Tag Archives: Social Media

Social media in India and its political impact

Here is a nice list of essays, articles and other interesting thoughts on social media and its impact on political upheavals and outcomes.

Many commenters and mainstream media journalists often condescendingly quip, “Elections are not won on social media, they are won on the streets.”

I totally agree. Social media is definitely not for short-term political gains. Right now it is too disorganized to manage concerted political campaigns. But it is definitely a medium that people can use to disseminate disparate information, and it is already being done. This is the sort of purpose right now social media solves in India. For instance, if there is a piece of misinformation being spread by vested interests, it can be immediately countered by social media.

Take for instance the controversy involving narendramodiplans.com. Someone created this spoof website that was basically a pirated version of a similar website created to lampoon Mitt Romney who contested presidential elections against Barack Obama. There was nothing wrong until the person who had hosted the website started crying that he was being harassed by Modi supporters and hence he had to take down the website. First the link was promoted by Twitter celebrities such as Shashi Tharoor:

And then suddenly the news came that the website had to be taken down due to the harassment meted out to the owner, or the webmaster, or whoever he or she was.

Go through this Storify compilation titled “Unfolding the conspiracy [narendramodiplans.com]” about how within a few hours the Tweeple were able to find that the entire affair was hatched up Congress supporters – a motley mix of journalists, politicians and its political trolls on Twitter.

Now, initially, even a person like me, who is a supporter of the BJP and Modi, was slightly pissed off the way the site had to be taken down but then eventually I discovered that the story of harassment was concocted just to show what sort of goons Modi supporters are.

To that extent social media is useful. It is also definitely useful for scoring brownie points.

But does it change political opinion? Can it affect election results? As far as in India, there is no concrete data that can prove that interactions on Facebook and Twitter can impact election results too. Yes, the opinion on the Internet, especially on the social media websites, is heavily tilted towards the BJP in general (mostly because they are heavily anti-Congress like myself) and Modi in particular (because people are desperately looking for a decisive leader who doesn’t bullshit), but how much this tilt percolates at the ground level it is hard to tell. Primarily there are 3 reasons:

  1. The penetration of the Internet and of social media is not as dense and deep as it is in many other countries despite mobile phones and computers
  2. It is mostly in English that interactions happen on social media websites and the vote bank that actually makes an impact isn’t very well-versed with the language
  3. In the country where people vote for parties based on who can give them more bottles of liquor, blankets, free meals and color TVs, (for that matter even naked girl dance parties) they’re not going to vote based on ideology and opinion

The 3rd point is perhaps the undoing of India. No matter how much people try and succeed on social media, unless people on the ground level seek political change that can actually change the destiny of the country, nothing concrete is going to happen.

I will give you a small example. My permanent address belongs to Sarita Vihar and compared to many parts of New Delhi, in terms of education and money, it’s a pretty well-off locality. But immediately after 16 December when the entire capital was simmering with anger and there was a huge anti-Congress wave all over the city, a Congress candidate won in the municipal elections for this constituency. We were shocked, really. So if this is the condition in a constituency that has educated and the so-called aware people, what can you say about towns and localities where people are less educated and more prone to voting for immediate gains?

So how should social media be used? It can be used as an underpinning for a massive information dissemination campaign. Instead of trying to change political opinions (most of these opinions are any way motivated and hence, cannot be changed) social media should be used to raise awareness and to coordinate political activities. One can get lots of timely information from social media and then use that information to spread awareness in towns and villages, among people actually walking and working on the roads.

Should governments get access to Twitter data?

Initially when I had thought of the topic my immediate reply was “no”, but then I thought as an identity, as an entity, what is Twitter and how much independence it should get when it comes to adhering to various regulations? The problem with Twitter is that although it is a US-based company its users come from all over the world and it has become a platform of freedom of speech and expression. Since I’m not an expert on IT laws and also international laws, I am a bit confused here. When we post on Twitter, are be governed by US laws (because Twitter, I think, operates under US laws) or our individual laws are applicable? For instance, if I’m using Twitter from India, is it Indian laws I abide by or US laws? Take for instance a car; even if it is manufactured in the US, if it has been sold in India and the person is driving it around on Indian roads, he or she has to abide by the Indian traffic rules.

In a recent judgment Twitter has been ordered to turn over data on WikiLeaks supporters by a US district judge. What if some of the backers belong to other countries? Do they become criminals if the US authorities think that they used Twitter to exchange and disseminate “harmful” information? What if I, while living in India, helped WikiLeaks in a manner objectionable to the US law authorities?

Using a real example, what if the Libyan government asked Twitter to share information on people helping the rebels? Would the company comply? What about China? Yes, Google and other companies comply with local laws but what if they reveal the identity of some person and based on that revelation the person is executed by an authoritarian regime? As far as we know, the US begins to cry esoteric expressions like freedom of speech and privacy when it comes to other countries but when it comes to its own land all of a sudden it needs information even when that information is deemed private and confidential.

But then, is Twitter confidentially supreme even when it is being used by murderers, rapists and terrorists? Recently the British government asked Twitter and Facebook to help identify people who got involved in the riots. I don’t know whether Twitter and Facebook handed over the information or not, but logically, it should. Where do we draw the line then? Any country can say that they need information on criminals whether those Twitter users are criminals or not. What about political activists? Many activists prefer to remain anonymous to avoid persecution. There are many politically and socially active individuals on Twitter who are quite vocal and continuously talk against the government and at the same time have good jobs. If their identities are revealed they will not only be targeted by the authorities, they will also lose their jobs and even their careers. Anonymity, especially on the Internet, engenders unparalleled empowerment. You cannot directly confront people you oppose but you can surely spread your opinion unrestrained.

This is a debatable issue and as more and more such platforms evolve, such socio-legal issues will rise again and again. There is a difference between criminals (in the category of murderers, rapists, child abusers, psychopaths and religious fanatics) and political dissenters. There has to be an international consensus on how to deal with such people. Unless there is an international consensus, any government can force Twitter and other social networking platforms to reveal the identity of their users putting them in great peril. What do you think?