Facebook revealed that Anna Hazare and the Jan Lokpal Bill were mentioned the most in status updates in 2011 in India. The general perception that people use the social media largely for entertainment does not hold true in this case. At the same time, using social media for entertainment doesn’t stop one to use it for political activities. Politics has certainly entered social networking sites, which has opened up new avenues for conducting politics.
The Dialogue between social media and traditional media
What is important to recognize in these two cases is the capacity of the social media to influence traditional media. All newspapers and television now have reporters who continuously monitor Facebook and Twitter for getting breaking news. The way traditional and social media connect and converge with each other has a profound impact on modern day political communication. This connectivity and convergence between traditional and social media becomes imperative in the case of India and other developing countries where the reach of the internet is still limited. Social media, no doubt, is more democratic since anyone with access to the Internet can raise an issue in the public arena. Yet, it would not be possible for social media alone to reach beyond their core audience and influence wider sections of society unless they collaborate with traditional media. Similarly, in order for traditional media to reach out to a transnational audience, they need to take the help of social media. The Anna Hazare movement, which began through social media, got momentum after news channels started providing relentless coverage. Similarly, Modi would not have been successful had he depended exclusively on social media for political communication. It is important therefore to understand different roles played by traditional and social media in reaching to different segments of the population. However, the presence in social media has become imperative for politicians who want to connect with the youth and the middle classes and want to play a larger role in the national political arena.
The coming of social media has certainly had a democratizing effect on the functioning of newspapers and news channels. The earlier monopoly of newspapers and news channels over providing news and breaking stories has been dismantled with the coming and spread of social media. Newspapers and news channels are now operating under the fear of losing their credibility to the social media. It is now difficult for traditional news media to hide a story from the public because of the fear that such stories might get published in a blog or get circulated on social networks. This pressure of the social media has certainly democratized the existing public sphere and enhanced the accountability of public officials. The recent exposure in India of many scandals has become possible because of the social media. Once the issue was exposed on the social media, public pressure started building on traditional media to take up the issue. The exposure of the 2G scam is one such case where the social media played a leading role.
New ways of conducting politics
Is there emergence of new ways of conducting politics with the coming of social media? In a recent study conducted by the IRIS Knowledge Foundation and the Internet and Mobile Association of India, claimed that results in over 150 parliamentary constituencies in the next general election could be decided by ‘Facebook users, making them the newest vote-bank with the power to shape Indian politics.’ One might as well question the validity of the findings as majority of the people in India use social media for entertainment. But one needs to understand that political participation is not static. Some people regularly follow political events, whereas others become interested only during a crisis or an important political event, such as an election or social movement. Among Internet users, substantial numbers may not be interested in the politics of the country or eager to participate in politics through the internet, but they are drawn into politics because a major personality is involved or during a major crisis. The Anna Hazare’s movement reflects that the online public, who used social networking sites for entertainment and to stay in touch with friends, learned to use these sites to engage with politics. Such a development is new in India, but has been ongoing in developed countries. Social media also played an important role in the Arab Spring.
Despite the low level of the internet penetration in India, social media has been able to reach beyond its core audience. This is because of the new space created on account of the interface between print, television and the internet, which can change the way the business of politics is conducted in India. All political parties now have their presence on social media, and maintain their party website detailing the activities and programs of the parties. Majority of politicians have their Twitter account or Facebook pages. We have seen that during major events such as budget sessions or parliamentary debates, politicians break the news by posting a message on Twitter. Social media literacy is fast becoming a sign of forward-looking and development oriented leaders, ready to take up the new challenges in a globalized India. The presence in social media has become imperative for candidates and political parties because of the changing expectation of the voters towards their elected representatives. Realizing the importance of social media, the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh opened his Twitter account last year to provide up-to-date information as well as to present the achievements of his government to the people.
Media as an important institution of mediation
Media, both traditional and social, have certainly emerged as an important institution of mediation in contemporary India as well as in other developing countries and has transformed today’s political communication networks. Making one’s presence felt in social media has become important for both political parties as well as for oppositional politics in order to ensure a wider validation for their cause. The oppositional politics, which often gets marginalized in the mainstream media, has been immensely benefitted with the coming of social media. It is not surprising that some of the most popular politicians on social media are from opposition including Narendra Modi, Mamata Banerjee, Akhilesh Yadav and Nitish Kumar. The incorporation of politics into social networking sites has made it impossible for political parties to ignore social media. Furthermore, given the changing expectation of the voters towards their elected representatives, social media might play a role disproportionate to its actual presence. Social media certainly has the power to influence the outcome of the next general election.
Dr. Taberez Ahmed Neyazi is an Assistant Professor at the Centre for Culture, Media and Governance, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He can be reached at email@example.com
This is a slightly modified version of the article published in Yojana (May 2013).