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India: Social media as game changer in elections


02 May 2013

Priyam Tripathi/OneWorld South Asia

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A recent event organised by the Center for Internet and Democracy under the confluence of Foundation for Media Professionals witnessed much heated debate on the role of social media in predicting the fate of the forthcoming mega battle of elections in India.

The influence of social media on politics cannot be undermined with political leaders having close to two million Twitter followers to Facebook and Google hang out changing the medium of political discourse. Most of the political parties having their own websites are using it to create an alternative public space for ‘image building’ amongst their constituency and to reach out to socially active citizens. However, a more vital question is, can social media create a more holistic engagement to enhance the tenets of participative democracy in India or would it remain as a mere ephemeral urban middle class phenomenon?

Pondering over parallel issues, the Foundation for Media Professionals in collaboration with FICCI and Media for Change held a panel discussion on Friday 26th of April in New Delhi, Will Internet and Social Media be a game changer for the elections? The panel discussion brought together eminent political leaders like Minister of Information & Broadcasting and member of Congress Manish Tewari, member of Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) Ravi Shankar Prasad, CPIM leader Nilotpal Basu, senior member of the Aam Aadmi Party and advocate Prashant Bhushan, businessman turned politician Rajeev Chandrashekhar, MP Jay Panda, senior editor R Jagganathan , CEO Founder of the IRIS foundation, S Swaminathan debating it out as the country is gearing up for Assembly elections 2013.

The session began with a brief discussion by Shalini Singh, Deputy Editor, The Hindu, as she talked about the significant impact social media on access and diversity, engagement with the youth and transforming governance solutions.
The IRIS Knowledge Foundation report and its projections for the forthcoming elections in the context of social media were discussed and significant observations were made by its founder CEO, S Swaminathan claiming that ‘there are 160 high impact constituencies out of the total of 543 constituencies, which are likely be influenced by social media during the next general elections."

Interesting facts emerged from the study related to the urban/rural divide, 50 million regional language users, 18-25 being the most active target audience and how social media is changing the democratic political dialogue by adopting a bottom-up approach unlike campaigning which follows a top-down approach. I&B minister Manish Tewari said, “The new social media has emerged as an open platform breaking the restraints of an interpretative and editorialised content.”

Ravi Shankar Prasad added that the new social media has helped in the crystallisation of issues as discussions have come out in the public domain open for scrutiny and debate and political authority cannot ignore the power of this open forum. It’s this dialogue driven social media which is driving the national media now and it is even reaching out the young agile minds in the rural parts of the country.

Jay Panda and Rajeev Chandrasekhar coming from polar rural and urban constituencies respectively supported the fact that social media has entrenched deep enough into the Indian social system so as to have a positive impact on its political modus operandi.

Prashant Bhushan reminisced how the debates generated by the AAP were catalysed and brought into the public sphere through online forums like Faceboook, Twitter and mobile phone campaigns. He emphasised that it has led to disintermediation – thereby bringing citizens across social categories together; shifting the political discourse from vote bank to issue based politics. The social media can therefore be used as a useful tool to bridge social gap and influence them to use their democratic right to vote.

While the panel debated on the positive impacts of new social media, a general scepticism was shared towards its role in shaping the assembly elections this year. The panel consented that the new social media in India is in its nascent stage and so its impact as a game changer is still a distant reality.

 
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