Leading up to the state elections held in five Indian states this past week, the question that heard often was about whether the massive Social Media campaigns run by political parties in India would have an impact: my take had been that activity on Social Media was a storm in a tea cup, and while I did not think that it would have had a direct impact on election results, because the voting population far exceeded that on social media, it would have a significant indirect impact through the mainstream media. After polling in Delhi last week, I realized it was otherwise: what Social Media has done in these elections is that it brought out the vote. People may or may not have been influenced by the campaigns run by political parties, but the incessant debate, raising of issues, criticism, and the conversations, the fight and even the hate-commentary that ensued, led to there being a voter – at least in Delhi – that was more aware of the political atmosphere, more conscious that her vote matters, and more responsive to calls for getting out the vote.
This is not to take away from the stellar work done by the Aam Aadmi Party in creating a credible third party in Delhi, and going and speaking with voters about their issues, and for the first time in this country’s history, releasing manifestos for each constituency that directly addressed local problems, but even those who didn’t support them benefited from their effort to create a debate online. While I went through the AAP manifestos (read around 15 of the manifestos published online), and raised questions on Twitter, supporters of the Party were on-hand to answer queries, and sometimes, even provide links to uploaded manifestos and statements. The BJP, for its part, was the first among mainstream parties to bring the leaders in its leaders online, livestream speeches, rallies and press conferences, and then create a repository of these on YouTube, starting with Narendra Modi’s hangouts.
I may have spoken up against the hate speech, and tried to steer clear of the overwhelming politicisation of discussions on Twitter, but the constant exposure to these conversations brought about a sense of responsibility. Added to that, we saw voters posting post-vote selfie’s with their fingers marked with voting ink, with a sense of pride, which does create a situation where, as a voter, you want to do the same. On voting day, I noticed people from all across the country asking Delhi to get out and vote. If it wasn’t for Social Media, that social pressure for participation would have been limited to television, and never been direct.
Where Social Media also played a key role here, was that it allowed supporters to keep sharing the political message using older articles and videos. The Election Commission, thankfully, failed to control political activity on Social Media leading to the polls, and I’m glad that that happened: I don’t see why freedom of speech ought to be curtailed in the most democratic of processes, and the EC would do well to allow candidates to continue to communicate with their electorate.
Some part of the fact that Delhi was voting till around 7pm, and got its higher voter turnout in history is attributable to the activity on Social Media. The challenge, as Kushan Mitra pointed out to me, is in moving beyond Delhi: this is an urban city, with very high Internet penetration and social media activity, and even higher media concentration by virtue of it being the national capital. Other states will be be more old-media than this, and it will take time for them to get a substantive base online, and on social media. However, things can only get better (or worse, if you’re not interested in politics) from here on, leading up to the elections, and in the years to come. To the naysayers – even if Social Media cannot swing voters in one direction or the other, there is now indication that it can help get the vote out.
P.s.: One of the many joys of Twitter, is that you can ask Kapil Sibal to write poetry on demand, and he obliges:
@nixxin “He touched our hearts, inspired us He went away, without a fuss. Rest In Peace, Nelson Mandela.”
— Kapil Sibal (@KapilSibal) December 6, 2013