“India’s first social media election”, prophesised CNN in an April news headline ahead of the recent general elections. “Social media is playing an important new role in Indian democracy,” proclaimed The New York Times in its January editorial. “Social media is changing the face of Indian general elections,” lectured an NDTV anchor on prime time.
That an army of first-time voters equipped with the digital weapons of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp and Google Hangouts will provide the blitzkrieg in the election battle was a popular English media narrative through this year’s general election campaign. The Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), along with IRIS Knowledge Foundation, supplemented this narrative with a report highlighting 160 out of the 543 Lok Sabha constituencies that were “high impact” and most vulnerable to social media influence.
These constituencies were ostensibly identified based on data gathered of numbers of Facebook, Twitter and other social media users in India, categorised by their geographical location. Predictably, all the urban cities, towns and districts appeared in this list of high-impact constituencies.
Social media marketing agencies mushroomed to peddle advice to novice candidates on bolstering their presence on social media platforms. Likes and retweets were purported to be the new proxies for rallies and crowds. Speeches were predicted to be replaced by 140-character compositions in these “social media” constituencies. Did social media live up to its exalted expectations of an extravagant impact on India’s general elections?
We analysed the social media presence of the winner and runner-up in each of these 160 high-impact constituencies (as defined by the IAMAI/ IRIS report) across 25 states and Union territories by computing a social media index. A social media index is defined simplistically as the sum of the candidate’s Twitter and Facebook followers.
Of the 320 candidates (winner and runner-up in 160 high-impact constituencies), 221 (71 per cent) had no or minimal social media presence. It is of telling significance that 71 per cent of the top two candidates in the 160 constituencies that have the highest social media penetration in the country did not deem it essential to even have a presence on social media for their election campaign.
And 111 (70 per cent) of the winners from these high social-media impact constituencies had no meaningful social media presence. Hence, it can be inferred that social media did not play a role in their victory. In constituencies where both the eventual winner and runner-up had an active social media campaign, in nearly 60 per cent of them, the losing candidate had a much more significant presence on social media than the eventual winner.
Thus, in constituencies that witnessed vibrant social media campaigns, a higher social media index did not correlate with the candidate’s ability to win. Further, in the very urban constituencies of South Mumbai, Amritsar, North West Mumbai and Pune, candidates with large social media followings lost to candidates with almost no social media presence.
Maharashtra and Gujarat were the top two states with 38 high-impact constituencies. In 31 of these 38 constituencies, the winner had either zero or lower social media index than the runner-up.
With 20/20 acuity, it may now be plausible to explain some of the hype around social media and its potential impact on elections. While 80 per cent of the candidates in each of these 160 constituencies had a social media index of less than 10,000, the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP, Narendra Modi, alone had an index of 25 million, more than all the other candidates combined. Such sheer dominance of the general elections by one man with an enormous
social media following perhaps fallaciously led everyone to believe in the potential impact of social media on the electoral prospects of all candidates.
For the mathematical purist, the above analysis may not prove the futility of social media’s impact on elections in India. Election outcomes anywhere in the world, and more so in India, are a complex sociological manifestation of the times, the menu of candidates and the sentiments of voters.
It is both naïve and intellectually arrogant to attempt to compress elections into a predictive mathematical model of causative variables that determine election results. However, understanding the marginal impact of a campaign activity is critical for most candidates, and helps decide where to concentrate campaign efforts. It is in this context that understanding the impact of social media on electoral outcomes becomes vital.
The above analysis attempts to demonstrate that. If, in 71 per cent of the cases, social media played no role, in 60 per cent of the cases social media presence had a negative correlation to winning and 70 per cent of the eventual winners had virtually no social media presence in constituencies that have the highest concentration of social media users in the country, it is perhaps wise to ponder and recalibrate the importance accorded to social media in Indian elections.
As charismatic cricketer turned politician Imran Khan is purported to have said, “If only elections were held on Facebook and Twitter, I would have been prime minister of Pakistan.”
The writer is founding trustee, IndiaSpend. This article was written with inputs from Saumya Tewari, IndiaSpend