Millennium Post

Social media, unsocial politics

‘Social media are the worst menace to society,’ said Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, on 2 June. Many in India, the political class in particular, will agree. In fact not long ago, there was a period when the social media proved a serious pain point for the ruling party; there were efforts to muzzle some of the activists in the cyber world.Arvind Kejriwal, the taxman turned activist, has shown how to use the social media successfully and make the establishment crawl before the public protest. Mainstream media, controlled by the establishment through finance and favour, had to follow the lead from the social media and join issues to survive. Clearly for our well-established and defined way of living social media has emerged a new menace. We do not like the protesters’ placards in Brazil, which road the authorities with slogans such as, We come from Facebook. ‘Frivolous’ is what many of us like to believe.

They are ‘Twitter revolutionaries’. In Turkey the recent protests had social media as the main catalyst. Same was in Brazil. In Delhi the ‘Jan Lokpal’ bill campaign was perhaps the first show of strength of social media. The December 2012 Delhi rape would have remained just another city-page report for the mainstream media but for social media. Delhi Police establishment was rudely shaken out of its corruption-ridden inefficiency. It is debatable how much image recovery has come from its recent arrest of cricketers on betting charges. Even the most gullible fans of Indian cricket are well aware of betting and match fixing in the game. The issue had created storm in the mainstream media but not so much in the cyber space. Like it or not we cannot wish away the ‘Twitter revolutionaries.’

Social media is faster than mainstream media. In ‘we broke the news first’ world of journalism newshounds pick up breaking news from the twitter world. One interesting case in point is how a business newspaper journalist circulated the event of attack on the Israel embassy car in New Delhi last year. Arvind Kejriwal has been successful in gathering supporters within hours through SMS and tweets. Despite getting cold-shoulders from the mainstream media and electronic channels Arvind’s ‘Aam Aadmi Party’ find enough protesters. Kejriwal said to have been collecting fund for his political activities from among his support base in the cyber world. Even if shunned by media he has managed to attract enough attention on police atrocities through photographs circulated in social media.

But the question is: can social media alone expand the support base by spreading the message? Internet and smart phones are popular in large cities. How effective can the same be in attracting attention from the remote corners of the vast nation? Clearly even Kejriwal does not view this as sufficient. That is why his activists used Delhi’s autorickshaws to paste posters against the city-state’s ruling party. The fact that police has been removing such posters illustrates that the message was effectively delivered through such moving posters. Social media alone cannot take one to all sections of the democracy. Social media is good in collecting protesters at short notice but cannot be effective in hitting home the message far and wide. For that one needs political campaign.
Arvind Kejriwal has good number of followers on Twitter – 4,05,000. But the numbers are a mere fraction of number of followers for Shashi Tharoor who has 1.8 million followers, the same number as Narendra Modi’s. Even the most unexciting tweets from the Indian Prime Minister’s Office
(@PMOIndia) has 6,30,800 followers. Kejriwal’s followers’ number just half compared to that of media person Rajdeep Sardesai. The other point to note is that not all followers are equally active and read whatever is tweeted by the person they follow. Like it or not the unavoidable conclusion is that the cyber media presence does not guarantee success in election.

The same holds true even for mainstream media. Take the case of West Bengal politics. When Mamata Banerjee was the lone MP of her party and she stood by the dispossessed farmers at Singur the entire establishment, including the universe of media, was critical of her. In terms of share of voice in media Mamata stood no chance of success. This egged the administration to use coercion to throttle the resistance. Not only the administration of the Left front but also the media watched with disbelief how the localised movement took the shape of tsunami of resistance and swept away a very well entrenched political establishment. The moral of the Mamata story is that media has only limited influence in today’s world. The vast majority struggling for daily survival is skeptic of media. To them social media offers a new source of information. They may not be tech-savvy or tech-haves like those living in urban centers but the message reaches them anyway. At least the democracy in social media has managed to win more credibility with them than the businessmen in media.

This brings us to the question: will social media dictate course of politics in India? Unlikely. Social media is elitist; language is mainly English; it is technology driven which is not available in non-urban centres. To reach people who vote one must opt for street corner meetings, political cadres and political rallies. Here oratory is critical, reading out from written scripts will not be of much help.

Here 140 characters will not sway the voters, nor will the comments from the usual faces in the TV studios.  Even in the age of technology direct communication will rule the vote bank.

The author is a communication professional

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