The Big Business of Likes and Tweets: Social Media in the Times of Elections

As the General Elections of 2019 approach, the country gears up for the plethora of propaganda that is about to flood major social media platforms. With the increase in accessibility of technology and internet penetration, social media has undoubtedly become a major field of conquest for political parties.

The BJP and its affiliates, for instance, made up over 50 percent of the total ad-spend on Facebook, according to data made available by the social media company for February 2019. The Indian National Congress and its affiliates ranked third in the political ad spending in same month.[i] “We are estimating a 100-150% growth in ad spends on social media for this year’s general elections compared to 2014 which is very substantial,” said Ashish Bhasin, CEO, South Asia, at Dentsu Aegis Network.[ii]

Major political parties in many states have employed people specifically for this task- to reach out to the public on digital platforms. Recently, Devendra Dev, the social media in-charge of AAP, said the party has appointed a social media manager for each candidate to share their activities on social media.[iii] It is likely that the same model is being followed by every major party of the country.

However, the use of social media hasn’t always been positive, it has often been used as a platform for bringing down other candidates. A major chunk of the information that’s uploaded on the internet focuses on spreading hate and fake facts regarding parties. Very recently, a survey of voters was conducted in a joint study by Social Media Matters and the Institute for Governance, Policies and Politics (IGPP). It found that over 53% of respondents claimed to have received fake news over various social media platforms in the run up to the elections.[iv] An approximate 1 in 2 Indians have agreed to have received fake news in the last 30 days, the research claimed.[v]

Several steps are being taken to tackle this issue and to ensure the ‘free and fair’ elections that the world’s largest democracy aims to conduct. At its India headquarters, Facebook has implemented an elaborate strategy in which ‘information warriors’ are keeping an eye out for hoaxes, voter suppression attempts, suspicious account behaviour, hate messages, fake accounts, and spikes in spam.[vi] Ajit Mohan, Managing Director and Vice President, Facebook India, said the platform has also expanded partnerships with third-party fact-checkers to seven accredited organisations in India.[vii] Just last week, the company removed 687 pages and accounts linked to the Congress and a smaller number of what appeared to be pro-BJP accounts.[viii] Google introduced an India-specific Political Advertising Transparency Report and searchable Political Ads Library while Twitter formed an internal, cross-functional group to lead “electoral integrity work” in India that has tried to identify potential threats from malicious actors.[ix]

The provision of internet and the medium of social media- once considered the leading forces in the spreading of democracy and voter engagement in the country- are transforming into a business of political posts and re-tweets. Huge amounts of money are invested every day in social media by political parties and people are employed solely for the purpose of propagating the ideology of a particular political party. The Social Media Matters and IGPP survey claimed that 62% respondents still expect the election to be “influenced” by fake news despite the efforts taken by different agencies.[x] Thus, even though efforts have been made to counter the misuse of social media platforms for political purposes, considering the level and frequency with which content is shared and re-shared on social media platforms, the influence of biased political content seems to be going nowhere for now.

[i] https://www.moneycontrol.com/news/politics/ahead-of-general-elections-heres-how-political-parties-are-spending-on-ads-on-facebook-3618761.html

[ii] https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/social-media-alone-to-corner-rs-12000-crore-in-political-ad-spends/articleshow/67649833.cms

[iii] https://www.exchange4media.com/media-others-news/2018-saw-a-rise-in-the-use-of-social-media-by-indian-political-parties-93684.html

[iv] https://www.thedrum.com/news/2019/04/10/1-2-indian-election-voters-have-received-fake-news-social-media-the-past-month

[v] https://www.thedrum.com/news/2019/04/10/1-2-indian-election-voters-have-received-fake-news-social-media-the-past-month

[vi] https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/info-tech/social-media/ground-zero-logging-into-facebooks-election-war-room/article26771487.ece

[vii] https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/info-tech/social-media/ground-zero-logging-into-facebooks-election-war-room/article26771487.ece

[viii]  https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/info-tech/social-media/ground-zero-logging-into-facebooks-election-war-room/article26771487.ece

[ix] https://www.thedrum.com/news/2019/04/10/1-2-indian-election-voters-have-received-fake-news-social-media-the-past-month

[x] https://www.thedrum.com/news/2019/04/10/1-2-indian-election-voters-have-received-fake-news-social-media-the-past-month

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Arpita is a first year undergraduate at Ashoka, studying as a prospective Political Science major. Her interests lie in politics, pop culture and everything in between. She considers words to have the potential of driving change and aims to do the same with what she writes.

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