Phase three of the Lok Sabha elections saw a high turnout in many areas. But don’t take the Election Commission’s word for it. Evidence of people going out in droves to vote swarmed Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Pictures of inked fingers, often tastefully saturated or put through a vintage filter — “fingies” or “voties”, if you will — were presented as proof of proud citizens having performed a crucial democratic duty. As with so much else on social media, to be seen to have voted appears almost as important as the act itself.
Social media is often criticised — not without reason — for encouraging a shallow form of political engagement in those who are happy to indulge in “hashtag activism” rather than put in the hard work of translating online protest to offline change. Yet it is also an effective tool in the exercise of peer pressure towards desirable ends. Facebook, for instance, has introduced an “I’m a Voter” button to display that someone participated in the election, modelled on a similar initiative introduced in the American midterm elections of 2010.
That was credited by a University of California, San Diego, study with having brought an additional 3,40,000 Americans to the polling booth. Not only did a targeted “get out the vote” message motivate potential voters to actually cast their ballots, each voter so mobilised was able to influence four more voters to do the same. The researchers said that the main driver of behavioural change was not the message, but the “vast social network”.
So do pictures of inked index fingers motivate people to vote, if only to be able to join the “fingie” club? Even if that’s not the case, the fact that many users consider the evidence of voting a badge of honour that they share with peers exemplifies the social media effect: it promotes political expression, but it only counts if your publics can see it too.