Elections are fought on WhatsApp, but not always won

Part of Modi’s success is thanks to social media campaigns that precede and follow his campaigning on the ground. But propaganda can take him thus far and no further

One has read enough about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s magic and how he is a proven crowd puller. However, much less is written about the intense and devious campaign in cyber space that precedes and follows his speeches, which helps translate them into votes. This crucial force multiplier is social media - the echo chamber that mobilises and influences people, sets the agenda, reinforces biases and beliefs, runs down opponents, spreads fake news and data through repetition while at the same time debunking all competing views that question the validity of the information being disseminated.

In fact, there are those who would argue that Modi’s effectiveness as a campaigner is not just his personal appeal but also has a lot to do with his use of social media platforms. These include Facebook, Twitter and the latest weapon in the armoury — WhatsApp. The messaging platform was first extensively used in the 2017 Assembly election in Uttar Pradesh and has since become a frontline weapon for the BJP’s social media cell. If 9,000 WhatsApp groups were created for the UP campaign, some 23,000 were at work for the Saffron party in the recently concluded assembly polls in Karnataka.

The echo chambers of social media have become integral to Modi’s campaigns since the 2014 general election, which saw him emerge victorious and take over the reins of the government in New Delhi. In every election since then, the build-up before the actual push on the ground by Modi and other BJP leaders has been provided by the cyber cell which disseminates the narrative to be unfolded. This is done through a string of videos, fake news and messages that touch the broad themes of nationalism, the threat from Muslims, the achievements of the government and how it is committed to deliver on its promises.

Simultaneously, Opposition leaders, particularly of the Congress, are lampooned and portrayed as corrupt, debauched individuals who are out to destroy the nation. Hate campaigns against minorities touching sensitive issues like love-Jihad, forced conversions as well as the need for Hindus to polarise against Muslim and other minority sympathisers and pseudo secularists are all part of the mix. Dalits, who have no use for the BJP, and are found siding with liberals and the Left are also targeted.

A person who volunteered for the BJP’s IT cell in the 2017 UP assembly elections described the videos and propaganda disseminated as “short, snappy and entertaining documentaries” which appear to be real footage of events or morphed photographs, distorted audios which seemingly tell true stories. He told SouthWord that the messages and images, though false or exaggerated, sound convincing to the gullible and therefore set the stage for actual campaigning on the ground.

As a result, when Modi or any other BJP leader questions the patriotism of the Nehru-Gandhi family or of Congress misrule, their words are backed by several devious narratives that have already illustrated the point. Ditto is the case when they boast about the BJP government’s achievements.

This information onslaught continues even after the netas have visited a constituency, and is sustained till voting day. Till then new narratives are spun that reinforce the core themes of the campaign. It is this exercise that helps maximise the oratorial efforts of leaders and converts them into votes.

Zero cost, many benefits
While Facebook and Twitter are still being extensively exploited by the BJP, it is WhatsApp that is emerging as the favourite tool. The reasons for this, according to those linked to IT cells of political parties, are the following: (a) messages are encrypted, unlike on Facebook or Twitter and cannot be monitored by WhatsApp officials, leave alone official agencies; (b) a political party can spread inflammatory messages/images and fake news through WhatsApp groups without these being traced back to them; (c) it can claim that it merely helped set up the groups and has no control over information being shared by individual members; (d) unlike Facebook and Twitter, people of all age groups and classes, including the illiterate can be reached through audio-visual messages easily accessed on a smart phone; (e) those who own such mobiles are known to play videos for the benefit of friends who don’t have access to a smartphone. This further helps dissemination.

While it is by now a given that social media plays a key part in election campaigns, its role has strangely not been subjected to any serious evaluation. Last month at a discussion on the outcome of the Karnataka election at Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research (CPR), a question was posed about the impact of social media on the polls. One of the panelists, a senior Fellow at CPR, said that there is little evidence that suggests that social media impacts electoral outcomes although it may “impact the way people express themselves or perhaps it may result in a better turnout at elections”.

The Saffron party won UP by a landslide (325 of 403 seats). But there was a catch: no communication device or platform can substitute for good and effective governance. Go to UP today and you will invariably hear complaints about how the BJP fooled people with tall promises during demonetisation

In the absence of any substantial research, particularly in India, that was a safe answer. But it only skimmed the surface and did not explain the emphasis being put on social media campaigns by political parties. In fact, the Karnataka election was described by the Washington Post as one of the first to be fought on WhatsApp. “Forget debates and rallies. Elections in India are now fought and won on WhatsApp…,” wrote Annie Gowen, the paper’s India Bureau Chief, and Elizabeth Dwoskin, its technology correspondent. Their article also underscored the point that India is the largest market for WhatsApp in the world with an astonishing 200 million users.

For the crucial Karnataka assembly polls, seen as a precursor to the 2019 general election, the BJP set up 23,000 WhatsApp groups across the state last December, covering every constituency in the state. Each group had about 100 members including professionals, traders, housewives, the youth and senior citizens. The Congress as well as the JD(S) also set up similar groups but with limited reach and effectiveness thanks to the relative lack of viciousness and bite in their content. The two parties were also new to the game unlike the BJP.

Because of this focus on social media, the Karnataka election saw a spike in hate campaigns, particularly in the coastal districts and a fake news explosion in which parties took on each other. Videos about Hindu pride and nationalism under threat, communities being divided and a fake BBC opinion poll, which pronounced the BJP as the clear winner, soon surfaced. Those tracking fake news had a tough time keeping pace and admit that information channelled on WhatsApp does not even come to their notice unless it is picked up by mainstream media or on news portals.

Strategy perfected in Uttar Pradesh
So, how does social media help in a BJP campaign? For the 2017 assembly polls in UP, work began eight months ahead of elections in February-March 2017. The campaign was supposed to pick up steam in November. But the social media cell, manned by 4,000-odd members (10 in most of the 403 constituencies in the state) had to get into early overdrive in the second week of October because of the challenges thrown up by demonetisation announced on October 8.

“We had to fast forward action because of demonetisation,” says a source associated with the campaign. “Suddenly, we were required to communicate a new narrative to the people. The message was that notebandi was a fight being waged by Mr Modi against black money on behalf of the people. We had to present it as a battle between the honest citizen and the evil, rich tax evader — something like a class struggle. Our job was to convey to people that they would have to bear the pain of standing in long queues outside ATMs and banks but their sacrifice would not go unrewarded.”

The message was initially sent out through 5,000 WhatsApp groups. Their numbers were later upped to 9,000. Other social media platforms were also used in the campaign. By December, the buzz was generated that sums of money ranging from Rs 50,000 to Rs 1 lakh would be deposited in zero-balance accounts under the Jan Dhan scheme. Some rumours, disseminated through WhatsApp, had it that lakhs would be gifted to the poor. The exact amount would be dependent on the amount of black money recovered.

When Opposition leaders and sections of the media dismissed demonetisation as a mindless exercise that yielded no black money, a fresh twist was added to the narrative in January ahead of the elections. If the government had so far not distributed funds or rewarded the common man, it was because it would be in violation of the model code of conduct which had come into effect. Once the elections were over, the needful would be done. It sounded very convincing and dovetailed with the propaganda that those who opposed demonetisation were supporters of black money.

But ask the BJP if this was the message on demonetisation, which was sent out during the UP campaign and it can deny it outright. This is because content channelled through WhatsApp has no authorship. This is the reason why it is the preferred medium for those who wish to spread misinformation.

In UP, to the main demonetisation thread were tagged other elements like the deteriorating law and order situation under the Akhilesh Yadav government, the growing threat of love-jihad, the Hindu community under threat from Muslims and the unholy alliance between the Samajwadi Party and the Congress to protect the corrupt. Of course, added to the mix was the demonising of the Nehru-Gandhi family, which was a continuation of the 2014 general election narrative.

“With such an extensive campaign and build up, all Mr Modi had to do was give suggestions in his public speeches. For example, a statement that he went ahead with demonetisation for public good and because he has nothing to do with people with black money acquired a whole new meaning to people who viewed videos and messages targeting Opposition leaders as friends of the corrupt. Similarly, the promise of relief to kisans and housing for the poor were not seen as empty promises but those that would be fulfilled with black money unearthed through demonetisation after the elections,” points out the source.

According to him, it was the UP election that revealed the power and reach of WhatsApp. It apparently proved to be far more effective in reaching out to a larger section of society than Facebook or Twitter. “If you ask me, our campaign played a vital role in converting demonetisation, which many saw as a negative, into a major plus point for the BJP,” he says.

The Saffron party won UP by a landslide (325 of 403 seats). But there was a catch: no communication device or platform can substitute for good and effective governance. Go to UP today and you will invariably hear complaints about how the BJP fooled people with tall promises during demonetisation. Go to other parts of the country and you will hear about agrarian distress, rising unemployment, inflation, communal clashes and what have you.

The message is clear. Propaganda and misinformation can take any party thus far, but no further. This is something that the BJP discovered much to its dismay in the recent Lok Sabha and assembly by-polls in which it fared rather poorly in UP as well as in other states. It is a lesson that it also learnt in Karnataka, where it was pipped to the post by coalition politics.

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