The 2019 General Elections are just around the corner and with over 90 crore people being eligible to participate in the elections, the candidates and political parties are leaving no stone unturned in their campaigning.
This year, the candidates are not spreading their word and gathering support merely through rallies and door to door campaigns. But, they are also using social media as an important tool for campaigning. Social media has to a large extent taken over the lives of the youth today and this year, it has taken over the elections as well. According to the Rediff, there are about 500 million internet users which make up about half of India’s electorate. Of the voting pool, 30% of them constitute the youth whose voice has gained importance in the elections. It is also the youth who use social media vociferously and it is through them that the contesting candidates hope to gain personal political benefits.
Popular methods through which the parties are using social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp are several. Paid ads are taking prominence and party propaganda is being disseminated. Messages circulated through WhatsApp groups and private chats are becoming common. Moreover, the fact that internet companies offer their sites to be employed in regional languages is helping the parties to reach a greater audience. It is even making it more accessible for these parties to reach the rural areas and gather support.
Another popular form is the use of memes. Memes are witty and funny. But, they also instigate ideas through its subtle language. Memes are easier to be shared and circulated than messages or videos, and therefore are being widely circulated. According to an article in the Times of India, the election season is the prime time for the meme producers to make memes. They have turned this act into a lucrative career and charge approximately Rs.30000 per month. All political parties have to do is hire meme makers to render the social media full of trolls and memes of propaganda.
Since the Modi government has come to power, it has utilized the power of social media to its fullest extent. Whether it’s Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, Oone can feel the PM’s presence in all these spaces. The recent #MainBhiChowkidar campaign has put Congress on a run to catch up. Recently, the Hindustan times reported that BJP volunteers are likely to get training in using social media for campaigning. According to the Economic Times, BJP has an arsenal of 1.2 million volunteers. The Congress is not far behind. It has set up a digital war room in every state to manage its social media content. Such is the importance of social media in the 2019 elections.
According to the experts, the impact of the narratives on the social media can swing the results by 10-20%. This percentage can make or break a candidate’s chances of winning. One must also remember that only the big parties have resources to utilize social media to its full extent. Amidst the bitterness among these major political parties, social media has become a battleground for giving wrong information, for hate speeches, for spreading campaign related content, etc. The misuse of social media has led many NGOs and concerned individuals to appeal to the Election Commission to monitor and regulate the content on social media.
On 21st March, after a two day long meeting with the Election Commission, major internet based firms like Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Google, ShareChat voluntarily undertook a moral code of ethics. They stated that they will remove problematic content from their sites, bring transparency in the paid political ads by carrying only pre-certified political ads, and will share the cost of the ads with the EC. They even mentioned that they will ensure that no political campaign is allowed on their social media platforms 48 hours before voting as per the requirement of Section 126 of the Representation of the People Act (1951),which prohibits any form of campaigning in the last 48 hours leading up to end voting. As per the code, the companies will have three hours to remove such content. This is the first time the companies have adopted such an ethical approach.
However, after a petition filed in the court, the Bombay High court directed the EC to reconsider and decide on the three-hour period allotted to remove prohibited content 48 hours before the elections. The advocate for the petitioner made the case that the three hour window is unnecessarily long. The Court seeing merit in the arguments made the said order to the EC.
Regulating social media will soon become a full time job for the EC. This is because the money that goes into social media campaigning is largely unaccounted for. Also, the posts, especially memes, will continue to be circulated by volunteers or supporters well into the elections which will effectively frustrate the 48 hour embargo. However, one can only hope that the 2019 elections go smoothly and that the parties function within the boundaries of ethics and justice, so that the government that Indians get is “by the people”, “of the people” and “for the people”.
This article is a part of the ‘Of Tugs and Tussles: General Election 2019’ feature series where we focus on quality content written and chosen to focus on specific areas surrounding elections. Find a link to other articles of this feature series here:
Picture source- Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash