Digital Politics In The 21st Century

You are being politically programmed - one post at a time, aided by digital memes and data-driven political marketing.

When the smoke settles after an Indian election victory, the question of ‘whodunnit’ is soon replaced by that of ‘how did they do it?’. It seems that we develop a barometer for the pulse of an electorate only after the results are out.

But there is one factor that has played a constant role in recent times – social media.

In 2008, Obama demonstrated that the party with the best social media campaign wins. In 2014, Narendra Modi made this amply clear with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) digital blitz in the general elections, an act soon followed up by the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) sweep of Delhi state elections. Soon, it was a new necessity in the fast-changing world of politics.

One thing they all had in common was a strong, data-driven digital marketing campaign that allowed them to target voters with their messages. Big data now allows even private companies to create lists of the entire electorate, compile their names, addresses and likely voting behaviour – Trump’s campaign did this with a precision that ‘profiled the personality of every adult in the US.’

In India, the numbers are even bigger. The firm Modak analytics had compiled a list of 810 million Indian voters in 2013, during the run-up to the general election. With the number of new internet-users growing by 50 million every year, politicians are given an endless supply of new faces to reach out to. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Whatsapp are now part of what journalist Prerna Kaul Mishra calls the ‘fifth pillar‘ of the media.

But what happens once you’ve been successfully targeted, profiled, and pigeonholed for a campaign?

Social media bubbles largely define how we perceive the world around us today. A die-hard Trump or Modi supporter is unlikely to have a news feed that presents the opposition agenda. This is where India’s situation grows intriguing.

During the 2016 Uttar Pradesh elections, Modi triggered controversy in a campaign speech, where he suggested that shamshaans (Hindu cremation grounds) should be created in every village that had a kabristan (Muslim graveyard).

Opposition parties were quick to condemn it, for #kabristan had become the first communal bomb-drop of the campaign. Articles called it ‘the most polarizing statement made by any prime minister on a campaign trail’. But online, polarization is the name of the game.

Speaking about the issue of polarisation, Gilles Vernier from the department of political science at Ashoka University says:

By mixing signals to the Hindu base with a generalist discourse on development, the Prime Minister creates a perception that certain groups, defined by their religion or by their association with other parties, have unduly benefited from the state attention and generosity. Thus, the communalisation of the campaign becomes part of the whole development discourse. Social justice gets, in the process, equated with the exclusion of those who benefited from the system in place, regardless of whether this assertion is borne by facts or not.

The election results were a wave in the BJP’s favour. Out of the many takeaways from this round was that a hashtag was no more representative of ground opinion than the people who make them trend. In making it a controversy, media outlets revealed themselves outside of the bubble of BJP-supporters, and therefore unable to connect. It’s a trend researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) observed in the U.S. Presidential elections as well – Trump supporters received their own subset of news, discussion topics and presumably hashtags. It made them an insular group, disconnected from the frequent ‘outrages’ generated by mainstream media.

This is the single greatest success of social media political campaigns. To voters that matter, they make the news – and having a bad headline somewhere else won’t belie their ability to set narratives. But people are wary of unpackaged narratives – and that’s when basic image editing comes to play.

Pages like “Shankh Naad” on Facebook deliver communally charged media to its nearly 1.3 million subscribers. Often enough, the source of its claims is just an image with some text on it. This image-and-text ‘meme’ format has proven popular on social media across the political spectrum. The narrative may be crafted by the party spin doctors, but it’s the fans, supporters and social media budgets that define its reach to the public.

And while the link between memes and digital campaigning has yet to be made in India, it would be premature to assume party leaders are unaware of them. After several memes emerged over Narendra Modi’s usage of the word ‘Mitron’ following his announcement of demonetization, he omitted it in his end of year speech.

Now, it seems like he’s making a point not to say it at all. Being meme-skinned can have its benefits, but also its disadvantages. You always want people laughing with you, not at you. After the party’s staggering win in UP (and usually after any of their electoral victories), memes abounded mocking their defeated opponents.

The ability to sell an ideology packaged with a joke is crucial for winning over online audiences. Trump’s rise was a machination of jokes that weren’t completely joking. It’s the ability of a meme to present a falsity as a punchline that makes it so politically powerful – enough so that the question of whether memes won the U.S. election is debated in the New Yorker.

As India adds internet users by the millions, the space for digital persuasion will grow ever more competitive – as will the demand for data that tells parties what makes people vote. As India gears itself for elections in 2018 and 2019, we can be assured that our social media feeds will turn toxic, divisive and agenda driven. As we are politically programmed through a combination of data-driven political marketing, social media narratives and political agendas, what needs to be seen is whether we will develop the ability to question what is being fed to us and dissect fact from fictitious political agenda.


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