India’s Twitter elections: Will it now become a governance tool?

Immediately after the results of India’s general elections were announced a controversy over ‘@pmoindia’, the twitter handle of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), rocked the Indian political scene. The tussle between the outgoing and in-coming officials of the PMO indicated that social media had come to roost in the Indian public space and was now a prize worth quibbling over.

Social media tools enable the “aam aadmi” to interact directly not just with his friends but even with the prime minister of the country. Social media has made it possible to have Amitabh Bachchan or Narendra Modi on your friends’ list. The IT revolution has also broken the monopoly of the state over information and has become a powerful and popular tool for communication. Politicians are accordingly learning the art of using technology/social media to connect with the people.

During the US presidential elections, the Twitter blog referred to the polls as a “Twitter election”. For India, the 2014 general elections were truly its first Twitter elections. A few years ago, a tweet by Shashi Tharoor, then minister of state for external affairs, created ripples in the Indian political domain and got him into political trouble. However, much water has flown since then and Prime Minister Narendra Modi celebrated his victory with a tweet: “India has won”.

Social media played a very vital role in the fiercely fought 2014 elections. Almost all political parties and candidates have used social media to reach out to the electorate, particularly youth. Candidates and parties were aware that this Lok Sabha election would be influenced by social media, especially, with more than 150 million first time voters between age group of 18-23 being social media savvy. Modi, who was constantly on the receiving end of mainstream media, countered their attack with a tool of just 140 characters. Through social media, Modi was successful in shaping the perception of Indian voters and constructed a discourse which paved the way for the victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

According to Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), Twitter has around 33 million users in the country. Hence, Twitter was anticipating full-scale use of tweets as one of the tools of election campaigning. Thus, there were more than 58 million tweets on the Indian general election since Jan 1, 2014, till May 16, 2014. On counting day, May 16, Twitter saw a little more than two million tweets.

The top five election-related terms on counting day May 16 were:

1. Narendra Modi – 722,910

2. AAP – 118,717

3. BJP – 322,596

4. Rahul Gandhi – 47,054

5. Varanasi – 21,018

Modi was the winner on Twitter too, with 11.85 million tweets mentioning @NarendraModi since Jan 1.

Besides Twitter, Modi is also popular on Facebook. On April 7, Modi had 12.46 million fans. When he was appointed prime minister of India, the number jumped to 15.245 million. After US President Barak Obama, Modi is the second most popular politician across the world, going by his social media popularity. PMO India has recently launched its Facebook page, and within four days it received more than a million likes.

For Modi, use of social media goes beyond election campaigns. Modi has already done away with an old-fashioned way of communication: address to nation via Doordarshan. He rather wants to communicate through tweets. It will be interesting to see how Modi utilises the social media in governance at the national level.

In his first message as prime minister, Modi said that social media is a great platform to listen, learn and share one’s views. Modi has also asked all his ministers to use the social media to reach out to the people. Modi stressed the significance of IT and social media for public interaction. This will help in improving the transparency and accountability in the functioning of the government. And, social media will not just bring people closer to the government but also make them an equal and integral part of the decision-making process.

For the government, social media helps gauge public opinion and read social trends. Most of the ministries already have their accounts on Twitter and Facebook. The external affairs ministry has been forthcoming in utilizing social media. Former England cricket captain Kevin Pieterson posted a query related to his visa approval on the ministry’s Twitter handle and received a positive reply within 24 hours. This means Twitter can be used as a tool of grievance redressal. This can be easily experimented in other departments and may prove fruitful to improve delivery of various utility services.

Use of social media may change traditional working of governance. Online collaboration across government departments and also with common people could force a change in the way the government operates. The use of social media will open government structures and officials to a new culture. But excessive use of social media has its own downside too. Social media may cause intentional or unintentional exposure of sensitive data to unauthorized entities. And, messaging is difficult to control and may lead to over communication. Trolling is another concern, which may affect freedom of speech and lead to dictatorial tendencies.

Operating social media also involves risk. But keeping social media away from the sphere of governance involves more risks. Senior functionaries of the government should know how to use social media. They need to be educated about greater use of social media. Otherwise opportunities for real engagement, innovation and transparency will be lost. Election results indicate that Modi successfully used social media and has shown great determination to use it more in governance.