Will social media have any impact on 2019 Indian election results

India has already seen two general elections in which online media has played a role

It was ten years back when India fought its first national elections with a shadow of online media. At that time, the modern social media platforms were not as prevalent and smart phones were yet a privileged device in the hands of upper middle class and the rich. Yet, the web was widely used for political advertisement and as a medium that supported medium mainstream publicity. 
In the 2014 parliamentary elections in India, social media became a fierce battleground. A large mobile-first population  had helped fast growth of online media. This, along with the fact that many of them were young first-time voters, made politicians to take serious note of it. The then Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, more than other contemporary leaders, understood the power of social media to spread his brand, especially among aspirational Indians, and was active on online media much before elections. Many old-styled politicians, however, ridiculed social media platforms and considered social media engagement as a waste of time. 
By the time of actual elections, quite a number of political parties were highly active on online media, with a core team of content creators and monitors whose actions were replicated by thousands of committed volunteers. 

2019 elections are seeing direct role of social media like never before

In 2019, India has many more smart phones, and these devices have reached the lower middle income class if not lower. These phones have reached small towns and villages; data has become much cheaper; videos clips have become much easy to create and share. What a smart phone user uses the most is social networking and media sharing platforms. Besides global social networks such as Facebook and Instagram, local and language platforms e.g. ShareChat, Hello and TikTok have become popular among the young. [TikTok has been removed on 17th April from Android and Apple app stores in India due to inappropriate content.] Instant messaging, sharing of content and group communication on WhatsApp is highly popular across age groups, genders and regions.
Fake news has become much more prevalent than in 2014. Because of availability of quick photo/ video editing apps, dedicated teams of fake news creators and broadcasters, poor filtering of such content by platforms and people's indiscreet sharing of content on social media, there have been numerous cases of serious damage to people's life, property and reputation. 
Elections become a handy playground for spreading one's alignment with or against a political group or opinion. Fake news makes it more thrilling for those wanting to let loose their emotions. 
Though the Election Commission, government and social platforms have come together in the recent months to prevent and check the menace of fake news and other undesirable content on the web, it does float in good quantity.

Does social media really influence voter decision?

Studies the world over have found that social media (and the overall web media) does make some influence on the voters but not as much as it is felt to be. 
Another common observation is that social media may not have had a considerable positive impact, but it had a very high potential to damage someone’s prospects.
It is also felt that in most cases, most of the election-related social media buzz is due to armies on each side - trolling and abusing the other side and creating fake news in one's favor and against the other. They are committed content-creators and spreaders. The average consumer of social media spreads or comments on them based on his/ her pre-conceived notions. Thus, social media does not influence a voter enough to change his/ her voting decision.
It has been agrued by many observers that social media acts more as a mirror of the society. At best it reinforces what happens in the society and what comes on mainstream media. Though social media may be playing a role of influencer too, but if these two are its basic properties, the logic of its being an influencer of significance falls flat. 
In 2014, a study conducted by India Today had concluded that over 46 per cent of respondents, who were eligible to vote for the first time in those elections, took online opinions  seriously. 
A study by  IAMAI found that social media was likely to make high impact in 160 out of 543 constituencies in 2014 because there were more number of Facebook users in these constituencies than the margin of victory in the previous election or where the number of Facebook users was more than 10% of the voting population. 
Another study by the same organization concluded that social media could swing 3-4% young men and non-working women voters in majority of states. A Google survey suggested that social media could impact 30% of seats. 
It was also found that social media reinforced Narendra Modi’s narrative that the then ruling party was deeply mired in corruption and only he could rid the country of corruption and take it forward.
Come 2019. The premises remain the same; but social media has become part of more people's lives and it does influence their life decisions. Smart phones in the hands of millions of young people in villages and towns, many of whom are unemployed and many are of impressionable age, increase the influencing potential of social media. Consider also that this time, all political parties and politicians have learnt to use social media in their crude or sophisticated ways - which adds to mesh up of social messages, and these messages do travel to real-life discourses in families and close groups and thus may influence one's voting decisions. 
Direct and surrogate advertising on the social media is another matter that is drawing attention of the Election Commission and it is understood to be keeping a tab on it. From the perspective of the present discussion, a huge expenditure on online publicity is an important indicator that political parties and candidates consider social media as an important influencer.
Besides the obvious and rather crude way of using social media, big political parties have been investing good money also on making social messages more impactful. Technological and statistical tools, especially for data analytics, are used for targeting messages. Professional outfits have emerged, which guide politicians on making the best use of social media for connecting with their voters. Such 'professional' use of social media in elections is also likely to increase its impact.


social media in elections

Social media does influence political democracy

Beyond election outcomes, social media has been found to contribute positively to democratic discussions and debates. There ae also concerns, as in the current Indian elections too, of it being too superficial, susceptible to opaque and corrupt practices, reinforcing divisions/ polarization in the society, prone to foreign interference, etc. Maybe, we'd discuss these matters sometime later.
  
Disclosure: This post is partly an excerpt from 'Use of Social Media in Elections' chapter of The Manual of Social Media, with updates. 

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