Can social media influence elections? November 21, 2013

Posted on August 25, 2014. Filed under: Uncategorized |

Can Social Media Influence Elections?
By Jagdeep S. Chhokar – Former professor, dean, and director-in-charge at IIM, Ahmedabad

Published in Thinking Aloud, November 21, 2013

The way the question in the title is worded ensures a “yes” response but if we look at the question in the context of the 2014 elections in India, then the response can be, and needs to be qualified. The question will then have to be rephrased as “Social media can influence elections in India in 2014, but will it actually do that and if so, to what extent?”

A recent study carried out by the Iris Knowledge Foundation maintained “social media is now sufficiently widespread to have the power to influence the outcome of the next elections to the Lok Sabha and consequently government formation.” The study estimated that “At a very conservative estimate, the fortunes of contestants seeking election to the next Lok Sabha from not less than 150 constituencies (out of a total of 543 constituencies for which elections will be held) will be determined by Facebook users making them the newest Vote Bank with the power to shape Indian politics.”

Such categorical and unqualified assertions can be very persuasive but it is worth looking deeper.
There is a lot of data that supports the view that Internet penetration in India is increasing rapidly and the absolute numbers often appear staggering. For example, a recent report by comScore.com, titled “2013 India Digital Future in Focus” says:

• “At 73.9 million home and work internet users, the Indian online population currently ranks as the 3rd largest in the world after China and the U.S.
• With 75 percent of its Internet users under the age of 35, India has the youngest skewing online population among BRIC countries.
• Across all age and gender groups, Women between the ages of 35-44 are the heaviest Internet users in the Indian market.
• The Indian blogging audience grew 48 percent in the past year to 36 million visitors, while 26 percent of category traffic comes from mobile phones and tablets.
• 54 million internet users in India watched online videos on their computer, representing a 27-percent increase over the past year.”

On the other hand, another report by IMRB International and I-Cube, titled Internet in Rural India, based on research conducted as late as June 2013, states that “the number of Computer Literates in rural India by June 2013 has risen nearly two-fold to 125 Million. As of June 2013, there are 59.6 Million users in Rural India who have accessed Internet at least once in their lives.” However, the report also presents the reality when it goes on to say, “Although we are witnessing a steady growth, the penetration of 6.7% among the total rural population is still very low considering the huge rural population of 889 Million”

This report itself provided some revealing information about the access to Internet in rural areas. Some of the relevant information is:
• “The CSCs (Community Service Centres) have become more accessible with the average distance a person has to cover to reach a CSC coming down to 6.6 Km. The average amount spent per hour for internet access has come down to Rs. 12 which enables more and more users to access the internet.
• 29% of the Internet users have to travel more than 10 Km to access Internet.
• Improper Electricity supply is also a main reason people are unable to access Internet.
• Lack of awareness and infrastructure are the primary reasons for not accessing the Internet.”

It is left to the judgment of the readers if 6.6 Km and “more than 10 Kms” should be considered “more accessible” given the transportation infrastructure and income levels in villages of India which are not in the vicinity of town, small or big. And one has also known of situations where people in villages have not been able to re-charge their mobile phones for days on end due to highly interrupted and variable electricity supply. What role can social media play in influencing elections does need some thinking and imagination.
Numbers and their estimates are one part of the story, the other is influence. It is possible to argue that those who are social media users are likely to be more influential than those who do not use social media. The next question that arises is what kind of influence and in what areas are these social media users likely to exert or would like to exert. Have these people shown any interest in the political or electoral processes in the past? Even if they haven’t, is past behaviour a reasonably reliable guide to what the behaviour in the future is likely to be?

There is no doubt that the political players will try their utmost to influence these social media users but the question remains how successful these effort be.

Discussing the “Implications of the study for Contestants”, the IRIS Knowledge Foundation study said, “Unlike traditional campaigning which is mandatorily required to come to a close 48 hours before the polls, it is unlikely that the Election Commission will be able to legislate and enforce silence on social media networks as it would be tantamount to stifling the voice of the people.”

It so happens that the Election Commission has indeed issued instructions on October 25, 2013 doing precisely that. How effectively and successfully will these instructions will, or can, get implemented is of course a matter of opinion for now and the real answer will be available only in due time. This is however just one example of how things that were considered “unlikely” as recently as April this year have come to pass. Of course, similar unlikely developments coming to pass in explosively increasing the Internet and social media penetration in rural India cannot also be ruled out.

Putting all the available information, hard as well as perceptual, together, it seems that social media will most certainly be used very heavily in the forthcoming elections but how much will it influence the outcome of the elections is debatable.

Having had some experience of using social media in trying to prevent some governmental and political action being taken in Parliament and elsewhere, it appears to me that social media can certainly be very useful in mobilizing public opinion of its “users” and people who can be influenced by the opinion of those “users”, but the limitations of that action in influencing, what might most appropriately be termed as lay-voters, are quite strong.

The other way it might be expected to work is to influence such people who can in turn influence the lay-voters. It is undoubtedly true that a large proportion of social media at users are young, but what must be remembered is this “large proportion” is of a very small proportion of the total population. It is also possibly true that a large proportion of the youth in the country is disenchanted with the current state of affairs, and I would also like to believe that they are also very unhappy with the current political establishment but how many of them will actually physically get out of their comfort zones and go out to villages to influence lay-voters is a very big question mark.

So, in response to the rephrased question, I would say that while social media does have the potential to influence elections, India is too far from that potential being realized in any significant way. We have a long way to go before that happens.

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    This blog contains Jagdeep S. Chhokar’s views, opinions, and comments on variety of issues.

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