Go slow on the social media

In a matter of months, India will overtake the US as Facebook’s largest user-base. According to various sources, the social media site is currently adding about 40 million users from the country per year while the US adds some 5 million at the same rate. Such growth is not likely to leave Facebook much enthused as the Indian horde is worth only about $400 million in ads, but for the impending Lok Sabha polls, the Californian giant spells many possibilities of varying efficacy for propaganda.

Almost all our political parties, including the Congress, BJP and AAP, are active on Facebook and Twitter. Among them, the BJP and AAP are the most active, if only because their anti-incumbent and evangelical content, respectively, is highly viral, reaching millions within minutes and, unlike with TV, with a shelf life of forever. Although 5.5-11.2% of all Facebook accounts, and 32-64% of Twitter profiles of the followers of Indian political leaders (according to a rudimentary analysis by The Hindu), are fake, that still leaves space for tens of millions of users to be swayed by opinions disseminated on the web.

However, this is also why whether the social media will inspire direct mobilization is hard to say. Even though most of India’s 18-24 year-olds could be on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, we know little about how articulation online translates to action offline quantitatively. This is why surveys showing how certain constituencies harbor more Facebook users than the margins of victory in previous Assembly elections are only engaging in empirical speculation. The 2014 Lok Sabha polls could be our first opportunity to understand this influential mechanism.

(These inputs were provided for a piece that appeared in The Hindu on March 17, 2014.)