MANIPULATION: The voter can be misled by fake news on digital media. No one knows the truth of what appears on social media. A giant like Facebook itself has been accused of selling space to anyone who pays for it
By Nalin Mehta
The main weapon of Prashant Kishors I-PAC is his team’s skill in using digital media to win elections. With every adult and child having a smartphone because of covid-19 and maintaining physical distance, it is digital media which reaches the voter at minimum cost. It has affected the print media and old fashioned money and muscle power politics.
India’s 2019 general election was the first national election contested within a truly digital consumption society, wherein approximately half the voting population had access to digital pathways, and another one-third had access to social media. This article argues that what happens on digital platforms is no longer an externality or an adjunct to offline politics—it is constitutive of it and inseparable from larger political mobilisation.
The 2019 general election shifted paradigms in Indian politics. The more obvious shift was electoral: with the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) became the first party in 35 years to return to power with an absolute majority that seemed to upend the conventional rules of Indian politics. The elections were also intimately connected to a second societal paradigm shift in India that happened between 2016 and 2019, which, in terms of its political impact, is comparatively less commented upon and is understudied. This is the impact of the rise of a digital data-consumption society driven by the second-highest smartphone penetration in the world (Canalys 2019; PTI 2018b), and the highest average data usage per smartphone, which reached 9.8 gigabytes (GB) per month at the end of 2018 (Ericsson 2019). From the Gutenberg press in medieval Europe to mobile phones of recent history, whenever a new mass technology emerges, it changes the very nature of politics (Jeffrey and Doron 2012).
Discussion on the digital impact of politics in India has long been on the margins in Indian political studies due to the perception of a digital divide: the idea that the digital impact in India was limited to a small elite section, while the vast voting population remained unaffected by the digital discourse simply because they did not have access to the internet. While this may have been true in the past, the rise of cheap data on mass mobile telephony between 2016 and 2019 has meant that the digital divide is now much less relevant in India than ever before. Internet users in India went up by eight times between May 2014 (65.3 million) and May 2019 (581.51 million) (Telecom Regulatory Authority Of India 2019; TRAI 2014).
Estimates vary about how many of these users were active, but most accounts agree that by 2019, about half of India’s voting population now had access to information avenues in ways that were simply not possible earlier (Election Commission of India 2019). For example, in early 2019, Google estimated that there were 400 million active internet users in India, with an average of 40 million users being added each year. More significantly, Google also reported that more than half of its searches were now coming from “Bharat,” or non-metro cities. Crucially, this rise in users was being driven by the fact that India’s average mobile data consumption per user (over 8 GB per month in 2018) was on par with developed markets. By May 2019, roughly one-third of Indians had access to Facebook (up from 9% in 2014), Whatsapp and YouTube (CSDS lokniti 2019). This cheap data revolution, triggered by the launch of the Jio phone network in September 2016, also transformed Indian politics.
Digital penetration figures show that widespread adoption of technology may have been the single–largest politics-shifting event of the past decade, altering the underlying neural structures of how local political mobilisation works. According to Saba Naqvi, an Indian journalist, the 2019 general election was India’s first “post-Jio-election” (Naqvi 2019).
“Some commentators have asked whether this was a post-caste and post-identity mandate, and thereby, a post-Mandal one…. I believe that the change has been driven by technology in general, and the telecom revolution ushered in by Jio in particular.”
Self-regulation by Big Tech Companies
Amidst a wider public debate around the imperative to regulate content online, the 2019 general election was the first one in which major social media companies—Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, ShareChat and TikTok, among others—agreed to a “voluntary code of ethics.” This code was submitted by the Internet & Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) to the Election Commission of India (ECI) on 20 March 2019. It entailed that the companies who agreed to this code of ethics would voluntarily agree to four key initiatives: first, they would conduct education and communication campaigns to build awareness on elections. Second, to create a high-priority dedicated grievance redressal channel to take action on objectionable posts reported to the ECI under various electoral laws like Section 126 of the Representation of People Act, 1951. More importantly, this included commitments by tech companies to take action within three hours for reported violations during the mandatory 48-hours no-campaigning-and-silence period for candidates before voting. Third, to ensure pre-certification of all political advertisements published onto their platforms from the government’s media certification and monitoring committees, as mandated by the Supreme Court. Fourth, to transparently report paid political advertisements, and to label and disclose them as such (ECI 2019).
The results of these initiatives have been mixed. The awareness part was relatively easy. On election communications, Facebook, for instance, launched two initiatives: “Candidate Connect,” which was designed to give voters accurate information on their candidates and help people learn more about different candidates, and “Share You Voted” to encourage people to vote (Facebook 2019). Similarly, Google News Initiative conducted a “Poll-check” programme, which constituted training sessions for journalists in 30 cities on fact-checking, verification, and data visualisation (Google India 2019).
On the removal of objectionable posts, the ECI later reported that 909 posts were eventually taken down during the election period by tech platforms through the grievance redressal mechanism (ECI 2019). Facebook removed 650 posts, Twitter deleted 220 tweets and ShareChat removed 31 posts. Youtube removed five videos and three WhatsApp service users were disabled after being flagged by the ECI (PTI 2019). While the idea behind this move was sound, the numbers reported here are clearly miniscule, given the millions of posts and forwards that circulate on social media. “Can you imagine the millions of crazy things that float online every day,” asks one tech company executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “This is nothing compared to that.” As Chief Election Commissioner Shri Sunil Arora noted in a government press release, “the formulation of the Code augurs a good beginning but is essentially, a work in making” (Press Information Bureau 2019). While this is only a small step in regulating big tech companies, the process now exists and can be built upon.
Political Advertising on Facebook and Google
On political advertising, both Facebook and Google launched Ads Transparency initiatives ahead of the elections, reporting the exact number of political advertisements they received, from whom, and also the amount spent on political advertising. Users on both platforms can also scroll through all political advertisements and view spending by individual advertisements, donors, geographies and timelines. Between February and May 2019, Google and Facebook declared cumulative political online advertising of Rs 58.67 crore. The money spent on both platforms was similar, though Facebook’s ad library received a far higher volume of individual advertisements. Google declared 12,276 political advertisements worth Rs. 29.3 crore. Facebook, in its India Ad Library, declared a total of 132,419 advertisements worth Rs 29.28 crore.
The takeaway from these numbers is significant. The BJP dominated digital political spending on both platforms. On Google, it accounted for 41.4% (Rs 12.19 crore) of political advertising, with Tamil Nadu’s Dravida Munneta Kazhagam (DMK) a distant second with 13.6% (Rs 4 crore of spending), and the Congress third with 10% (Rs 3 crore). The BJP also dominated Facebook, accounting for 14.7% (Rs. 4.3 crore) of political advertising, with the Congress coming in a distant second with 6.1% (Rs. 1.8 crore) of political advertising. The declared political advertising on digital platforms is extremely low. The Congress’s declared digital spends, for example, were miniscule when compared to the Rs 820 crore it declared to the ECI as campaign expenditure in 2019. At the time of writing, The BJP was yet to submit its 2019 accounts to the ECI. But, for the sake of comparison, its declared spending in 2014 was Rs 714 crore (Times News Network 2019).
There are serious definitional issues on what counts as political advertising. Most political spending on digital platforms is not done directly by political parties, but rather by related affiliates or sympathetic groups which are technically separate. This allows for plausible deniability. Clearly, significantly larger amounts are being spent by political parties on digital platforms—for digital messaging, digital war rooms, or for troll armies. What gets reported and pre-certified as political advertising by parties is only a small fraction of larger political mobilisation activities on digital platforms. Even within certified and pre-declared sets of political advertisements on digital platforms, appearances can be deceptive. with much of the advertising money coming through separate, but supportive groups. Consider Facebook: while the BJP was the highest declared spender among political parties between February and March 2019, seven of the top 10 spenders on its advertisers list for this period comprised of entities sympathetic to the party. These ranged from “My First Vote for Modi” to “Bharat ke Mann ke Baat” and “Nation with NaMo.”
Caveats notwithstanding, the data clearly indicates that the BJP dominated the digital domain, at least in terms of declared spending. The online trend on electoral spending is not an outlier. It mirrors offline trends on party earnings. In 2017–18, the BJP declared a total income of Rs 1027.34 crore, while the Congress declared an income of Rs 199.15 crore (Times of India 2019). In this sense, online expenditure reflected the relative size of the offline political war chests.
The BJP and Congress on Social Media: A Comparison
There is often an assumption made that somehow digital platforms are tailored for the right-wing, and are easier to dominate with polarising messaging. The truth is slightly more complicated. On Twitter and Facebook, while Modi swept the field in 2014, from 2017 onwards, then-Congress President Rahul Gandhi started getting his online strategy together after the Uttar Pradesh (UP) assembly elections and made significant strides. While Modi remained significantly ahead in terms of both followers and total posts, (see Figures 1 and 2), in absolute terms, the level of engagement for Rahul Gandhi increased significantly in the last two years.
Between June 2017 and May 2019, even though Gandhi tweeted only 1,497 times as compared to 8,201 tweets by Modi, the level of engagement per tweet for Gandhi increased over time. Of course, Modi’s cumulative engagement metrics remained much higher, but in terms of average engagement per tweet, Gandhi was surprisingly ahead in both retweets and likes. Thus, while the BJP and Modi remained dominant on social media platforms, Gandhi and the Congress did put up a fight online. The Congress did not lose the elections because it was outgunned on digital media.
Why this happened is unclear and requires further investigation, but the Congress, at least in this final lap of the elections, seemingly took its foot off the accelerator.
It is useful to consider this digital trend in tandem with the offline campaigning patterns of Modi and Gandhi. Modi addressed 142 rallies during the campaign, travelling a cumulative 133,349 km, as recorded by the Times of India’s detailed rally-by-rally campaign tracker. In contrast, Gandhi addressed a fewer number of rallies (115), and travelled lesser than Modi (123, 466 km). What is striking is that early on, in the first half of the campaign, Gandhi had addressed more rallies and covered more distance than Modi on the campaign trail. However, in the final month, while Modi held numerous rallies and travelled extensively, Gandhi fell behind during the second half of the campaign.
Even more revealing is where both leaders chose to focus their energy: in UP, which accounts for the most Lok Sabha seats (80)—and which the BJP swept—Modi addressed 31 rallies (13,455 km) compared to Gandhi’s 12 (6,564 km). Similar trends were witnessed in most big battleground states where the number of Modi’s rallies far outstripped those held by Gandhi—West Bengal (Modi: 17, Gandhi: 3), Bihar (Modi: 9, Gandhi: 5), Maharashtra (Modi: 9, Gandhi: 4), Odisha (Modi: 8, Gandhi: 2). While rally numbers are but one indicator among a complex matrix of factors, they do indicate to the ground-game emphasis by political parties, and also compares the effort put in by the BJP and Congress in winning key states. While Modi seemed to be concentrating on difficult states where the BJP was facing challenges (like UP with the Bahujan Samaj Party–Samajwadi Party alliance or new catchment areas for the party like West Bengal and Odisha) the rally pattern shows that Gandhi largely travelled more than to Modi to states where Congress already seemed strong: Kerala, Karnataka, Punjab, Rajasthan (after the assembly elections in December).
One of the under-appreciated facets of the 2019 general election is that BJP changed 115 sitting party members of parliament, whom it thought would lose due to a local anti-incumbency factor. The party ended up winning 86% (99) of these seats. It is possible that in a wave election, the BJP would have won many of these seats anyway. People vote due to a complex matrix of factors in elections, but campaign strategies do make a difference at the last-mile. In this regard, the contrast between both parties was clear.
Social media strategies between the two parties also differed significantly. One of the reasons why the BJP’s official social media handles sent out a far greater volume of content than the Congress’ handles is because even though Modi was the dominant narrative, they put out content from a range of BJP leaders. As one social media manager said, “The Congress only retweets Rahul Gandhi.” Moreover, in terms of operational message discipline, while every Modi tweet was retweeted by all BJP ministers, most senior Congress leaders chose not to echo Gandhis “Chowkidar Chor hai” line online from their own handles. Gandhi did not retweet content by Priyanka Gandhi, who was made the in-charge for eastern UP, even once during the campaign. Social media strategies can be a force multiplier, but in the end, they are reflective of the organisations they represent and can only be as strong as their backend.
Reflective of this is the gulf between the trajectories of the NaMo app and the Congress’s Shakti platform. By March 2019, the Namo app had been downloaded 10 million times across Android and iOS platforms, and had sold merchandise worth over Rs 5 crores. While the NaMo app, which came prefigured on Jio phones, has its closed Twitter-like ecosystem allowing users to post their own content, it also served as an important two-way system for information-gathering and for conducting surveys (Sharma 2019).
Further, according to a report that quoted an internal note by a party general secretary, “between 75–80% of Shakti registrations are bogus in each state … Crores of rupees have been sunk by the party in sending SMSes to mostly non-INC people. Consequently, the Congress has a huge database of fake workers with incorrect mobile numbers masquerading as INC workers” (Sharma 2019). The party’s data head, who spearheaded the Shakti initiative, has denied the allegations but the controversy surrounding the app is revealing.
The Future of Digital Politics
However one wishes to look at the 2019 elections, the fact remains that the campaigns conducted were a fundamental marker in India’s journey as it transitions into a digital society driven by cheap data. The steps taken by digital platforms to self-regulate content violations and transparency in political funding are nascent ones, and much more needs to be done. Yet, an important beginning has been made.
Politically, like the BJP and the Congress, a couple of regional parties like the Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress and the DMK also embraced digital technologies, but most were not active on digital platforms. This has begun to change. While different parties adapt differently, one thing is clear: cheap data means that the underlying beliefs that drove many of our older assumptions about political mobiliSation has seen a tectonic shift. We are just beginning to unravel the effects of this change. Current politics cannot be effectively understood without understanding the contours of this change. While it has opened up multiple possibilities for our politics, it has also thrown up fascinating new questions for research.