Exactly one year ago to this day, as India stood in queues after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement to demonetise high-value currency notes, thousands of kilometres away, Usha M Rodrigues, senior lecturer in communication at Australia’s Deakin University, decided to trawl through Twitter to find out how the PM — the second most followed world leader on Twitter after the US President — would use the microblogging site to get his message across.
Rodrigues examined tweets on demonetisation that went out between November 7, 2016, and February 7, 2017, from the PM’s Twitter handle, @narendramodi, and that of the Prime Minister’s Office, @PMOIndia, besides looking at how the media engaged with key terms such as demonetisation, black money, indiafightscorruption, digital payment, ipaydigitally, indiadefeatsblackmoney. She found that during this three-month period, over 3 lakh Twitter accounts mentioned one or more of these terms and that @narendramodi and @PMOIndia posted a little over 100 tweets on demonetisation.
As she studied these tweets, the picture that emerged was that of a PM who used social media as a “one-way communication” tool to inform his then nearly 26 million followers of his and his government’s activities, someone who rarely retweeted others or engaged with his followers, and didn’t depend on mainstream news media to get his message across.
Rodrigues’s findings are now part of a research paper, titled ‘Beyond election campaigns, implications of PM @NarendraModi’s bid to sideline the Fourth Estate in India’, which will be presented at a conference of the International Communication Association in Mumbai on December 15-16. Co-authored by Dr Michael Niemann, research fellow in digital media informatics at Deakin University, the paper, says Rodrigues, will be submitted for publication in one of the ICA journals — Journal of Communication.
“We argue that Modi uses social media as his self-mass communication (Castells 2007) tool, which allows him to bypass mainstream media. His messaging on Twitter, or for that matter on any communication platform, is a one-way process — highly disciplined and focused on building support for his policies and himself. He responds to public concerns, but on his own terms rather than being dependent on the news media,” says Rodrigues, who worked as a journalist in India in the 1980s and 1990s before moving to Australia in the mid-1990s for her PhD at the University of Queensland.
Rodrigues went on to study how Modi’s online political communication adapted to changes in people’s reaction to such a drastic policy change as demonetisation. “The handle @narendramodi initiated newer Twitter hashtags to move the conversation on.”
So what are the lessons for the media from Modi’s online communication? “One, he is able to sideline the media and their questions. Two, he can reach the educated and possibly younger generation (leaders) in the community. Three, the media needs to work harder to get answers to the questions they may have. So my preliminary assessment would be that the mainstream media needs to adapt to the presence of social media or the mass self-communication means that politicians now have at their disposal. This is not different from public rallies that politicians may address, just a different platform,” says Rodrigues.