How Digital and Social Media have influenced Participatory Development and Democracy in India.

Foreword

Social media and Indian politics
Social media has greatly impacted the political process in India

How people interact among themselves and the way in which data and information are combined and circulated has changed mainly because of the emergence of social media. Traditional media such as print, radio and television are different from the social media in two important ways:

  1. The content put out by the users on social media is much more than that generated by the news makers.
  2. Social media has a “viral” ability to multiply the information through various platforms and diluting the control over the spread of said information.

Social media has reinvented the way people communicate, influence and connect with each other. Everyone these days is a consumer as well as a creator of content due to social media in different aspects of life.

Social media and influencing democracy in India.

 India is a diversified country where 40% of its population consists of the youth population who spend a lot of time engaging on different social media platforms. With these numbers, political parties in India are seen using different social media platforms to distribute their political motives and agendas among the youth. Since the youth of this generation have information at their disposal, they are therefore highly engaged in politics.  Social media has become a platform where one can voice one’s individual opinion and deal with the outcomes. It has revolutionized politics and democracy all over the world and the outcome has entirely changed the way political candidates used to campaign for their elections. Social media sites allow politicians and political parties a channel to interact directly with people across the country in a cost efficient way and this has brought in more results than traditional media.

Social media sites came in popularity in the mid-2000s where campaigners began to use its power to reach out to voters. Taking the 2014 Lok Sabha elections as a case study in the past, social media was applied to get popular perception and encourage participation from the youth. With this example, political parties have since started using social media as a main site for their campaigns. In addition to this, the traditional means have become outdated and are controlled by the Indian Electoral Commission. So because of this, politicians these days have accepted social media platforms as a means of reaching supporters in out digital world as opposed to the outdated websites to promote their agendas and campaign.

Globally, the 2008 United States Presidential elections were the first ever elections that fully grasped the great extent of social media to reach voters and citizens. The former president, Barack Obama hosted political campaigns on Facebook that enabled him to appeal, engage and reach out to the young voters and therefore converting them from onlookers to supporters. This worked exceptionally as almost 70% of his voters were under the age of 25.

Social media is also cultivating an awareness culture where people are able to search, share and discuss their opinions and information. Politicians hopped on to this culture and use it to connect and discuss with citizens which eases their work and the work of social activists. This also meant that the influence has extended to more voters and even younger voters. Online political campaigning is now under the public focus as researchers worldwide try to analyse virtual political communication in order to fill in the gaps on how politicians and political parties rally up social media users by communicating through social networking sites, blogs and vlogs across the internet. The advent of social media offers a voice to the voiceless which the orthodox and typecast media so commonly ignore or consider negligible.

In 2019, India had 130 million first time voters and 15 million of these were between the ages of 18 and 19 years. Most of these numbers were thanks to social media as politicians and political parties were able to access data regarding what voters liked and disliked thus redirecting and redesigning their campaigns. They also began using Social Media for communication and campaigning purposes to sway and gather voters, which in turn saved their time, money,  and giving them a larger audience for interaction. Political campaigns are now not only confined to the old fashioned one way of campaigning i.e. banners and buttons. The new political arena is all inclusive of infomercials, blog and vlog posts, Instagram posts, advertisements, hundreds of tweets and Facebook posts with the ability of politicians to demonstrate their messages through many commercials. Direct responses can also be viewed an evaluated through the social media sites since these same sites create an ambience for radical conversations. As of 2020, there are social platforms launched by different politicians and political parties where one accesses special political party news and updates on their smart phone for example Narendra Modi App (NaMo), Door to Door by AAP among others.

NaMo app
Narendra Modi App

Social media has enabled space for innovative political conversation where the political candidates and voters can discuss various issues because peer to peer, public dialogue is encouraged. It also permitted unprecedented accreditation and arrangement of the “aam aadmi” for communicating diplomatic beliefs. There are a lot of benefits that have come up from the integration of politics and social media such as;

  1. Engagement of more youth in politics. Previously, the political debates were limited to those who read newspapers, followed them on news channels or engaged in discussions at nukkad of a village but now, with a lot of political news on social media, more youth are employing their time to analyse and discuss politics.
  2. The administrative decision making is now influenced by a lot more people in the country including the youth.

Approximately 376,100,000 people use social media in India as of 2020 (according to a report by Statista) and these statistics show that the social media evolution concerning the political space is authentic, responsive and accelerating. Of course the change is progressive but that doesn’t mean it’s not coming especially in a developing country like India. Some of the successful social media campaigns in times of elections led by political parties include:

  • Indian National Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party in Lok Sabha elections, 2014 and 2019.
  • Aam Aadmi Party Assembly elections in 2013 and 2020.

However, as we all know everything with positives has its negative sides as well. Some people within and outside the country use social media negatively. A case in point is the 2016 American Presidential Elections. Imitation accounts were created on different social media sites like Facebook and Twitter with people posing as American citizens and trying to sway the elections by posting assorted posts and images. Reports by Facebook showed that Russian Groups Company purchased $100,000 worth of advertisements to misinform and further spread propaganda and these ads were seen by more than 10,000,000 Americans.

Use of Social Media Platforms in Campaigning in India.

The Election Commission of India rolled out a social media policy in October 2013 which acted as a guideline for politicians and political candidates as they campaigned.

Instructions of the Commission concerning use of Social Media in Election Campaigning

The Commission issued detailed guidelines concerning social media on 25th October 2013, which instructed candidates to furnish details of their social media accounts at the time of filing nominations. The Commission also brought the social media sites under the purview of pre-certification as mentioned in Commission’s order No.509/75/2004/JS-1/4572 dated 15.04.2004. The Commission instructed that candidates and political parties shall include all expenditure on campaigning, including expenditure on advertisements on social media into their election expenditure account.

The commission further clarified that any political content in the form of messages/comments/photos/videos posted/uploaded on the blogs/self-accounts on websites/ social media will not be considered as political advertisements and would not require pre-certification. However, advertisements published in e-newspaper shall require pre-certification by the concerned Authority.  

Appointment of social media expert

A special social media expert was added in Media certification and Monitoring Committee (MCMC) to monitor social media and report violations.

Use of Social Media

The Commission decided to enhance its interaction and involvement with all the stakeholders in the electoral processes by inducting the use of social media at the State as well as the District level. Instruction in this regards was issued to Chief Electoral Officers of all States/UTs on 6th September 2016. All Chief Electoral Officers and the District Electoral Officers now have their official accounts on various social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube etc. for establishing a more interactive system. The CEOs have set up Social Media Cells to professionally handle these Social Media accounts and disseminate all the necessary information. Complaints received on these platforms are promptly responded to. At the ECI level, a Social Media Cell is also set up to disseminate all election-related information to various stakeholders and to monitor the performance of the State/ UTs and District and to guide and train them to maximise the use of Social Media, making it more interactive and interesting for the general public. The Social Media Cell also closely monitors the web for election-related news and developments and regularly reports to the Commission. 

Voluntary Code of Ethics by social media platforms for 2019 General Election.

Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) in consultation with Election Commission developed a set of ‘Voluntary Code of Ethics’ for the General Elections to Lok Sabha 2019 and Legislative Assemblies & Bye- elections scheduled along with the Lok Sabha election. The Code was developed to ensure free, fair & ethical use of social media platforms and to maintain the integrity of the electoral process. The social media platforms assured the Commission they would facilitate access to information regarding electoral matters and voluntarily undertake awareness campaigns on electoral laws and other election-related instructions. There was a high priority dedicated reporting mechanism for these elections to interface and exchange feedback for expeditious action. Platforms developed a notification mechanism for ECI to notify violations of Section 126 of R.P. Act, 1951 and other applicable electoral laws. Action was taken by the platforms within three hours for reported violations of Section 126 and other cases were acted upon expeditiously.

Platforms committed to facilitate transparency in paid political advertisements and ensured all political advertisements were pre-certified by MCMC. IAMAI had overall coordination with the social media and ECI during the election.  

Appointment of Social Media Nodal Officers

The Commission appointed Social Media Nodal Officers for escalation of violation of MCC or any other Commission’s instructions/provisions of the law and court’s orders in the matters related to election on Social Media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc., during elections.

 The above guidelines put in place show that both the ECI and social media platforms are fully committed in restricting fake news, hate propagandas and misinformation. However this has not proven to be very easy as there are a lot of limitations to the smooth flow of the process. Some of them include;

  • Presence of a lot of information on these platforms that makes it difficult to track and filter.
  • Individuals are constantly changing their names and usernames to collect followers and propagate fake news.
  • The absence of a controlling law of Social Media in  the country
  •  Non-application of Section 126 and other Sections of the Representation of the Peoples Act 1951.
  • Furthermore, it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between real news and fake news.

The above limitations encourage undermining of the political processes in India, which is the largest democracy in the world. Therefore I think it is better to draft and put in place stricter laws pertaining to the usage of Social Media, especially by politicians and political parties in India.

Conclusion

Social media has been progressively utilized by political figures in India for standard democratic connection to directly communicate with their supporters in line with the global trend. However, unscrupulous practices online by political figures have resulted in to an increase in clashes and thus influenced decision-making on the national security front.

As continuous unethical political communication has very bad indications for democracy as well as for communal resilience and the country’s security, the issue needs to be faced head on and through a multi-stakeholder approach. Political parties have a key role to play by checking their representatives and supporters. They should also work with partnerships consisting of proof readers, civil organisations, academia, citizen representatives, researchers and many others. This will help to put ethical and standard communication principles into application in this social-media age.  Given the growing importance and use of social media in politics, will political parties remodel the social media to censor opposition and control the flow of information or will the diverse outlook of the social media platforms counter this?

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