News broke on Thursday that India’s bachelor prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, had confirmed he was not quite the single guy he had claimed to be during much of his campaign.
When 25-year-old Micky Chopra, a Delhi voter, first heard that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate was in fact hiding a marriage, he’d gotten the gossip not from a news report but instead from the mobile messaging service WhatsApp.
Skeptics in the US may have expressed their doubts when Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19 billion in February, but — with 40 million active users in India alone — the service has become a uniquely valuable political tool for candidates in the country’s ongoing parliamentary elections.
As they were in both of President Barack Obama’s election campaigns, social media platforms have become an important part of the political landscape during India’s campaigns to fill the 543 parliament seats up for grabs in elections now running through May 12.
“It’s changed from public gatherings with large audiences to more marketing and branding,” Chopra told VICE News about the change in campaign tactics that he has noticed as a voter since the advent of social media.
There are more than 160 million internet subscribers and more than 100 million social media users in the country of 1.2 billion; and for the first time Facebook, Twitter, and Google Hangouts have become an unavoidable marketing avenue for India’s politicians.
“What we saw was public participation was not that high,” Anshul Tewari, founder of citizen media platform Youth Ki Awaaz, told VICE News about the 2009 elections. “The conversations were not really social in nature.”
Tewari says things have changed tremendously during the 2014 elections. Indians — especially young ones — are now debating and discussing their political preferences online and on their mobile phones, allowing for more immediate interactions between voters and candidates.
But the breakaway hit — and one that stands apart from the American model — has been the popularity of WhatsApp. The mobile messaging service is being used to disseminate messages, engage with voters for polling estimates, and to organize campaign volunteers.
With more than 450 million active users, WhatsApp allows people to send text and multimedia messages using mobile data or Wi-Fi networks free of charge, thus avoiding costly SMS messaging. A user doesn’t need to create profiles or add friends, the app links directly to his contact list so that someone can send a message to anyone in his phonebook.
Three of the main political parties — BJP, Aam Aadmi Party, and the Congress Party — all have WhatsApp channels or numbers that they use to reach out to Indians throughout the country and all over the world.
“When we started [using WhatsApp],… I had severe pain in my back because I was bent over selecting numbers manually,” Gaurav Pandhi, a member of the communications team for volunteers with the Congress Party, told VICE News to describe how much time he has devoted to using WhatsApp during the campaign. Much of his time was spent hovering over a computer, individually typing messages and manually selecting thousands of phone numbers to forward messages.
Pandhi admits that the party has been slow to integrate social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook into its campaign strategies, but he says it has quickly embraced WhatsApp. Since August the party has created national channels for both voters and party volunteers, as well as channels run by individual constituencies and candidates.
The former banker and Delhi resident helps run the Congress Party's WhatsApp channel targeted towards party volunteers with more than 15,000 subscribers. Large volunteer efforts within political campaigns in India are a relatively new development in the world’s largest democracy, and WhatsApp has helped streamline their activities.
Pandhi says that in previous elections the volunteers were scattered and unorganized. Along with a team of fellow volunteers, he helped create the With Congress social media campaign to better coordinate volunteers by using Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp to connect volunteers across the country.
“I found there was a disconnect between the party and myself; we wanted to bridge that gap,” said Pandhi of the need for a platform like With Congress.
One way the organizers are using WhatsApp to bridge the gap is by sending a message out to a list of volunteers in the morning to announce, for example, where a certain political candidate might be hosting a rally or when a particular event might take place.
The volunteer social media coordinators also work with the campaign’s main WhatsApp channel to send out image posts and messages in hopes that volunteers will forward them to others and create a “human chain” of communication. According to Pandhi, gossip and attack ads are the most likely to go viral, but images that evoke emotions also have a good shot at spreading quickly.
This election is the first time social media platforms are playing a major role in India. As a result, there has been a lot of buzz about this added factor being a ‘game changer’ — but these assumptions might be a bit naïve.
A recent poll found that Modi leads the Congress party candidate Rahul Gandhi, and some media reports have suggested that the poll numbers correlate significantly with the fact that Modi has 3.7 million Twitter followers to Gandhi’s nonexistent Twitter following. Pandhi does not believe it will affect the outcome of the elections, but he wishes Gandhi also had a Twitter presence.
“He’s a very cool guy, and I think the people of India should know it, and I think Twitter’s the way,” said Pandhi.
A study published last year by the Internet and Mobile Association of India and the IRIS Knowledge Foundation in January found that social media was likely to influence election outcomes in 160 constituencies throughout the country.
“I only laugh at that kind of information,” Sanjay Kumar, the director at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies, told VICE News.
He explained that people tend to imagine a huge impact, but with less than 10 percent of the population engaged in social networking that is not likely to happen.
Kumar says social media has become a useful tool to get out information and engage with voters, but one candidate or party is not likely to see a boost because of some sort of en masse showing of their Twitter followers at the polls. According to Kumar, an Indian inside the voting booth is more likely to be thinking about caste, ethnic, and other affiliations when casting his or her vote than a promotional message on WhatsApp or Twitter.
He also says the idea that social media will push young voters to flood the polls this year is a miscalculation. Kumar says this is not the first time there have been a lot of voters in the 18–25-year-old demographic, which this time around includes 100 million potential first time voters. He expects that this age group will see lower turnout compared to others, by about four or five percent, just like in years past.
Even if Twitter followers don’t materialize into votes during the elections, it’s difficult to imagine political parties around the world will ignore WhatsApp in upcoming elections.
“I have huge hopes for WhatsApp. I know that they’re here to stay,” says Pandhi. “I think that they can help us with another election. It’s not only from India’s perspective.”
But before other countries adopt this model, WhatsApp may have to do some extra work to optimize its service for political campaigns. As much as the app has opened up communication avenues for Pandhi and his party, there are still improvements he and his cohorts would like to see. They hope that — even after the elections come to a close next week — the app company will work with them to build a more user-friendly and back-pain–free experience.
Because WhatsApp runs on a fairly basic platform, Pandhi says it has been difficult for his team to efficiently reach out to their subscribers. One of the challenges is that it is not possible to sort WhatsApp users by location, age, or other demographics, which means that any message he sends on the platform can be sent only to all subscribers.
This can become tedious, especially when social media coordinators are trying to send region-specific messages. For example, if Pandhi wants to tell volunteers in the south about a rally in their area, he currently has to disseminate the information to all of their WhatsApp followers — even if they live on the other side of the country.
Another issue that has come up is the process of sorting through and responding to the messages they receive from subscribers. Thousands of messages are sent to the Congress Party's WhatsApp channels each day, oftentimes containing important grievances or concerns. The messages appear in one long list, forcing Pandhi and his team to hunch over a computer, sifting through all messages without any way to efficiently filter and organize them.
“I think if WhatsApp would help us, we can use it in a very big way to address the grievances of the people,“ said Pandhi.
Image via Flickr