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How Much Influence Did Social Media Have On India's Election?

BY Rebecca Chao | Wednesday, May 21 2014

Selfie + inked finger = "Fingie" (credit: @SirPareshRawal/Twitter)

India's 2014 election is being called a #TwitterElection because it is the largest democratic election in the world to date and so much of it took place online. While there seems to be a number of correlations between the online activities and victories of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which swept up 427 seats in India's Lok Sabha or lower parliament, and of Narendra Modi, India's new prime minister, just how much of their success can be attributed to their social media savviness?

Trying to answer the question of whether a like or a tweet can lead to a vote or whether social media is simply a mirror of public sentiment is a tricky question since it's probably a bit of both. The following is an analysis of how social media data fell in line with election results and in some cases, how it did not.

A Young, More Connected India

While online election activity saw a dramatic increase from years prior, the country saw a number of other important election firsts: 150 million between the ages of 18-23 were newly eligible to vote, two out of three people in India are under the age of 35, and there was an unprecedented voter turnout at 66.4 percent (compared to 57.5 percent in the 2012 U.S. elections).

India’s Internet penetration rate, according to Internet Live Stats, also grew an unprecedented 14 percent from last year and is currently estimated to be at 243 million or roughly 19 percent of India’s population.

However, while social media usage has increased, India dropped nine rankings to 140 out of 179 in the 2013 Press Freedom Index. Reporters Without Borders writes that India is at its lowest ranking since 2002. With the rise in Internet adoption rates, and a lack of strong media, both politicians seeking to demonstrate a commitment to transparency and users who mistrust traditional news channels might instead choose to express themselves on social media.

The "Crowd Puller" Online and Off

Modi has been an avid social media user for some time now and perhaps this earlier start may have given him a better competitive edge even if some of the other candidates and parties demonstrated a fairly strong online presence during the campaign and election period.

In 2012, when Modi was the Gujarat chief minister, he made a name for himself as the first Indian politician to engage with citizens on social media, according to the Times of India. He held a Google Hangout on August 30th that year to answer a variety of questions about but his state agenda but not about contentious political issues. #ModiHangout became a top trending topic in the country and the hangout itself became so popular it took 45 minutes to begin because the site kept crashing. But Modi maintains this prowess offline as well where he is known as the "crowd puller" for his ability to draw large numbers to his rallies.

Rather than use mainstream media, Modi announced his win via Twitter @narendramodi to his 4.27 million fans and encouraged voters to tweet their “fingies” or "ungli" in Hindi with the hashtag #selfiewithmodi. Selfies came in mostly from the younger crowds but was certainly not limited by age:

A total of 56 million election-related tweets were posted between Jan. 1 and May, 12 2014 and the following time lapse reveals how there is a steady Twitter discussion of Modi, represented by the color orange:

Twitter writes in its blog, albeit with a nice pat on its back:

To put this in perspective, in the 2009 elections, there was just a single active politician with 6,000 Twitter followers. This Lok Sabha Election, Twitter became the medium of choice for people to engage in and consume political content. Take any metric: original content generated, engagement by political leaders, user engagement with content, news breaks, influence on political discourse or capacity to set media agenda — it happened on Twitter.

Facebook also saw a significant amount of online election activity. Katie Harbath, the Global Politics and Government Outreach Manager at Facebook, wrote in an e-mail to techPresident:

From the day elections were announced to the day polling ended, 29 million people in India made 227 million interactions (posts, comments, shares, and likes) regarding the Indian Elections on Facebook. In addition, 13 million people made 75 million interactions regarding Narendra Modi.

Facebook adapted its megaphone "I'm a voter" app for India, a tool which reminds users to vote; 4.1 million people in India used it over the course of the election period. As Miranda Neubauer wrote today in techPresident, the app appears to have some sway in getting people to the polls: "A study published in Nature found that in 2010, 340,000 additional people voted after seeing the notification about their friends voting in their newsfeed, and in 2012 over 9 million people said they voted, amounting to 8.6 percent of the U.S. Facebook population."

Modi was among the most popular candidate according to Facebook with the following breakdown of stats: Narendra Modi has a total of 14.3 million fans, Arvind Kejriwal with 5.4 million and Rahul Gandhi's unverified account sporting only a measly 359,300.

But Twitter data shows that Modi's main opponent, Gandhi faired well in Twitter mentions (though we don't know the nature of those tweets) despite his lack of an online presence and engagement:

Quartz notes:

What’s truly amazing is that in the age of Facebook and Twitter, so little is known about [Rahul Gandhi]. Indeed, Ramachandran says, “there is very little verifiable information about the smallest of things such as his educational qualifications in the public domain.” Not even a LinkedIn profile. As a leader of India’s 600 million young, you know that India has embraced Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn in a big way.

When it comes to parties, BJP is in the lead in Twitter mentions:

BJP also leads on Facebook with 4.5 million fans. The Indian National Congress has 3.3 million and the Aam Aadmi Party 2.1 million.

Platform

When it comes to campaign platforms, the top three trending election topics on Facebook were jobs, education and corruption, according to Ankhi Das, the public policy director for India and South Asia at Facebook. She writes in Quartz:

Undoubtedly, this was India’s first election with such large-scale usage of technology, open-access internet platforms to connect, build conversations, share, mobilize opinion, and citizen action. Prime minister-elect Narendra Modi saw this firsthand and had the first-mover advantage in using these technology tools to reach out to India’s huge youth demographic.

However, while Modi was considered the candidate with the most economic prowess, he has been criticized for his lack of concern for education. John Cassidy writes in the New Yorker:

Some studies suggest that Gujarat, despite enjoying stronger than average growth, has a questionable record relative to other Indian states in reducing poverty, improving child nutrition, and promoting education and social inclusion. Last year, Amartya Sen, perhaps India’s most famous economist, came out strongly against Modi’s candidacy, criticizing his failure to protect religious minorities, and saying, “His record in education and health care is pretty bad."

According to a Lok Foundation-funded study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Centre for the Advanced Study of India (Casi), the top three topics discussed across the nation differ by two from the Facebook results: they were economic growth, corruption and inflation, notably in line with the focus of Modi's campaign.

Modi seems to have won the youth vote nevertheless. At a panel at The Brookings Institute, Milan Vaishnav from Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, noted that the BJP received support from three main groups: urban centers, youth and the "OBC voter," or, other backward caste, which are socially disadvantaged groups in India.

The urban centers represent not only young voters but also the business vote. Modi had received the endorsement of prominent economists such as Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya. Modi's strong support for businesses and his focus on foreign investment won him allies in the business community. John Cassidy writes in the New Yorker about how Modi had already proved himself as an economy-focused leader in Gujarat:

All of these things have the support of India’s business community, which provided strong backing to Modi during the election. Investors like Modi, too. (The Indian stock market has risen sharply in anticipation of his victory, and it rose again on Friday.) During his long tenure in Gujarat, he courted foreign companies, oversaw G.D.P. growth that exceeded the national average, and helped start irrigation projects that have boosted agricultural yields. Capitalizing on this success, he organized a series of conferences for international investors that he called Vibrant Gujarat.

Throughout his campaign, Modi upped his emphasis on economic issues -- he has been dubbed a "Thatcherite" because of his championing of small government and privatization -- and down played his Hindu nationalism, continuing to deny involvement in the 2002 Gujarat riots, which left thousands dead, mostly Muslim.

Campaign Style: Obama Everywhere

Many, like The Washington Post, noted that Modi adopted an Obama-styled social media-savvy campaign but he was certainly not alone. The Aam Aadmi Party, led by Arvind Kejriwal, also adopted Obama's campaign style:

Late last year, the new Aam Aadmi Party, or Common Man Party, surprised many people with its strong showing in the Delhi state election, just a year after it was founded on an anti-corruption platform. Although its Delhi government quickly imploded, many credited the party’s fast rise to its use of Obama-style tactics ...

Despite this widespread adoption of Obama-style tactics, a number of experts remain skeptical about the impact of social media and American-style campaigns since 70 percent of Indians reside in rural areas, millions of which live in poverty.

“The importance of social media has grown, but look at the size of the population, the number of people living in villages, the number of illiterates,” Sanjay Kumar, an election expert and director of the Center for the Study of Developing Societies, told the Washington Post.

On the other hand, the Lok report notes that this urban-rural political divide may actually be a myth.

While historically, rural voters often supported candidates based on caste, religion or ethnicity, giving the incumbent rural-based National Congress Party an advantage, the Lok report noted that there is increasing migration from rural to urban and that the data reveals political preferences are hardly affected by literacy or where a voter lives.

The Financial Times reports that rural support for the BJP matches national trends:

A separate poll by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies for a farmers’ association, quoted in the Mint newspaper on Wednesday, reinforces the point by concluding that 30 per cent of farmer households surveyed support the BJP and only about 17 per cent Congress. The gap is much the same as in recent nationwide opinion polls predicting a BJP victory.

When it comes to social media, it seems that this year at least, the results online match national trends when it comes to choice of candidates and parties. When it comes to important national issues, however, there appears to be a small division between what is being discussed on social media and nationally. With double digit increases in Internet adoption, it is inevitable that social media will become a must in future elections in India.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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