Karnataka Assembly polls: Social media data less of a concern in Indian politics than fake news, say experts

While the Cambridge Analytica scandal has created concerns over the breach of privacy by data firms, agencies providing election management services in the Karnataka elections say that social media is not at all useful in planning out election campaigns. "Social media data is not useful for any predictive analysis in the Indian political context because nearly 70 percent of India is off the grid," said Yeshma Nanjappa, corporate communication specialist at Bengaluru-based 5Forty3 Datalabs.

"Usage of data and analytics in this day and time is unavoidable and the process itself is irreversible. All debates about social media data leaks are mostly farcical," she added.

Abhishek Shukla, head of campaigns and CEO of Pollltics.in, a firm that specialises in election management services, said they collect data from firsthand sources through door-to-door surveys and rely on social media only to promote their clients' profiles. But political parties in Karnataka continue to battle misinformation and the spread of fake news while using social media as a political tool. Shukla said that several political parties in India, including the BJP are mandating that their party candidates are active on social media.

"The main problem is that nowadays social media has become a buzzword and every candidate wants a good social media campaign and we support them on that part as well," he said.

Shukla added that as they work at a micro-level for individual candidates, data gathered through social media does not play a very important role. "For such micro-level campaigns, we prefer primary data sources because they are more reliable. Data purchased from analytics firms is not always reliable. Sometimes the data provided is old and does not represent the current situation. Besides, in several instances, the data provided might be doctored," said Shukla, who was associated with the Aam Aadmi Party for a few years before starting his venture.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

"We are planning the election campaigns for three candidates contesting the Karnataka polls. We are neither affiliated to any political parties, nor do we manage campaigns for parties. Our clients are mostly individuals who approach us," he said, adding, "Presently one of our clients is an independent candidate from Bengaluru. We are also managing the campaign for a BJP candidate in Bidar district and a JD(S) candidate in Nasoor."

Like Polltics, even 5Forty3 says it does not rely on data from social media for its analytical components. "5Forty3 Datalabs does not use social media data for any primary analytical component. We only use social media as a political marketing vehicle," said Nanjappa.

But the use of social media for political marketing is fraught with risks. The IT cells of all political parties have found themselves battling fake news. Chandhan Dhore, a core committee member of the Janata Dal (Secular)'s IT cell said they have set up a separate team to battle fake news. This is also the case with the BJP and the Congress' IT teams.

Recent allegations of data security breaches against Facebook have prompted it to gear up to monitor the social media site in Karnataka for the Assembly polls. "We are announcing a third-party fact-checking program in India. Aimed to fight the spread of false news on our platform, we have partnered with BOOM, an independent digital journalism initiative, for a pilot programme that will first roll out in the state of Karnataka," the social media giant wrote in a blog post. However, while Facebook's efforts are aimed at reducing the spread of fake news stories in English, it is unclear as to how much information can be mined from its database.

"Requirements vary from candidate to candidate and region to region. Based on our field surveys, we design a targeted campaign that differs from place to place," said Shukla, "Specific issues are highlighted and shared for a targeted audience. From the setting up of a war room to designing the type of messages that will be shared among voters, to creating social media, audio and video content, our clients are provided with everything," he added.

Due to an unreliability of social media data for micro-level analytics, election management firms prefer using the medium only to promote individual candidates. Shukla explained that since Polltics focuses on individual candidates, their social media activity is limited to a micro-level. "At a macro-level, parties have their own IT cells that monitor and share content to promote the party. We work only to promote the candidate and at a micro-level, social media is not a very powerful tool for analytics," he said. Shukla went on to add that based on the mood and demands of a certain group of voters, he helps promote his candidates by highlighting the situation and designing positive posts for them and negative posts for their opponents.

Private data firms like 5Forty3, however, use in-house tools to develop their database. "We collect data from the ground using our in-house tech-tool known as MAPi — Micro Analytical Projections (Intelligence) that divides India into over 9,87,000 GUIs (Geographic Units of Intelligence) . Each GUI is home to a mean of 1,200 citizens. Our team collects real time data of people's opinions to feed the MAPi," Nanjappa said, adding that while she cannot comment on who is using their data, 5Forty3’s clients include individual contestants, political organisations and financial institutions among others.

Shukla said that Polltics charges anywhere between Rs five lakh and 40 lakh for each political campaign. "The cost varies based on candidate requirement. Only for a planning table assistant, the price can be anywhere between Rs five lakh and 10 lakh. Additional charges are required for end-to-end support." He revealed that after detailed surveys from primary sources, a team of 12 members use social media to pushing localised issues including social causes and negative campaigns on opposing candidates.

However, at a time when all political parties are planning major campaigns online in the run up to the polls with help of their own social media teams and private firms, more than the concern of privacy being breached, the spread of misinformation may yield damaging consequences.

The author is a member of The NewsCart, a Bengaluru-based media startup

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Updated Date: Apr 26, 2018 15:26:20 IST

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