By Tabarez Ahmed Nayazi.

Social media has emerged as a vital tool of communication and has created new ways of mobilizing public opinion and encouraging participation in political and civic activities – ranging from joining online petition and social groups, posting short messages on Twitter, expressing supports through blogs and uploading videos on YouTube. The recent WikiLeaks disclosure online of US foreign policy clearly demonstrates the disruption caused by social media, which is now forcing the mainstream news media to turn to political blogs and citizen-users for materials. Such disruption has enabled citizens to discuss and share political information with friends and networked citizens, and critically monitor the actions of governments and corporate interests. This has also posed a profound challenge to the state about how to regulate social media and face user-generated challenges. At the same time, the uneven level of access of different social groups to new media, a phenomenon is known as the digital divide, has raised concern about the limitations of its democratic potential.

Can social media be used for an effective political communication in India where access to the Internet is still limited? To what extent political parties and candidates, as well as oppositional politics, are using social media for a political campaign? Is it possible to reach to the non-internet users through social media? Before answering these questions, it is important to look at some of the statistics about the internet penetration and social media uses in India. A report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India shows that as of June 2012, there were 137 million claimed Internet users: 99 million in urban cities and 38 million in rural villages. Of these 137 million Internet users, 111 million (80 million in urban cities and 31 million in rural villages) are active Internet users, i.e., they use the Internet at least once a month. In terms of percentage, only about 11.4% of India’s population uses the internet, which might not be considered significant.

Similarly, in their recent report entitled “Social Media in India – 2012”, estimates the number of social media users in Urban India at 62 million as of December 2012. The report also reveals that the internet users are spreading fast in areas beyond the top eight Indian metros as one-third of the social media users are residents of smaller towns with a population of under 500,000, while a quarter of them are residents of towns with a population of less than 200,000. However, it is estimated that majority of the social media users use it for entertainment than for political activities, although we do not have data on the behavior of internet users. The small percentage of the internet users and the user’s activities on social media have led many political analysts to discount the capacity of the social media in having any significant impact on political communication. However, one needs to look at the recent uses of social media for political communication before ignoring its credibility.

New ways of conducting politics

Is there an emergence of new ways of conducting politics with the coming of social media? In a recent study conducted by the IRIS Knowledge Foundation and the Internet and Mobile Association of India, claimed that results in over 150 parliamentary constituencies in the next general election could be decided by ‘Facebook users, making them the newest vote-bank with the power to shape Indian politics.’ One might as well question the validity of the findings as a majority of the people in India use social media for entertainment. But one needs to understand that political participation is not static. Some people regularly follow political events, whereas others become interested only during a crisis or an important political event, such as an election or social movement. Among Internet users, substantial numbers may not be interested in the politics of the country or eager to participate in politics through the internet, but they are drawn into politics because a major personality is involved or during a major crisis. The Anna Hazare’s movement reflects that the online public, who used social networking sites for entertainment and to stay in touch with friends, learned to use these sites to engage with politics. Such a development is new in India but has been ongoing in developed countries. Social media also played an important role in the Arab Spring.

Despite the low level of the internet penetration in India, social media has been able to reach beyond its core audience. This is because of the new space created on account of the interface between print, television and the internet, which can change the way the business of politics is conducted in India. All political parties now have their presence on social media, and maintain their party website detailing the activities and programs of the parties. Majority of politicians have their Twitter account or Facebook pages. We have seen that during major events such as budget sessions or parliamentary debates, politicians break the news by posting a message on Twitter. Social media literacy is fast becoming a sign of forward-looking and development-oriented leaders, ready to take up the new challenges in a globalized India. The presence in social media has become imperative for candidates and political parties because of the changing expectation of the voters towards their elected representatives. Realizing the importance of social media, the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh opened his Twitter account last year to provide up-to-date information as well as to present the achievements of his government to the people.

Media as an important institution of mediation

Media, both traditional and social, have certainly emerged as an important institution of mediation in contemporary India as well as in other developing countries and has transformed today’s political communication networks. Making one’s presence felt in social media has become important for both political parties as well as for oppositional politics in order to ensure a wider validation for their cause. The oppositional politics, which often gets marginalized in the mainstream media, has been immensely benefitted with the coming of social media. It is not surprising that some of the most popular politicians on social media are from opposition including Narendra Modi, Mamata Banerjee, Akhilesh Yadav and Nitish Kumar. The incorporation of politics into social networking sites has made it impossible for political parties to ignore social media. Furthermore, given the changing expectation of the voters towards their elected representatives, social media might play a role disproportionate to its actual presence. Social media certainly has the power to influence the outcome of the next general election.