The electoral victory of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014 also announced the arrival of social media and its influence in electioneering. Since then, Modi and his party have beaten all their opponents in terms of presence in social media. In earlier days, the election fever used to remain in the air for a month or two, lasting till the voting day. But the BJP has ensured that the country remains in campaigning mode around the year. In absence of resources, no other party can copy this strategy.
Through social media, every other day, hysterical issues are created, debated and forced on the people. It may be from the issue of wearing hijab, Muslim traders opening shops near Hindu houses of worship or a film on the exodus of Kashmiri Hindus way back in 1990.
Supervising at least 100,000 WhatsApp groups and over 100 pages on Facebook, BJP has taken the lead in social media platforms. The party has ensured that almost every Indian who is using the service of WhatsApp messenger is in its social media groups. The messages and videos in these groups are used to drive propaganda and polarisation on communal lines.
Such has been the dominance of BJP on social media that they have succeeded in driving the electoral narrative in their favour. So much so that Congress President Sonia Gandhi was forced to raise this issue in parliament recently. Mrs Gandhi, while highlighting the issue, argued that global companies like Facebook and Twitter were trying to influence the Indian voter and thus posing a threat to India’s secular fabric. She also mentioned that such platforms did not provide a level playing field to all political parties.
Running a social media page costs somewhere around Rs. 75,000 to Rs. 100,000 each month. And to run thousands of such pages across a platform can involve a huge cost
In the recently concluded election, besides Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, BJP had exploited the reach of YouTube and Instagram too. Besides pop up, videos and advertisements on YouTube, all major influencers on Instagram were working for the BJP.
“By the time Congress and other political parties realised the reach of Instagram, all possible pages and spaces were already in control of the BJP,” explains Samarth Saran, founder of the Research Initiative for Strategic Analysis & Planning (RISAP).
Saran was earlier associated with the Congress social media department. Saran also explained that while BJP runs these pages on social media platforms all year round, other parties wake up just months before the election, standing nowhere close to the BJP in this race. While most political parties prefer to rent a page for a few months, the BJP does it all year round with its dedicated team.
Running a social media page costs somewhere around Rs. 75,000 to Rs. 100,000 each month. And to run thousands of such pages across a platform can involve a huge cost. The BJP with its deep pockets and favourable mainstream and social media environment gets a major advantage over the other.
For the past few years, it has been observed that the ruling party in association with global social media companies together with corporate houses distort the election narrative. In the recently concluded elections, where the Election Commission of India had asked the political parties to follow COVID-19 protocols and take the digital route, the disparities in the reach of political parties were glaring.
While BJP with its social media army and a well-oiled network across platforms was able to reach out to the last man in the village, other parties with limited access faced a major setback.
Modi had understood the importance of this medium much before he became the prime minister. As a chief minister of Gujarat, he used social media to create an impression of progress and development in his state. He was the first to set up a dedicated social media team and IT department to promote the party.
“The journey started when Modi came to Delhi from Gujarat. The party was quick to build its social media war room and had a plan and strategy in place. While the other parties were clueless about this medium, the BJP had a system in place,” says a former member of the BJP IT Cell.
And while the other political parties have tried to enter the space, their pace and network are not as wide as that of the BJP. Running an IT department requires a dedicated team that would work round the clock, generate content and then ensure that it reaches out to the end-user.
“This is where the BJP wins the race while the other lack,” explains a member of the Congress social media department.
“Even if we have created a video, a voice message or a text message. For our message to reach out to the end-user, it takes about 72 hours, while the BJP can do it in less than 20 hours. They are 52 hours ahead of us in this race,” he says.
It is because of the penetration of the party into almost every WhatsApp user in this country and dominance over social media platforms, that it can reach out to people so easily.
Recalling the resignation of Facebook India’s Policy Head Ankhi Das last year, a current member of the Congress social media page admitted that it was almost impossible to compete with the BJP due to the absence of a level playing field.
“Often it happens that our pages stop showing up in search results. By the time we approach the company and sort out the issue, several crucial hours get lost in the process,” he says.
Das was forced to resign after it was alleged that she had lent undue favour to BJP and some of its leaders. It was also alleged that Facebook India went easy on ruling BJP supporters who had violated the hate speech rule.
And so, while making an observation in the Parliament last week Mrs Gandhi had flagged the need to put a check on this trend, which has become a threat to democracy. These platforms are not just working in favour of a particular political party, but are also distorting the electoral process.