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To mobilize or to polarize? Social Media in Mandate 2014

As the countdown to India’s general elections draws nearer, apart from the usual range of issues that have dominated the political discourse, the role of social media is being keenly debated. With over 93 million users on Facebook and an estimated 33 million on Twitter (India's social media election battle, March 2014); the use of social media platforms is now beyond connecting with friends and acquaintances. In the general elections of 2009, the role of social media in mobilizing public opinion was marginal. This time it is unprecedented and difficult to ignore. With every political player now in the social media domain, it might even account for being a crucial factor in the present elections. The social media space has inevitably turned ‘political’ with major political actors in fray roping in expert services to promote their candidates on social media. Political parties are seen making every single attempt to stay in the electoral limelight by ‘trending’ on Twitter or ‘liking’ on Facebook. The impetus for this also seems to be a large number of young voters who are being influenced through social media. This is an interesting trend in itself because just a few years back the ‘political’ character of social media was debatable. Today, what we see on social media are posts, videos, comments emerging as sources of political knowledge. Certainly, there has been a transition in the way social media has reinvented itself as a medium this time around. Google hangouts, official pages of political parties, fan pages, voter awareness campaigns and voting ‘selfies’ speak much about the transition in Indian politics. However, the path ahead remains challenging.

To a large extent, social media has also contributed to polarizing opinions in the present political discourse. It is on social media that political battle-lines are being drawn with heated pro and against contentions, counter contentions and a daily dose of political passions and emotions. It is as if the electoral battle has now moved from the ‘realpolitik’ domain to the social media space. While a basic feature of the medium is free expression, participation and immediacy of feedback (which contributes to the expansion of democratic debate), the current debating scene on social media reeks of political shrill, political abuse and a kind of intolerance for diverse opinions. Users do not stop at commenting/debating as they express contempt and disdain for political opinions that may differ from theirs. Openly expressing one’s affiliation to a political ideology or choice of a particular party/candidate may invite the wrath of friends and acquaintances who subscribe to a different set of ideas. Trolling, political sarcasm, mudslinging, levelling of accusations has vitiated the atmosphere on social media forums. Users have been clearly divided into ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ camps (users can be seen subscribing to terms such as AAPtards, CONGtards, Fekus, etc) with little perspective in place. This certainly cannot be a healthy trend in a democratic set up. Though Manan Pathak, student Tata Institute of Social Sciences disagrees, “Polarization as against mobilization is not really an attribute of social media. The attribute of social media is to mobilize; whether or not to get polarized is the onus of the people. Rigidity and dynamism on part of the people determine whether polarization occurs. Social media is a platform to inform, share, discuss, debate, express and form views, and the views ideally should not be absolute but they should be dynamic based on rational decision making.”

Much political shrill that is generated on social media is leading to a loss of debate on pertinent and real issues that an election should ideally be about. A sort of obsession with candidates, political personalities, political camps and ideologies has resulted into a watering down of political debate. Kirthi Jayakumar, lawyer cum writer from Chennai says, “On the one hand, the speed with which information is passed and the outlets that are available reveal a clear and strong tool for the propagation and streamlining of public opinion. But, the same is also a disadvantage in that it is beginning to set people apart from one another through the polarisation of the masses. It is also alarming that people are not respecting the right to choose and the element of secrecy in a secret ballot method. Imposing voting ideas on another individual is both, inappropriate and unbefitting.”

So to what extent can the information being circulated in social media zones be trusted? Is it credible? When information goes viral, how does one differentiate between facts and propaganda? After all groups operating in social media may be no different than interests group with a purpose. Would it be some kind of an exaggeration to claim that what we witness on social media can claim to represent the ‘real’ voices of ‘real’ people? There are no easy answers. Undoubtedly social media makes the political sphere a bit transparent but it is bereft of any kind of accountability and hence the chances of misinformation do exist. Also not to be confused is the political participation on social media and its translation into real time voting. Kiran Bhatia, student at The M.S.University of Baroda believes that while first time voters indeed have received great amount of exposure towards the election process through social media, there are also naïve and amateur users who may not care to verify the authenticity of the information presented among the huge chunk of content in circulation. She puts this aptly - “We should not flow with the flow, but deliberate and decide whether the flow is genuine or not.”

Not to be dismissive of social media’s influence on Mandate 2014, one has to admit that social media does inspire a multi-mode channel of communication and may end up playing a more than anticipated role in one’s choice of political representation. The positive side is already evident through the extensive outreach of voter awareness campaigns cum appeals – a clarion call to voters of the world’s largest democracy. Since, the election period is a temporary one and so may be the polarization; though one is left wondering as to what will social media debate about after May 16!

Note: This article was published on Canary Trap - April 28, 2014


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