When India votes in the general election next year, it will be the world’s widest democratic exercise, and the biggest ever test of the role of social media in an election.
As the ruling BJP readies for battle with the Congress-led opposition in the 2019 elections, the act of Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp could be crucial in deciding who wins.
India already has close to 900 million eligible voters, and an anticipated half-a-billion have access to the Internet. The country has 300 million Facebook users and 200 million on Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging service – more than any other democracy. Millions use Twitter.
“Social media and data analytics will be the lead actors in the upcoming elections. Their utilization would be unprecedented as both parties now use social media,” said Usha M Rodrigues, a communications professor at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, whose research has focused on social media and Indian politics.
The potential for abuse is also immense, with incendiary news and videos capable of fanning violence.
Fake news and messages circulated on social media have led to more than 30 deaths since last year, data portal IndiaSpend says, mostly rumors about child kidnapping gangs.
Political differences have in the past been no less deadly.
“Social media discourse, already bitter, will turn bilious,” Milan Vaishnav, a senior research fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said of the coming campaign for the general election.
Each of the main parties accuses each other of propagating fake news while denying they do so themselves.
Nevertheless, the battle lines among them are clearly drawn. Congress has attacked Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s economic policies while the BJP dismisses the Congress as out of touch with the people.
This month, Congress won elections in three important states – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh – that were the strongholds of the BJP, setting the stage for a tight contest in 2019. Assisting the Congress was a revamped social media strategy.
In the last election in 2014, Congress was crumbled by PM Modi and his array of social media tools, including a flurry of tweets from his personal account, a BJP campaign on Facebook and holographic displays of PM Modi in villages.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi got a Twitter account only in 2015. But the opposition party is catching up and the playing field has gotten a lot bigger.
While Twitter and Facebook were embraced by politicians – mainly in the BJP – in 2014, it’s WhatsApp that has now become the social media tool of choice.
In Jaipur and the nearby town of Tonk, where traditional methods like public speeches and poster campaigns were largely used during the state elections, Congress and BJP party workers showed dozens of WhatsApp groups they were part of and used for campaigning.
Congress stated its volunteers managed 90,000 WhatsApp groups in Rajasthan, while the BJP said it controlled 15,000 WhatsApp groups directly, with its workers campaigning through roughly another 1 lakh groups.
In the Rajasthan elections, police ran a 10-man social media monitoring unit, tracking tweets and Facebook posts related to the state polls. Inside the monitoring room, the posts were shown on wall-mounted screens and automatically filtered into neutral, positive or negative sections.
The negative posts got special attention – they were manually checked and, sometimes flagged to senior police officers for further investigation and action.
The sole purpose, members of the monitoring team said, was to ensure that no online post spilled into violence.
One of the posts flagged by police when Reuters visited was a video from a Congress leader’s rally where people appeared to be shouting pro-Pakistan slogans.
Congress’ nearby war-room had already debunked the video they said was doctored. Within hours, party workers posted what they said was an “original” video that showed that nobody shouted such slogans at the rally.