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Democratising or Disrupting? The Role of Social Media in India 2019

Sat, August 31, 8:00 to 9:30am, Hilton, Gunston East


Political parties in India’s 2014 national election used social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and messaging apps like WhatsApp for digital campaigning. Neyazi, Kumar & Semetko (2016) found that “sharing of campaign information” – both face-to-face and electronically in the 2014 national election campaign – was “a significant predictor of political engagement” measured with a scale of engagement in each party’s campaigning activities in key cities. The BJP was the most active party online in 2014 and used it, like Barack Obama, largely for positive messaging during the campaign. It announced early on that 160 constituencies were ripe for digital campaigning, and won these and more with its 282 seat absolute majority. It is no surprise that a number of studies credit digital campaigning with a large part of the BJP’s victory (Chhibber and Ostermann 2014; Ahmed, Jaidka, and Cho 2016; Baishya 2015).

However, internet and social media use in India in 2014 was a fraction of what it is today. By 2017, there were already 734 million unique mobile phone users (Kemp 2017). India has 241 million active Facebook users, of which 84 percent access Facebook via mobile phones and 22.2 million use Twitter (Kemp 2017; PTI 2015). WhatsApp is a popular multimedia messaging app with more than 200 million monthly active users.

The 2014 national election has been described as the first social media election in India, and speculation is rife over what social media will mean for the 2019 election to be held April or May 2019. NDTV’s “We the People,” a leading prime-time current affairs programme, already in fall 2018 was debating this very question: “How will the internet, social media, affect India’s elections?” Our paper aims to understand the disruptive nature of social media and digital campaign communication. Social media has enabled citizen-initiated bottom-up communication, which was unimaginable just two decades ago. Social media platforms and digital payments together delivered “big data elections”, “targeted political advertising” and “data-driven campaigning” which has been evident in recent elections in the U.S., UK, Europe and India (Semetko and Tworzecki 2017). However, social media also brings the problem of unregulated dissemination of disinformation as seen in the most recent presidential election in Brazil. The Election Commission of India (ECI) acknowledges the need for regulating social media space, given the vast presence of electoral candidates and their affiliates on social media, and its use to campaign during elections (ECI 2015). We analyse the social media campaigns of the political parties drawing on social media data, and interviews with party strategists, to assess whether social media has a democratising or disrupting influence in the 2019 Indian Election.

Ahmed, Saifuddin, Kokil Jaidka, and Jaeho Cho. 2016. “The 2014 Indian Elections on Twitter: A Comparison of Campaign Strategies of Political Parties.” Telematics and Informatics 33 (4): 1071–87.

Baishya, Anirban K. 2015. “#NaMo: The Political Work of the Selfie in the 2014 Indian General Elections.” International Journal of Communication 9: 1686–1700.
Chhibber, Pradeep K., and Susan L. Ostermann. 2014. “The BJP’s Fragile Mandate: Modi and Vote Mobilizers in the 2014 General Elections.” Studies in Indian Politics 2 (2): 137–51.

ECI. 2015. “Social Media Consultation.” New Delhi: Election Commission of India.

———. 2017. “Electoral Statisitics Pocket Book 2017.” New Delhi: Election Commission of India.

Kemp, Simon. 2017. “India Overtakes the USA to Become Facebook’s #1 Country.” We Are Social (blog). July 18, 2017.

Neyazi, Taberez Ahmed, Anup Kumar, and Holli A. Semetko. 2016. “Campaigns, Digital Media, and Mobilization in India.” The International Journal of Press/Politics 21 (3): 398–416.

PTI. 2015. “India Has 22.2 Million Twitter Users: Report.” Huffington Post, January 28, 2015.

Semetko, Holli A., and Hubert Tworzecki. 2017. “Campaign Strategies, Media, and Voters: The Fourth Era of Political Communication.” In The Routledge Handbook of Elections, Voting Behavior and Public Opinion, edited by Justin Fisher, Edward Fieldhouse, Mark N. Franklin, Rachel Gibson, Marta Cantijoch, and Christopher Wlezien. London ; New York, NY: Routledge.