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How candidates and political parties are using social media for electoral campaigning?

The idea of social media as a force-multiplier in politics has gained virality in our minds, especially in last four years. According to Datareportal’s Digital 2019: India report, 1 out of total population of 1.361 billion, around 41% i.e. 560 million Indians are active users of internet and total no. of active social media users are 310 million (23% of population). More recently, social media have become Fundamental “spaces” for political organizing and activity, and people get much of their information on public matters from social media sites.

Political parties and other political actors increasingly use data analytics, digital media, and micro-targeting, which make campaigns more “personalized”. Where as in the past, if political candidates wanted to reach voters during election campaigns, they had to hand out leaflets, knock on doors, hold public meetings (rallies) and drive around in cars/open jeeps shouting through loud-hailers.

Aided by affordable 4G internet connection and smartphones, social media has been a godsend for parties who can save on time, resources, and efforts of physical coverage of these areas by reaching out to more voters on a personal level, in an interactive format. Unmediated access between politicians and the people is rewriting the rules of political interactions and processes, creating a new software of democracy. Advancements in online technology, have given political parties and supporters new ways of getting their message across.

The prevalence of social media in politics has made elected officials and candidates more accountable and accessible to voters. The ability to publish content and broadcast it to millions of people instantaneously allows campaigns to carefully manage their candidates’ images based on rich sets of analytics in real time.
Thus, for candidates/political parties, social media platforms are the de-facto medium for influencing their voters and creating a wave of change. All political parties use social media to target voters. Often the message is direct and above board. Sometimes, parties use seedy advertising strategies and humor to get their point across, promote themselves or undermine the opposition.

While social media has been used positively to make voters more politically aware and part of political discussions, its negative use has increased in the last four years in terms of the spread of disinformation and propaganda that create false backstories of opposition leaders, negative stereo-types of religion and caste. In the cycle of propaganda and counter-propaganda, all parties have normalized negativity and abuse online. Social media strategies are the most potent weapons which have become a game changer of late. The party that creates the most innovative social media election strategies will be able to influence their voters and thus get more votes.

What is emerging, is the alarming possibility that outside interests are working to undermine the democratic process in a much more subtle and surreptitious way. Citizens sharing political views on social media is a good thing. The problem comes when we get a significantly resourced outside organisation spending a lot of money for advertising and propaganda to millions of people across social media platforms to influence or distort an election for reasons of their own. Newspaper headlines and social media feeds are full of stories of hacked documents, troll networks, and bot-driven misinformation campaigns.

From the Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s WhatsApp campaigns to influence voters to the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte’s use of Facebook and troll armies to broadcast and amplify his support, social media has been used by political parties both as a tool of empowerment and oppression.

Facebook admitted its platform had been exploited by political parties and other interests during elections. A report from the company’s security team outlined what it calls ‘information operations’ – coordinated efforts by malicious actors to spread misinformation and sow distrust, for political ends.

With this as the background, it is imperative Indian voters dwell on the misinformation campaigns, micro-targeted manipulation, and trolling. These techniques are distinct, though they are often used in tandem. By what mechanisms can digital techniques of campaigns significantly affect electoral outcomes? Are political social media campaigns a threat to democratic elections? What are the impacts of these threats and can impact not just election outcomes, but the key democratic activities of participation, public deliberation, and institutional action.? What are the key vulnerabilities to digital threats and what counter-measures can be taken? How are political parties, electoral commissions, and other democratic institutions affected by these digital techniques? How do they respond? Can cross-institutional comparisons reveal different vulnerabilities and effective counter-measures?

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