Centre for Internet & Society

Twitter is fast turning into an effective political tool. As political parties fight another round of electoral battles, a new survey on the 2014 general elections states that those who tweeted well, fared well.

The article by T.V. Jayan, Smitha Verma,Sonia Sarkar and V. Kumara Swamy quoted Sumandro Chattapadhyay. Click to read the original published by Telegraph on April 10.

Clean image? Tick. Right caste? Tick. Money to fund an election? Tick. Good rapport with the top brass? Tick. But no followers on Twitter or other social media sites? Sorry, then you are not going to get a ticket for the Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls next year, says Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah.

There was a time when Twitter was what little old ladies – purportedly – did. Now it’s a veritable tool for politicians. As states go for Assembly elections this summer, politicians and their parties are tweeting like never before.

And perhaps rightly so, for a recently published study of the 2014 general elections indicates that the more you tweet, the brighter are your chances of winning. The BJP’s victory in 2014 – which came riding a social media wave – seems to have spurred other parties on.

Twitter, for those who came in late, is the micro-blogging social site that allows you to post, repost and comment on anything under the sun. These days, Twitter in India is abuzz with electoral comments and speculation.

Hashtags related to state elections have been dominating the site. The four major players in Bengal – the Trinamul Congress (TMC), the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Congress and the BJP – have been giving updates about rallies, poll plans and issues. In Assam, the 81-year-old Congress chief minister, Tarun Gogoi, has started tweeting, too. His posts are mostly about his achievements and critical reviews of the BJP’s poll promises.

The CPI(M), which launched its Twitter handle only in February 2014, now has more than 20,000 followers, marginally more than the TMC’s approximately 19,500 followers. Party general secretary Sitaram Yechury is a relentless tweeter – posting comments on issues that range from fuel price hikes to drought and foreign policy. Other senior party leaders such as West Bengal state secretary Surya Kanta Mishra and Mohammad Salim in Bengal and Pinarayi Vijayan in Kerala have been giving regular updates of the party’s campaign on Twitter and Facebook.

“Twitter gives political organisations the ability to broadcast information on a worldwide stream (not just their subscribers), join any ongoing debates and discussions and have a two-way interaction with the public during political processes and campaigns,” notes the study – The 2014 Indian elections on Twitter: A comparison of campaign strategies of political parties. The study, conducted by researchers from the department of communications, University of California, Davis, and Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, was recently published online in the journal Telematics and Informatics.

India is the third largest user of Twitter in the world, with an estimated 23.2 million active users, up from 11.5 million in 2013. Market researcher group Emarketer estimates that Twitter will have around 40 million users in India by 2018.

That is a sizable number. No surprise then that political parties are reaching out to voters with the help of social media arms such as Twitter.

“Twitter is an important platform for the Congress to reach out to a certain section but the content has to be important,” agrees Congress leader Sachin Pilot, who joined Twitter in March 2014, but started tweeting actively four months ago. “We joined the medium late but we are using it positively and not to spread exaggerated promises or look at short-term gains,” he says.

Indeed, the Congress has been greatly outpaced by BJP in the race for tweets. According to the University of California study, the BJP posted 80,981 tweets during the 2014 elections, far ahead of any of the other political parties. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) came next with 7,980 tweets, followed by the TMC with 3,990 and the Congress with 2,890. The CPI(M) had 402 tweets.

“The 2014 general elections was the first time social media was being used for electoral campaigning in India and hence the disparity in usage between parties,” says Saifuddin Ahmed, the corresponding author of the study. “The next general elections would be a different game as most of the parties would be well-prepared going by the success of BJP’s 2014 social media campaign.”

The study found that the BJP’s Twitter feed dealt with campaign updates (28 per cent) and criticism of other political parties or moves (24 per cent). It also posted the second-highest in proportion and the highest in absolute numbers of self-promotion tweets (19 per cent as against AAP’s 35 per cent).

“We strongly believe that a message is effectively sent across when one has a credible message, a credible messenger and also a credible tool of communication. And Twitter is a credible tool,” asserts Dilip Pandey, AAP’s head of communications.

The study says the BJP often tweeted the words “thank you” while the Congress’s pet phrases included “Gandhi Gandhi” (in a single tweet). AAP used old emotional slogans such as ” Satyamev Jayate” and “Azaadi ladai”.

It concludes that the winning party’s electoral success [in 2014] is significantly associated with its use of Twitter for engaging voters.

“The BJP’s primary purpose was to use Twitter as a broadcasting medium, and they tweeted their party messages as shareable content, such as images, which users could share in their personal networks,” Ahmed points out.

Not surprisingly, others are embracing Twitter. In Maharashtra, the BJP state unit campaigned extensively on social media for Assembly elections – and ended up forming the government in the state.

“A tweet helps in changing mindset and perception. The urban population which never voted for BJP was targeted through Twitter to present the vision of our party,” says Jiten Gajaria, BJP social media head during Maharashtra elections.

Elsewhere, too, political leaders have been jumping on to the Twitter bandwagon. Nitish Kumar joined Twitter in May 2010, but remained almost inactive for most of his second term before springing back to life in 2015 before the elections. More than 95 per cent of his tweets were posted in the election year. There was even a question-answer-session with people on Twitter.

“Nitish ji in a way engaged with the media through his Twitter handle,” Janata Dal (United) spokesperson K.C. Tyagi says. “He would tweet something about the BJP or Modi and that became the talking point. The NDA was asked by the media to respond to the tweet.”

Modi joined Twitter in January 2009, and Kejriwal in 2011 before launching AAP. Among politicians, the two most active tweeters are Shashi Tharoor of the Congress and Derek O’Brien of the TMC. Rahul Gandhi’s first tweet was on May 7, 2015, about beginning a padayatra in Telangana’s Adilabad district.

Though a late entrant, the CPI(M), too, sees advantages of using the medium. “We don’t want to leave any stone unturned during the elections and being on Twitter is a part of the strategy,” says Rajya Sabha member Ritabrata Banerjee. “Although we don’t believe in hiring professionals, as the BJP does to prop itself up on Twitter, we believe people will follow us and listen to what we are saying.”

However, Sumandro Chattopadhyay, research director, Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore, is sceptical about linking electoral victories to Twitter usage.

“There are many variables such as Internet penetration, media device availability and media exposure. Rich states always perform better in these parameters,” Chattopadhyay says.

Politicians also stress that Twitter is just one of the tools of a campaign. “The social media is one part of a 360-degree electoral strategy. Twitter probably is only 10 degrees of the overall electoral strategy,” O’Brien states.

And not all politicians look at Twitter as the virtual equivalent of traditional campaigns.

“What we see on Twitter is exaggerated hysteria,” says a BJP leader who is also active on Twitter. “Twitter is a double-edged sword. It is an effective tool for putting your message to an expanding and bigger audience. But at the same time, we don’t know if what we are being told is true because we cannot verify the source.”

A member of the CPI(M)’s communications team stresses that traditional modes of campaigning still outrank social media campaigns. “We believe that as far as our connection with the people is concerned, there is no alternative to the traditional way of reaching out to the masses,” he says. “Twitter can only publicise what we do on the ground.”

In the final analysis, does popularity on Twitter translate into votes? Shah seems to believe so – he is not giving away tickets to BJP members if they don’t have enough followers on Twitter or Facebook. But the Twitter-savvy BJP leader, who seeks anonymity, doesn’t agree.

“It could be one of the factors to influence voters. Maybe a fraction of voters form their opinion based on what they see on Twitter. But it is certainly not the most decisive factor,” he says.

Meanwhile, as politicians battle it out, Twitter is making the most of the poll fervour. The site has said it will launch an exclusive emoji for the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections, which will come up on counting day in May. Did we just hear Twitter crow?

– T.V. Jayan, Smitha Verma,Sonia Sarkar and V. Kumara Swamy report.