Lok Sabha polls 2019: Social media teams of parties find ways to tiptoe around regulationshttps://indianexpress.com/elections/lok-sabha-polls-2019-social-media-regulations-campaigning-congress-bjp-whatsapp-facebook-5675582/

Lok Sabha polls 2019: Social media teams of parties find ways to tiptoe around regulations

With WhatsApp blocking its users from forwarding messages to more than five individuals or groups, some have started sending messages by copy-pasting while others have appointed more people to distribute the messages.

Lok Sabha polls 2019: Social media teams of parties find ways to tiptoe around regulations
A member of Mayur Borkar’s PR agency campaigning on WhatsApp. (Express photo)

While new regulations brought in by social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp to counter fake news and group forwards have hampered the functioning of many social media warriors affiliated to various political parties, they have managed to come up with new tricks to circumvent this problem.

With WhatsApp blocking its users from forwarding messages to more than five individuals or groups, some have started sending messages by copy-pasting while others have appointed more people to distribute the messages.

In August last year, the messaging app had set a limit on sending forwarded messages to five, in a move to check the spread of fake news and misinformation on the platform. The Facebook-owned messaging app was in the centre of scrutiny, after reports of viral video messages shared on the app resulted in lynchings, mob violence in some parts of the country.

Mayur Borkar, whose PR agency has been hired to campaign for Shiv Sena candidate Rajendra Gavit from Palghar Lok Sabha constituency and BJP candidate Manoj Kotak from Mumbai North East Lok Sabha constituency, said a WhatsApp group is created for each assembly segment and corporator ward in that Lok Sabha constituency. “The groups are ready by the time parties announce their candidates for elections. These messages usually share news updates and pursue positive campaigning,” Borkar said, adding that his agency also operates eight to ten media WhatsApp groups, which share photos and rally updates on a constant basis.

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Borkar further said that during the 2014 elections, four to five people used to work on WhatsApp messages in his agency. “But due to forwarding constraints per user, the agency has had to hire over 25 people this time,” he added.

Meanwhile, the Shiv Sena also has the large number of WhatsApp groups to post the updates about the party president’s messages and tours with others. “Due to five forward limit, I have to post the messages multiple times to send it in around 200 WhatsApp groups,” said Harshal Pradhan, chief of Sena’s public relations department.

Tejesh Sakpal, a Sena office-bearer from South Mumbai, said that since the 2014 state assembly polls, multiple WhatsApp groups have been created and they are active now. “Apart from having assembly segment and corporator ward wise groups, several of the Shiv Sena office-bearers have multiple WhatsApp for their areas. Now, we are posting 10-15 messages and photos every day about Sena candidates’ work in the constituency… It helps us in reaching out to the voters easily,” said Sakpal.

Congress candidate for Mumbai North West constituency Sanjay Nirupam is represented on social media through a team led by Akshay Khatry. “On my phone, I have 850 groups with 200 people in each group. If I sit for half an hour and circulate message on each group, it reaches a lot of people. We focus on WhatsApp a lot. We have a good network that reaches out to each voter that we are targeting,” said Khatry.

However, people acknowledge that many do not take forwards seriously and that it has become important for the social media managers to ensure that they customise messages for the targeted audience for a greater impact.

Neela Soni Rathod, media in-charge for BJP candidate Gopal Shetty from Mumbai North, said she was part of 138 WhatsApp groups related to the constituency. These dedicated groups comprise office-bearers of the party and also various community wings of the party.

“Several people have told me that they don’t read messages on WhatsApp groups. Some say that instead of going through nearly 200 messages a day, they prefer to clear the chat without reading. Hence, I have been forced to copy-paste a message and send it to people individually. It consumes a lot of time, but the blue ticks assure us that they have read the message,” Rathod said, adding that there is no restriction or limit on copy-pasting and it can be sent to fifty or more people at one go.

Meanwhile, there have been calls for better regulation on social media operators, including limiting the number of people that can be part of a group and the need to regulate the number of messages an individual can send.

Many of the social media warriors, however, agree that no matter what regulations are put in place, they will find a way to reach out to their target audience.