Experts say that with the rising number of smartphone users in India, the number of social media users is also on the rise.
Political campaigning through social media will be the game changer during campaigning for the 2019 general elections, as all major political parties are looking to tap into the rapid increase in the usage of social media and the widespread penetration of internet across the length and breadth of the country. Experts have said that during the 2014 elections, social media campaigning was just taking shape and now, four years down the line, its impact will be much more now.
According to the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), India has crossed the 500 million mark for internet users by the first half of this year. The country, which has about 300-400 million smartphone users currently, is likely to see 530 million smartphone users by the end of this year, according to Zenith, a US-based media agency.
With an increasing number of smartphone users in India, social media users are also on the rise. India has about 250 million active social media users, while 462 million active internet users are presently dominating the cyber space in India.
About 30% of the total social media space is being currently dominated by Facebook, with active Facebook users crossing the 270 million user mark in the country. At about 30.4 million active users in the country, Twitter has seen an almost 100% growth since 2014 when India had just 15 million active Twitter users, according to statista.com, an online statistics and business intelligence portal.
WhatsApp, the internet-based messaging application, has also seen a phenomenal growth in India, with 200 million active WhatsApp users in India currently; this is likely to rise to 250 million users by the end of this year, according to estimates released by WhatsApp earlier this year.
Realising the critical role that social media campaigning will play in 2019, both the major political parties of the country, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress, who already have a massive social media presence, are putting in more efforts to prepare for the general elections. Both the parties have formed their IT cells headed by young leaders like Divya Spandana (Congress) and Amit Malviya (BJP).
Apart from this, every state unit of these two political parties have their own IT cell responsible for monitoring and disseminating information through social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp. These cells are quick to update and share information relating to their party or their party leaders in real time.
Ankita Gaba, one of the pioneer social media strategists in India, told The Sunday Guardian that social media has become such a powerful tool in India that one cannot ignore this media while in public life.
“Social media has become a platform from where traditional media now get their breaking news. A leader who wants to share a particular information does so first on social media, which is later picked up by traditional media like TV channels or the print media. It is such a medium where information can be shared in the quickest manner—just a click of a button on your smartphone directly communicating the information with thousands of people,” Gaba said.
She further added that social media would be used during election campaigning in a way never witnessed in the history of political campaigning in India. Given the increasing number of social media users not only in urban India, but also in rural areas, the dependence on traditional media for political leaders and parties has decreased and the impact of social media has also been huge.
“For example, if a political party wants to set an agenda for the day or wants to run a propaganda, social media is one of the most viable and easy platforms. Social media will also be the driving force for the youth,” Gaba said.
The BJP, which has virtually termed its social media cells as “war rooms”, has potential internet enthusiasts assisting the party to set the agenda for each day with different issues. Moreover, the BJP has been instrumental in forming IT cell units in almost all major districts of the country where the party has significant presence. Even BJP president Amit Shah has been holding special briefing sessions with social media teams of the cities he has been touring in India.
A source in the BJP IT cell said that members in the cell have been receiving constant training and briefing on the effective use of social media to target the maximum number of people in the virtual world and spread the party’s message about the good works of the government.
The source said: “We are working daily to increase our outreach. The country is already in election mode. We are entrusted with the job of spreading the message about the good work done by this government over Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp. The internet facilitates a one-on-one connect between the user and the party.”
A senior member of the IT cell of BJP’s Bengal unit told this correspondent that they are working to highlight the “misgovernance” of the ruling Mamata Banerjee government in Bengal and compare it with the “good governance of the Narendra Modi government”.
The BJP leader from Bengal said: “Everyday, we curate a WhatsApp message that talks about the atrocities in Bengal unleashed by the Mamata Banerjee government and get it circulated through WhatsApp to as many people as possible. Twitter and Facebook are also used to send messages and updates. Every major rally is live streamed. We also generate hashtags that need to trend. Usage of photographs and videos are also done to give it a larger impact. This process will only increase as the elections draw near.”
This is almost the case in every state. For instance in Maharashtra, the BJP’s IT cell is planning to connect with as many as one crore people by the end of this year and according to Ketan Mohitkar, IT cell head of the BJP in Nagpur, the party will not only target youths, but even audiences in the age group 40-60 years will be targeted with the party’s message as this age group is currently very active on social media.
The Congress is also not far behind in the social media race. The official handle of the Indian National Congress on Twitter has about 4.46 million followers, while the Congress’ Facebook page also has about 4.8 million likes.
Sources in the Congress central IT cell said that the cell is gearing up for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in which social media would be one of the most important tools of campaigning.
A source said: “Our main aim is to highlight the wrong decisions of the Modi government. We will keep reminding the people of demonetisation, the bad implementation of the GST (Goods and Services Tax), price rise, among several other issues. Social media is a tool through which we can reach the people within seconds and not have to depend on the traditional media.”
Prime Minister Modi has himself directed all his ministers and ministries to actively participate on social media to disseminate information to the masses. The government has also been using social media to enlist its “achievements” almost on a regular basis. Almost all Central government ministries and ministers have their own social media handle (Facebook and Twitter) for tweeting or sharing information related to their ministries.
Anoop Mishra, a well-known social media strategist, told this newspaper: “Although the number of social media users among the rural population is less than in urban areas, the time spent on internet by users among the rural population is far more than in urban areas. This enables political parties to get major outreach to even the remotest parts of the country in a very short time span.”