ByÂ Deepansh Bhatnagar:
The Indian Electorate has never been younger. There will be approximately 800 mn voters by the time elections arrive and a major chunk of this population will be 25 years or younger. Given the state of affairs in recent years the young India has expressed a fair amount of dissatisfaction and restlessness. A major channel that catalysed this process was social media which allowed the angry young India to express themselves openly and collaborate with a widespread desire for change. The citizenry has found a voice that can no longer be suppressed. This trend has set forth a new avenue which is being called the C-governance or Citizen led governance. With elections less than six months away, the role that Social Media will play is integral, both to the candidates and the public.
Earlier this year a report from IRIS research group put forward the role that social media, particularly Facebook will play in the 2014 elections. According to this study, out of the 534 constituencies, 160 were identified as High impact zones, 67 were identified as Medium impact zones while rest were classified as Low impact zones. They were categorized on the basis of internet and Facebook users in that particular constituency. On basis of data collected from past year and equating it with current stats, it concluded that the high impact zones will be the major game changer in 2014 elections. Most analysts dejected the implications of this report saying that the numbers are insignificant. But the scenario seems to have changed.
As of June 2013, Facebook itself has about 82 million users from India and 75% of them were on mobile. Thanks to the Indian mobile manufacturers, the multimedia sets are now cheaper than ever allowing people from all economic strata to access the internet. The sudden surge of social media literacy has now spread all across the country. Thus, mobile apps provide not only ease of access to the users but it also allows users from the mid and low impact zones to access social media. It is observed that although a large chunk of these users may not be proactive but they do act as listeners. Listeners who when required, act.
Utilizing this potential market, our marketers have implemented a number of tactics to fill their vote banks. They are not only accessing social media to network but they are targeting the youth primarily, which is an active partaker in daily communications. The essence of these tactics is to convey their message and build a credibility which is often the requisite for most urban youths to follow a person. A basic CRM (Customer Relationship management) system is enough to execute this simple yet highly effective strategy. The shroud of a direct conversation between a leader and a common man has enough potential to earn you more than a follower. Of course a large number of users are aware of the dynamics behind such accounts but considering the rate at which the mobile consumers are increasing, it can be estimated that reaching the mid and low cap zones is no more a dream. Imagine the impact on a daily wage earner to be talking to a prime leader or for that matter, even on an urban student youth.
These followers in turn promote the content and the leader in the easiest and most effective way possible, social media. Even if we cut the gatekeepers or peer group influencers out of this equation, the amount of content being recycled and shared is gigantic. On an average, a user shares at least 10 pieces of external content per day. This results in what we call ‘word of mouth’ publicity, the best available on the block. Even a mere 1% of users recycling this data is more than enough for a web crawler to pick it up and promote as trending. Continue producing the same output for a couple of days and you are already showing up on all trending charts across the web. Think about an all-out 6 months to yearlong campaign.
The youth treats internet like the all-knowing father, for everything else there’s Google. The content keeps multiplying and soon enough every search query has one or the other keyword that would make that content pop up in 5 searches out of 10. Add to this the trending and suggested content delivery systems are found on almost all websites nowadays and you have for yourself an all-out marketing campaign. Combine traditional tactics of marketing like positive-negative publicity, events and promotions and integrate it with digital media- the applications are endless.
The problem with this kind of tactics being deployed is that it involves paradigms like ‘Paid news’ and data authenticity. Only 45% of people check the content’s authenticity. In Internet marketing, we use a mixture of paid and organic leads. In most cases, the latter is followed by the former. An electoral candidate is not allowed to indulge in such practices or the candidature can be disqualified according to guidelines from the Election Commission. This has been acknowledged by the Commission itself and they are investigating the case. But the digital medium is vast and it is almost impossible to track down every malicious activity. Polls and opinions are posted everyday by so called authentic digital news portals which claim authority and solace among the youth. More than half of which are not administered by any regulating body, government or private. This raises the question of authenticity to them and the content that they publish which is being consumed by millions of users without batting an eyelid.
The answer to how this situation can be rectified may come from west. The DATA Act (2012) under debate in the US aims to provide clarity on sources of information, thus aiding towards data transparency and accountability. Data standards such as XBRL (eXtensible Business Reporting Language) which are gaining momentum in providing benefits in business reporting and analysis can also be sought and developed towards a more clear and accountable data policy. XBRL has already been adopted by the Ministry of Corporate Affairs of India for filing financial and costing information with the central government. The DATA act also seeks to provide full transparency in government financial reporting by use of special domains and extensions that will define and standardize data’s accountability. Whether and how can this be applied in Indian context is a complex question, but the need for such a system is indispensable.
Since the advent of internet we have moved from ‘Digital dreams in a connected world’ to ‘Connected dreams in a digital world’. We have moved from connecting people to connecting our lives and everything that surrounds us. Before we move to the next step, it is integral to resolve the issues that plague us today. We are moving ahead faster than time and it is integral to understand the semantics before we take the plunge. We have been given the power of voice catalysed by social media. But, like Voltaire said, ‘With great power comes great responsibility’. We need to realize this fine balance and practice the use of this power with equal responsibility. Words are sought as the foremost form of expression. Each word influences someone in a different manner. So before you move ahead with spreading the word about this article, think again.
*This article is based on preliminary findings of an Independent research trying to jot down the relevance of social media in 2014 elections.