The three American social media giants, Facebook, Twitter and Google, have emerged as major players in the ongoing general elections in India, with political parties and candidates competing with each other in breaking the news, spreading their message through these outlets in addition to those via the traditional media.
While the impact of these social media on the elections could be known only after May 16 when the results are declared or could be a matter of another academic research, all the three major players have seen substantial increase in their India traffic and usage.
For instance, Facebook has now 100 million users in India, its largest outside the US, while that of Twitter has more than doubled since January this year.
After the 7th round of polling, there were 49 million Indian elections-related conversations on Twitter, more than double the 20 million Indian elections-related conversations on Twitter for all of 2013.
In 2009, Shashi Tharoor was the only Indian politician to have a Twitter account and had 6,000 followers. Five years later there is hardly any major political leader who does not have an account on Twitter.
Tharoor is now the second most popular politician on Twitter with 2.16 million followers, after Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate with 3.89 million followers.
Modi now also has nearly 14 million fans of Facebook. Barack Obama is the only other politician to have more Facebook fans than Modi.
With political parties, leaders and candidates putting their advertisement on social media to reach out to their voters, all the three major players are reported to have made substantial addition to their revenue.
Though none of the companies are willing to discuss the advertisement revenue this election cycle, all of them have put in several months of tireless efforts and diverted substantial amount of their resources in the elections, many of them working thousands of miles away from India.
Facebook started working on the Indian elections towards the end of last year, says Katie Harbath, manager for policy at Facebook, adding that the company started doing a series of things beginning March this year when the elections were announced.
This includes launch of election tracker so that people can see in real time. Candidates are now using Facebook and Twitter for breaking news.
“We are really seeing the entire country discuss the issues (related to elections), Harbarth said in a recent interview.
“Facebook is really the key place of the conversation that is happening,” she said.
Adam Sharp, Head of Government and Nonprofits at Twitter, who has been involved in participating in elections in various countries of the world, said Twitter is a powerful way to return to retail politics. He conceded that elections have helped Twitter expand in India.
While the majority of the users of social media are concentrated in urban areas, the elections have also helped them expand their reach to the rural areas too.
Before the elections, the use of social media was generally restricted to the national political parties, but as the general elections gained momentum, even regional parties joined the social media bandwagon.
In a recent interview, Raheel Khursheed, head of news, Politics and Government, Twitter India, said the electoral landscape of social media has changed forever in India.
“Twitter has now become an integral part of Indian elections,” Khursheed said.
The sheer size is a major challenge for them, concedes Harbarth.
“It is just exciting to see, how much social media is being used in the election,” she said.
In addition to the volume and size, Twitter officials said the nine-phased elections are another major challenge.
“Twitter gives you a front row seat to the Lok Sabha #Election2014 in India and is the #1 place to go to stay informed about the latest elections developments.”
“This election is turning out to be the country’s first Twitter election; candidates, journalists and citizens have been using the Twitter platform extensively to discover elections content, converse with others in real time, and express their views,” Adams said.
On the other hand, Google provided platforms to politicians to reach out to their supporters through hangouts.
Google also created a Google Elections Hub for elections-related news and information created to help 800 million Indian voters stay informed and updated about the elections. The site also includes features such as elections related News Videos, Search Trends, G+ Hangout Series, and an interactive Pledge to Vote campaign.
“We want to make sure Indian voters have quick access to information to help them make informed decisions on election day. This is part of our commitment to bring essential information to Indians as they head to the polls in this historic election,” Rajan Anandan, VP, India Country Manager, told in an email interview.
“Google created its first elections tools seven years ago when our engineers noticed a huge increase in search traffic around the election period in the United States,” Samantha Smith from Google said.
“Today over 20 countries including Malaysia, Thailand, and now, India, have elections pages that aid voters during election periods.
“Google aims to encourage people to be more participative and engage with candidates. It also allows voters to have a deeper understanding of politics and governance through engagement with the candidates,” Smith added.
Several American media outlets have described the 16th general elections as the first social media elections.
“Social media has become the new election battleground for India’s nationwide parliamentary elections,” a CNN news report said.
Both officials from these social media outlets and experts are unable to predict this time the influence it would have on the election results. However, the Internet and Mobile Association of India estimates that a well-executed social media campaign can swing 3 -4 per cent of votes.
In 2009, the popular vote of the BJP was 78 million and that of the Congress was 119 million. In 2014, the total numbers of Indians on these social media outlets are matching these figures.