Campaign India Team
Nov 02, 2013

Double standards: Can social media chatter influence the voter?

There’s much talk of political parties focusing on social media. Raahil Chopra asks Santosh Desai and Madhukar Sabnavis how it will impact mandate #2014.

Double standards: Can social media chatter influence the voter?

Santosh Desai (L), MD and CEO, Futurebrands India and Madhukar Sabnavis (R), vice chairman and country head - discovery and planning, Ogilvy India

A Google study says that 37 per cent of registered urban Indian voters are online. How many of these do you think would be active on social media? Do you think social media chatter influences the voter?

Santosh Desai: Social media is not homogenous. The question is perplexing because political parties earlier spent money advertising in print and on television. Any medium has an ‘x’ reach and a further ‘x’ per cent of aggregate influence in the end. TV had the reach as well, but could only influence a marginal amount of viewers.

Social media is very influential, but it amplifies existing opinions rather than create new opinions. Bandwagons exist on social media too. It has become another site where rallies and demonstrations happen. At the same time, I don’t think social media will be influential in determining the result.

Madhukar Sabnavis: On last count Facebook had 85 million users in India and Twitter 30 million and estimated 80 per cent are in the age group of 18 to 24 years old and spread across town classes accessing internet through smart phones and cybercafes. Overlay this with the estimated 150 million new young voters as per the Election Commission and clearly a large number of young, first time voters are active online and its a key medium for them. So, clearly it is a channel to influence this segment of the voter. Social media chatter influences people as much as any mass media or traditional media messaging does. So it cannot be overlooked by any one attempting to influence this group. Further I believe in Seth Godin’s view that much of political voting takes place by word of mouth of an influencing segment and I believe social media active people could influence many more by their views...and this is where the presence is important.

Do voters distinguish between social media chatter and paid promotions on social media? Is it any different in the case of political campaigns?

SD: Paid promotions for elections are not going to be very useful because there’s already a lot of free publicity available for parties. People probably equate parties promoting themselves on social media as nothing more than tokenism.

MS: Experience says much depends on content and how engaging and exciting it is. So whether paid or chatter, it’s the quality of content that ultimately makes the biggest difference. For political campaigns, it is a good medium to gauge the mood of their constituency as it allows for direct feedback. 

There have been stories of parties conducting workshops for leaders to learn about social media. How evolved are the Congress and the BJP’s social media campaigns? Where are they lacking?

SD: The BJP is doing a lot more on social media and is perceived to be far more active. The Congress seems to be taking a defensive stand on social media. There’s a certain amount of fear for the Congress because it’s all too centrally concentrated. BJP’s problem is that there’s negativity around it and it seems like they’re doing nothing to change that.

MS: Can’t comment conclusively as I haven’t seen specific work from either of the big parties personally. I do know that Narendra Modi has massive social media SOV and has given it particular attention. How this translates into actual votes, the next election will show and we will have a case study, either way, thereafter. If Barack Obama was able to leverage it well in 2008, no reason India should be very different. It will all be about how used.

Besides the possibility of a social media campaign influencing who someone votes for, will the social media push encourage more citizens to vote?

SD: Yes, it should increase the turn out. These campaigns could raise the temperature for politics in the country. People tune into it much more (directly and indirectly) because of social media.

MS: I always see social media as one more channel for a brand or cause to use to send its message. It comes down to messaging and the way it is done that will determine the actions possible. Much like mass media and its influence. So, I can’t say just the presence and use of this media will drive more people to vote. If the campaign addresses specific youth barriers to vote successfully, it can encourage more citizens to vote. The medium can’t be the message.

Who according to you has had the most successful social media presence till now, among Indian political parties?

SD: The BJP for sure.

MS: From what I hear Narendra Modi is quite active (even if others are, not sure whether it is with the purpose of influencing minds). How successful he is, only time will tell. 

Does social media lend itself to building profiles for individuals, and social movements (Hazare, and ‘I am Anna’) better - than for political parties?

SD: Yes, to some extent that is true. Social media is better at building person profiles because it’s a voice of individuals eventually. Social media is for people to talk to each other. Organisations speak in a tone that’s not social media friendly and that extends to political parties as well.

MS: Social media is primarily about individuals connecting with other individuals. It is no secret that consumers like to converse with another person, not a brand or party. So to my mind, individuals work better (Barack Obama proved the same). However it’s also a forum where causes can gather support and enlistment. ‘I am Anna’ movement managed to marry both- a person and a cause to get people together. So as stated earlier, its how it is used to appeal to the core users that makes the difference. 

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