Written by Rashmi Singh.

With the 2019 general elections hot on its heels, the Election Commission of India (ECI) has finally been forced to reckon with the impact of social media on Indian elections through a formal process. In response to a public interest litigation or PIL, the ECI has drawn up a ‘Voluntary Code of Ethics for General Lok Sabha Elections’ to enforce stricter monitoring of social media platforms and monitoring of election code violations online. It has also asked candidates to register details of their social media accounts.

These measures seem too late and too little, however, for the burgeoning use of social media in politics. In addition, several news reports have pointed out how the ECI’s approach is operating on a real-world basis far removed from the problem, both by launching its cVIGIL app without enabling users to send any URL, video or photo they want to report through to the app – hence making the exercise ineffective from the start – and by limiting its ambit to specific platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, but not others (such as WhatsApp).

The greater presence of political parties on social media has shrunk the space for facts

Despite these limitations, the ECI’s entry into the regulation of social media is significant for India’s elections. The 2014 general elections were historic for many reasons, including the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) astonishing use of social media. Referred to as India’s first ‘social media’ Prime Minister, Narendra Modi’s campaign changed conventional electioneering in India and introduced a different script and speed of political communication. Effectively binding grassroots sentiment with the work of its online ‘volunteers’, the BJP used an unprecedented model of marketing with the labour of hundreds of ‘cyber Hindus’ who forcefully distributed the party’s message.

Scholarship on the 2014 elections has debated how much this visible change still relied on forms of ‘old media’ to bolster its reach. However, it certainly introduced a different language of investment and corporate speak into the elections and, more importantly, a different network of actors from the BJP’s IT cell and advertising affiliates, who fit the definition of Janine R. Wedel’s ‘flexians’ – shadow actors adept at networking and brokering in a neo-liberal electoral regime.

The displacement of party activities to professional agencies and big advertising companies also made it clear that the BJP’s reliance on Modi had reduced its reliance on conventional party support. Not only has the new leadership of the party sidelined its older leaders, it has also led to more disgruntled outbursts from party workers who are increasingly dissatisfied with the party. (A recent example of this is a senior leader from Uttar Pradesh calling Modi a ‘pracharmantri’ or advertising minister rather than Prime Minister.)

The new BJP (BJP 2.0) has also remodelled the political party format towards a party of booth workers, with its slogan ‘booth jeeta, chunavjeeta’, or ‘win the booth, win the election’ – with as yet unclear implications for its future organisational running and funding.

Come 2019, the opposition has tried to catch up, and the Congress Party now has a revamped social media profile and a better Twitter presence, with Rahul Gandhi taking on a more aggressive role for himself and his party on social media. Congress has also introduced the Shakti App (similar to the Namo App used by the BJP) to connect with its workers. The rhetoric around the introduction of such measures echoes that of the BJP, as Congress leaders describe the app as an incentive or ‘reward system’ for its workers, with a similar vision for the largely superficial involvement of its party cadres and a more assertive election mode for the party.

The opposition has also been coming out more aggressively against the BJP’s online trolling, with Akhilesh Yadav calling its online operators ‘internet terrorists’ for hyping up nationalism after the Pulwama attack for electoral gains.

Some developments in the BJP have helped other parties, such as the floundering of its social media cell, with many of its big players joining other parties or becoming disenchanted with its programme. According to the account of a defecting ‘data analyst’,  the BJP still retains its hold over closed apps like WhatsApp, where its early lead remains unchallenged and the anonymous proliferation of messages continues unabated despite the introduction of changes to WhatsApp sharing. Other parties are also at a disadvantage, particularly over the use of different social media apps such as Tiktok, which are not governed by the ECI’s new directives and continue to be extremely difficult to track, with fake messages constantly going viral.

However, the tragedy of other political parties catching up in how they use the social media sphere is in relation to political truths. In trying to gain a foothold in the social media space, the opposition has saturated that space with more ‘paid trolls’ and false truths, from which all parties have tried to distance themselves. This has also led to an increase in the existing misogyny of these platforms, where women journalists have been targeted for their independent opinions.

In their rush to compete, parties have given patronage to fake news generators with dubious credentials, irrespective of party affiliations. The greater presence of political parties on social media has shrunk the space for facts, and fake calls and messages have been embraced by all parties with little concern for the consequences of these changes. Only a handful of actors have consistently engaged with this problem, AltNews being one of them.

The 2019 Indian Elections might be proceeding towards more fake truths, but they have also brought back the importance of realpolitik, since coalitions and alliance politics are more crucial for the outcome for these elections compared to last time. The importance of forging alliances has been lost to Congress, and although it has caught up online, it still lags in the real world compared to the BJP (with BJP leaders like Yashwant Sinha reminding the Congress where its real work lies).

Importantly for us, however, this election will be most closely watched on the ground and in relation to power-sharing between alliances rather than in the virtual realm of the last election.

Rashmi Singh is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge. She works on urban politics, organisational politics and gender.

*Articles published by The Asia Dialogue represent the views of the author and not necessarily those of The Asia Dialogue or affiliated institutions.

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