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WhatsApp, Facebook, Youtube—these are no longer just trendy tech platforms for the young and hip. Their global penetration has heralded a new digital era that threatens to upend our traditional understanding of various matters. Digital platforms are also fundamentally changing politics. This is especially so in India because of its size, but also because it has seen a great expansion of digital access, dramatic use of social media, and the rise of populism. In India, the number of internet users has jumped from 300 million to 600 million from 2014 to 2019. Social media has been utilized by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) most extensively. Parallel to this, we also saw a spike in disinformation, which calls into question the effectiveness of codes of conduct.
With this in mind, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, Political Dialogue Asia, and the Institute of South Asian Studies co-organised a panel discussion on 27th June 2019 on the role of digital media in the 2019 Indian General Elections.
The first panellist was Dr. Joyojeet Pal, Associate Professor at University of Michigan and Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research India. Dr. Pal stressed the importance of second-order effects. Namely, less engagement with mainstream journalism, parties’ control of narratives, the efficaciousness of creating personalities on social media, the crafting of meta-narratives, and how collection of data from electoral activities could change the ground functioning of elections.
He was followed by Professor Sahana Udupa, Professor of Media Anthropology at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München. She identified three ways in which digital media shaped the elections. First, it brought campaigning to a new level of intensity. This was beyond corporate and government regulation and included a complex network of official, volunteer, and informal channels. Second, it has facilitated the spread of nationalist ideologies. Third, social media has also brought a rise of extreme/hate speech and comedy/insult in politics. Beyond electoral outcomes, cultural sensibilities might also be shifting. Lastly, she tied the issue to a global trend of digital media helping to consolidate alt-right views.
The third speaker was Dr. Nalin Mehta, the Executive Editor of The Times of India—Online. He offered two vantage points of the issue. The first is the tech companies. Although often portrayed as platforms without the rules of traditional media, they actually undertook self-regulatory actions. The second is the political parties. While Congress aped the BJP’s engagement with digital media, the BJP remains far more sophisticated in its use of digital media. Specifically, it employs both decentralized, subtle messaging, and centralized political messaging.
The last panellist, Mr. Govind Ethiraj, Founder-Editor of Boom, addressed the concomitant rise of fake news and misinformation. He noted how the Pulwama attacks had led to an explosion of spin and fake news, and suggests that it might have led to BJP’s focus on security and defence in its campaigning. While noting efforts by corporations like Google and Facebook to curb the problem, he believes that more education on digital literacy is needed.
In the question-and-answer section, the issue of trust was discussed. The panellists noted how trust in mainstream media was declining and instead becoming localised around individual journalists. Similarities and differences among countries were also raised. For example, it was noted that while Donald Trump’s use of social media is more whimsical, the BJP does it in a more organised and disciplined way. At the same time, we also see the phenomenon of narratives being circulated across borders. Lastly, the problem of measurement was flagged, with most panellists agreeing that it is difficult to accurately measure the effect of social media on political events, while Prof. Udupa prompted us to look beyond electoral results to consider social parameters.
Mr. Christian Echle, Director of Regional Programme Political Dialogue Asia at Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, drew out four major points from the panel that warrant further thought: the right wing advantage on digital media; the need for digital literacy; the complexities of the BJP strategy; and the effect on broader political culture. Focusing on these will help to light the path forward in a changing landscape of electoral politics.
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