Online Campaigns: Look Who¿s on Twitter?

BY Usha m Rodrigues| IN Media Practice | 29/05/2009
The promise of civic engagement via new technologies remains limited to the upper classes, and it will be a while before it reaches the masses.
USHA M RODRIGUES looks at the rise of online media campaigning in the recent elections. Reprinted from Unleashed,
When the world¿s largest democracy - with more than 1.1 billion people - goes to the polls, it is not surprising that the media takes notice. And, as is increasingly the trend across the world, so does the cyber media.

India has witnessed a surge in the number of people using new media technologies for social communication since the November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.

The trend of online civic engagement continued in the recently-concluded federal and state elections in India, known as general elections. Political parties launched ¿digimedia¿ strategies to woo younger voters, while activists attempted to encourage voters to exercise their democratic right.

Many new media advocates launched campaigns to divert people¿s attention away from identity politics and alliances that dominate the mainstream media, and towards the election promises being promoted by each political party.

Karan Thapar, a respected television journalist and host of Devil¿s Advocate on CNN-IBN, not only blames the media for focusing on party alliances, but also the political leaders for running the most uninformed election campaigns in the world.

Almost all the main political parties and political leaders irrespective of their age, decided to reach first time voters online. In other words young voters, via blogs and social networking sites.

Even the veteran of Indian politics, 81-year-old LK Advani - leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - decided to start a blog on his web portal.

The BJP is a leader in engaging with online communities. The Congress Party and other regional parties have also become involved.

These political parties¿ other online strategies included online advertising, sending SMS messages, political leaders¿ presence on Facebook, videos on YouTube and Twittering with supporters. In recent days the Indian elections became a hot topic on

Some of the stars of these elections on Twitter included, Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi, former UN Under-Secretary General for Communications and Public Information Shashi Tharoor, and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.

As for the old media, Hindustan Times cooperated with Google to keep track of the
Indian elections, while many other bloggers launched election sites. A number of these sites also began providing aggregating services, including a list of political web conversations, and links to political discussions on mainstream media sites and on social media sites such as Flickr and Youtube.

Other notable players in this blogosphere have been non-profit organisations such as the multi-lingual web site
Global Voices Online which is funded by a number of philanthropic groups and is run by a community of bloggers who aim to "redress some of the inequities in media attention by leveraging the power of citizens¿ media".

An assessment of the outcomes of these online engagements by political parties will take place soon. It is likely that online media strategies will become an integral part of the Indian political sphere, where parties need the support of India¿s huge middle class and the elite to project an image of providing ¿modern¿ and ¿tech-savvy¿ leadership.

But Gaurav Mishra of says the impact of online civic campaigns to engage voters in real issues, and exercise their right to vote, may not be as successful as it first appears.

Can new media be effective in changing people¿s mind-set, or is it merely another means for like-minded people to communicate with each other?

Although  the  numbers are staggering with 714 million voters casting their votes in a month-long, five-phase general election, the voter turnout in 2009 elections was around 59-60 per cent, marginally higher than the 2004 elections.

Similarly, the BJP¿s ¿digimedia¿ presence did not win it the most votes.

Analysts say that although the media - both main-stream and social media - were predicting a hung parliament or an unstable coalition government, the Congress Party won because of inclusive politics, grass-root campaigning and Indian citizens¿ desire for political stability in these troubled economic times.

Meanwhile, the reality of democracy in India, as phenomenal as it is in the world, is that the middle class remains cynical and uninterested in the political process itself, and as a result stays away from the electoral booths.

On the other hand, political parties continue to exploit poverty by launching welfare schemes during campaigns, and by offering freebies and gifts for people¿s votes.

The promise of this new civic engagement via new technologies remains limited to the upper and middle classes, who have the education and the access to technology to be part of this new trend in citizen media. Apart from the question of the affordability of new technologies, there are still more than 350 million people who cannot read or write in India.

It will take time before the cyber world can provide an equal opportunity for all segments of India¿s population to participate in the public sphere.

The cyber and blogger community hopes that the foundation of online civic engagement laid during the 2009 elections, will grow during the 2014 elections.

New technologies can only assist in deepening democracy if citizens are willing to use them for greater good, taking along others who are deprived of the privilege of articulating their views and opinions in new ways.

The goal must be to use new media technologies to keep India¿s leaders focussed on their socio-economic agenda, rather than the politics of castes and factions.

This is what will truly modernise Indian politics.
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