On Monday, soon after Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Arvind Kejriwal said that justice should be done in the case of Ishrat Jahan- the Mumbra based teenager who was killed in an alleged fake encounter in Gujarat- Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena activist Tejinder Singh Bagga started the trend #AAPExposed on Twitter.
Within minutes, the AAP’s social media team was ready with a counter strategy. It used the micro blogging site to mention what all the party had exposed in recent past. And it started trending on Twitter as #AAPExposedRobertVadra and #AAPExposedNitinGadkari.
Social media has pushed the boundaries for political parties in terms of its capability to send messages and reach out to supporters. 'Communication' for political parties is therefore no longer about maintaining the party website or handing out press releases to journalists.
In this age of Facebook and Twitter, the social media strategy for parties is as important as their on ground communication strategy. However, based on the current developments such as the #pappu Vs #Feku battle earlier this year and a handful of national leaders with around a million followers each on Twitter, experts say there is a long way to go before Indian political parties and leaders tap the real potential of social media.
One trend however is clear. Criticisms against political parties and popular leaders lead you to be bombarded by attacks by trolls. “Just like the real world, in the virtual world also, there are people rallying around their own party or leader. Their job is to retaliate and criticise the rival party or its leaders,” says Mahima Kaul, fellow at Delhi based Observer Research Foundation and a researcher of social media trends.
This pattern, according to Kaul, indicates that social media cannot get new loyalists to parties. “Only those who are already interested in politics will express their views on politics online,” she says.
Beyond trolls, the presence of political leaders in the virtual world looks like a game of numbers and oneupmanship: such as for example Twitter wars between Narendra Modi and Shashi Tharoor.
Most of the campaigns on social media focus on personalities rather than parties. Rajesh Lalwani, founder and principal of Blogworks, a Delhi based firm that works on online strategy and social media content, says personalities over parties, is a temporary stage which will change as upcoming Lok Sabha elections approach nearer. “Once the leaders have been chosen, and the representatives in place, that is when the party comes into play. Then the focus shifts to the party’s ideology and plans. It will follow, though articulated through the chosen faces,” he says.
Most politicians with good online presence use social media as a one way self promotion tool rather than a platform where they can receive feedback and respond.
Two of Tharoor’s tweets on Wednesday read as follows:
Addressed a public meeting at Mukkola at which 15 CPM youth joined the Congress Party. Hope to buck the anti-incumbency trend here.
— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) July 23, 2013
Various school functions still celebrating high-scoring achievers, incl one by the ZillaPanchayat. Hreat how much Kerala celebrates learning
— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) July 23, 2013
Lalwani says that with a large population, it may not be feasible for political leaders to be able to respond to every single comment directed to them. “However, it is absolutely essential to monitor what is being said on social media channels, and look at the key themes and sentiments that emerge from conversations, and address these, whether by responding directly to people, or by framing appropriate policies,” he says.
Two way communication between citizens and politicians is the way forward, agrees Gautam Raju, co-Founder of OurSay, a social enterprise started by young entrepreneurs based out of India and Australia. The forum has conducted Google + hangouts with Tharoor and minister of state and information technology, Milind Deora.
For the former, people from London to Dhanbad participated, claimed Raju. “The time for fence sitters is perhaps over. Democracy is not a spectator sport and everyone would like to join in the conversation,” he says.
With around 65 million social media users (Twitter and Facebook) in a country of 1.2 billion people, is the influence of social media overestimated however? There are no clear answers.
We should not get carried away by the term ‘social media’, says Lalwani, as the digital medium has several manifestations, of which Twitter and Facebook are just two. “Mobile is another of these manifestations, and its reach is immense. Even in the previous elections, political leaders were using SMSes and voice recordings to reach people.”
Even with the limited reach, it will not wise to dismiss the potential of social media in molding opinions, says Ishan Russel, managing partner, The Image People, a political campaign management firm with special focus on social media. “This election will soon become a battle of ideas on social media. And not directly but the trickle down effect this would have in opinion formation would be huge,” says Russel.