A considerable amount has been written about the role social media will play in the 2014 elections, and perhaps the single most cited document has been this report by the Iris Knowledge foundation in conjunction with the Internet and Mobile Association of India. If you have not read about it elsewhere, I will summarize the main conclusion for you here: 160 of the 543 constituencies which will participate in the 2014 elections are ‘High Impact’ by dint of their social media presence. In these ‘High Impact’ constituencies, one of these two criteria are met:
1) Facebook users constitute more than 10% of the voting population, OR
2) The number of Facebook users is greater than the margin of victory of the winning candidate in the last Lok Sabha election.
So why ‘High Impact’? What exactly is the perceived impact? Well the term itself is predicated on the idea that Facebook can function as more than just a venue for chit-chat, but as a conduit to persuasive information at other sources. How many of you arrived at this page through a link on Facebook? How many have had an opinion swayed by something you saw here? Thus it is argued that the amount of traction a candidate in a ‘High Impact’ constituency can gain through avenues like Facebook will be a crucial, perhaps decisive, factor in their poll performance. The things conveyed by them, and about them, can transform their reputation, and it is in recognition of this that candidates like Narendra Modi have established firm digital footprints.
The report makes for optimistic reading. It goes on to note that as a result of the Internet age, 2014’s electorate will be have more raw information at their disposal than any electorate in India’s past, and thus will be able to make more considered choices. The logic of more social media equals more information equals better decisions seems almost infallible. Indeed, it is a romantic and empowering thought to believe that the most democratic form of media in existence will decide the largest democratic process in the world. Social media can be a venue, now, for fist-pumping, power-to-the-people electioneering. But there remain skeptics as to how effective this may actually be. Sadanand Dhume’s recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal throws cold water on any premature fires, and suggests that potential and reality are still bridges apart. He says, “In a country where voting often breaks down by caste or religion, there’s no evidence to suggest that any voter’s primary identity is ‘Facebook user’ or ‘Twitter follower.’ And going by precedent, India’s middle class is more adept at squabbling over politics at a dinner party than actually showing up to vote, much less at organizing and campaigning.” If history were anything to be counted on, Dhume has a point here. The urban middle class, which unsurprisingly accounts for the majority of India’s internet users, has been notoriously apathetic in election times. Earlier this year, when the state of Karnataka voted to elect a new government, overall voter turnout was at 70 percent, but in Bangalore – the country’s technology hub, and one of the most densely connected cities in the world – voter turnout was a little more than 50 percent. This malady is not Bangalore’s alone but every major Indian cities’. There is a marked translation gap between the chai-time opinions of the urban voter, and his appearance at the voting booth. So why should we believe that the netizens of India will be truly ‘High Impact’ in the elections of 2014? To put it differently, why should a blog like this one be optimistic about what it can achieve?
Well, for one thing, the Indian electorate has never been younger. It is predicted that there will be 800 million voting-age Indians in 2014, and a record number will be between the ages of 18-25. And not to say that the internet is a young man’s game, but more than 60 percent of India’s internet users are below the age of 30. Further encouragement comes from the fact that the most prominent youth rallies to be organized in the past year, have used the internet as their preferred mode of gathering support. The anti-rape protests in Delhi show that, if nothing else, social media has caused an awakening to activism in segments that may otherwise have stood still. It galvanizes opinion in a direct, participatory manner that is beyond the reach of traditional forms of media. More than that, it amplifies dissatisfaction and unrest. The question of whether the urban Indian will vote in next year’s election is, in a way, the same as asking how much dissatisfaction is necessary to breed a small amount of action. Rest assured, the Internet will ask that question several times.
Youth voting is habit-forming. Youths that vote once will more than likely do it again, and more than likely insist that their friends and families do it too. This one axiom of Indian politics has seemingly eluded the urban psyche for many years: if you vote in larger numbers, then politicians will take you more seriously. With the amplifier effect of the Internet, perhaps this election will finally buck the trend.
Still, however forceful this effect is, however much it may fall short of its potential, there remains an important, symbolic role for social media to play, one that extends far beyond change-mongering. It stems from the fact that, today, an inordinate amount of scrutiny is given to the way Indians exert their freedom of speech, especially online. Suketu Mehta, in his op-ed in the New York Times, details the tenuous status of this most basic civil liberty, and further brings to light the callous distrust the government holds for the average Indian opinionator. Section 66A of the IT act criminalizes “causing annoyance or inconvenience” via online or electronic medium – a wide net, it would seem, certainly one that traps many dissenters on the basis of their targets rather than their actual words. If the curbing of free speech is a sign of an immature democracy, then it stands to reason that it’s in the exercise of free speech that a democracy matures. But is this as straightforward as it sounds? Scroll through the Youtube comments on an India-Pak cricket match, and it is only so long before you stumble upon a death threat against Muslims. These instances, isolated as they are, still provide a strong argument for the policing of the Internet. There is the prevailing global opinion that this is a culture not yet primed to handle the responsibility of free speech. It is here that the opportunity presents itself for social media, independent outlets such as this one, to prove it possible to exercise free speech in a conscientious, diligent manner. By doing so, we are building up credibility for two democracies at once – India and the Internet are both characterized by pockets of infantile behavior, but we should never let this mask the sheer power of their potential. If freedom of speech truly exists in India, it needs to be flexed most at a time when the future of the country is being decided.
As happens every five years, the Indian General Elections of 2014 will renew its record as the largest democratic process the world has ever seen. Through outlets such as this one, you will expose yourself to opinions and ideologies that may be close to home or may be alien to you. You will be exposed to information, more information than an Indian voter has ever had the privilege of. Respect this privilege, especially if you are a first-time voter. What we write here may make you think twice and reconsider your stands, but it’s a responsibility we’ve taken on to give you opinions. Yours, plainly, is the responsibility to decide.