Event ReportsPublished on Apr 08, 2014
ORF hosted a panel discussion on "Social Media and Politics", based on Shaili Chopra's book, The Big Connect: Politics in the Age of Social Media.
Social Media and Politics

Observer Research Foundation hosted a panel discussion on April 8 on "Social Media and Politics", based on Shaili Chopra’s critically acclaimed book, The Big Connect: Politics in the Age of Social Media.

In the book, Ms Chopra, a Ram Nath Goenka Award winning journalist and the News Television Award for Best Reporter in 2007, traces the advent of social media in India and how politics and lobbying have now shifted to the virtual floor, discussing the role of a digital community in Indian politics.

Raheel Khursheed, Head of News, Politics and Government, Twitter India; Nitin Pai, co-founder of the Takshashila Institution and Priyanka Chaturvedi, spokesperson, the All India Congress Committee, were the panelists in the discussion, chaired by ORF Vice President Samir Saran.

Ms Chopra kicked off the discussion by relating how much political action nowadays plays out on social media. There are all kinds of extremes - from the reluctant Congress party to the overly aggressive Narendra Modi. Hashtag wars like # Pappu vs # Feku are defining the country. Despite this, there are no books about social media and politics, which is how The Big Connect came to be. Social media elicits lots of responses - and quickly. Feedback can now be gained from a ’Tweetstick’ rather than the dipstick surveys of old. The social world, much like traditional media, is polarized. Negative stories trend and get the most attention because it’s in people’s second nature to be vitriolic - "scratch the surface of every human being and you’ll find an extremist". There is a ’me too’ culture, and no politician wants to be left out.

She went on to add that politicians were the ones who made social media big. The chance to interact one-on-one with them is what draws many people online. However, the actual impact of social media needs to be scientifically analysed. Do ’likes’ equal votes, and are all social media platforms equal? 45% of Indian web users go online to discuss and find out about politics. Engaging with them is important, more so than using social media as a megaphone to broadcast ideology. The Aam Aadmi Party managed this successfully, converting online interest into votes and funding. Modi and Kejriwal have benefitted from Rahul Gandhi’s absence online.

Ms Chopra concluded by noting that social media has its origins in marketing and brand building; some elements of this remain. Social media is ’manufacturing content’, feeding people what they want to see based on their online activity.

Bringing in the other panellists, Samir Saran agreed that social media forces users to take a stand and defend it. He also brought up the issue of social media being considered an arena for the elite - with only 40 million Indians using it. However, he did not consider this inherently disadvantageous, since those online would be communicating with many more people who do not use social media, and passing ideas on that way.

Priyanka Chaturvedi concurred, stating that most of our thought leaders are online, and stories get picked up from social media and end up on TV and elsewhere. There is an entire communication matrix, and social media, as a part of that, has an influence. Speaking about the Congress Party, she emphasised that their online strategy is volunteer-driven, not outsourced to any agency like some of their rivals. They focus on the work done by the party, countering lies with facts and staying away from slander. Responding to the criticism of Rahul Gandhi, she revealed that he wants to tweet himself, but does not have the time to do it justice - he wants his ideas to be spoken about, not his personality.

Nitin Pai stepped in to point out that media in general, and social media more so, reflects a counterpoint to authority - it is normal for the negative to be popularised, and users shouldn’t be perturbed by this. He reflected that social media has transformed the political conversation, opening up topics. However, he lamented that the quality of the discourse has come down, with idiots and bigots online attracting attention in the same way a naked man in the street would. Yet, for the first time in the country there is a feedback loop for governance which can influence policymaking. Social media may not outweigh other factors in voter’s minds - like ethnicity and local issues - but it can have an influence.

Since everyone on the political spectrum is online these days, discussions are live and public, and uninhibited by editorial policy, according to Raheel Khurshid. The discourse may be pedestrian, with accounts attracting attention like the naked man - but is that attention admiration or scorn? Since blogs first started appearing, the pieces with value found their way to the top - and this applies to the rest of social media as well. There is a lot of abuse online, but that is the nature of the internet. The young Indian is smart, and uses the internet well - policymaking and governance are not one way streets anymore.

The discussion was then opened up to the audience, who raised questions about weeding out the truth online. According to Ms Chopra, social media thrives because it is social, allowing people to exchange views - not because of facts. Mr Pai also said that civil servants manipulate feedback to justify whatever they are trying to do. However, he noted that politicians were interested in genuine feedback, since they would be accountable at election time. The tendency for the discourse to be dragged down was countered by important issues being discussed - a recent example given by Ms Chaturvedi was the response to the Nirbhaya incident.

Responding to issues of narcissism and elitism online, Ms Chopra suggested that social media only amplifies narcissism that was always there - and that self promotion is at the heart of human nature. She highlighted the strength of the regional media (online and offline), countering the mainstream. Mr Pai added that anyone who has completed the 10th standard in India is elite, and there was no need to be apologetic as long as social media was being used for meaningful discussions.

Ms Chopra’s final comment was the social media is the common man’s most powerful tool today. The discussion concluded on the note that social media should be used as an enabler - not as an end in itself. People will use the medium in the way they think it can best be used - be they bureaucrats, politicians or narcissists.

(This report is prepared by Anahita Mathai, Research Assistant, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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