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Politics may be the art of the possible, but instead of howling on loudspeakers, Indian leaders are now turning to subtler means to get their message through — marketing firms with well-paid influencers who rely on easily accessible technology.

The shift is far from bombarding messages on traditional social media tools, especially following bans on political messages on Twitter and Tiktok. Instead, they rely on just regular users, better known as influencers.

In 2018, a mayor from a tier III town in India had fallen out of favour with his party. However, the mayor was well known in his municipal area for work he had done with respect to open drains, street lighting and e-rickshaws.

The mayor contracted an influencer marketing firm to spread his message through social media. The firm, in turn found local influencers with big following on various platforms and proceeded to spread the mayor’s message. In fact, they even got a well-known homeopathic doctor from the area to join in, and in the end the mayor won the elections.

The role of general influencers in political messaging and campaigning on social media is growing. Shudeep Majumdar, co-founder, Zefmo Media, an influencer marketing firm, said that with Twitter and TikTok banning political advertising and a general taboo around such ads, the onus for political messaging on social media will fall squarely on influencers and influencer marketing agencies in the future.

Majumdar stated that while unethical practices are not unheard of, the firms have to keep things clean and ethical. There’s a white side to the business and some black.

According to sources in the industry, how much an influencer marketing firm earns from political campaigns depends on the size of the firm. While smaller ones could earn something between Rs. 5-10 lakhs, big public relations firms involved in the field can charge in crores for a year-long campaign.

It doesn’t stop at Facebook, Twitter and Instagram either. Influencers also help create WhatsApp chains that can go down to the electoral booth level, explained the source. “They can use these chains to spread their message or even discredit information from credible news sources," a social media coordinator for a national party said. Sharechat is another platform that agencies and parties are looking to exploit.

As far as politics is concerned, we usually only recognise celebrities and renowned personalities as influencers. However, a tweet or post from a celebrity alone may not make a topic trend on a national level. That is where your friendly neighbourhood influencer comes in.

For something to have national reach, you need to have multiple real people from different parts of the country to talk about it. Influencers, with their horde of followers, local or nationwide, make that happen. Their involvement helps political parties extend the narrative, say experts.

"Celebrities are used for native advertising, where they directly or indirectly make a comment about a party’s agenda," said Anup Sharma, an independent political communications consultant who worked with three Chief Ministers and two Union Ministers.

The commercials between the firms and influencers also differ at times. While a firm like Zefmo has a contract with a political party, Majumdar said his company does not make any payments to influencers for such posts. In fact, even his own payment sometimes hinges on the success or failure of a party in the elections. A certain part of it is held in escrow, to be paid out if a party wins.

While regular brand campaigns have set rates for influencers based on deliverables like shares, likes etc, political messaging is often done without such commercials. Deliverables like likes and shares may not exist. The idea is to leverage a firm’s relationship with an influencer and his/her political ideologies.

“Firstly there’s a goodwill connect, they (the influencers) know that they will sooner or later be gratified with a different campaign," Zefmo’s Majumdar said.

Matching the party with the influencer is important. “We know that these influencers have a certain political bent and it’s just a matter of matching that person with the correct party or cause," he added.

“It does not happen overnight just because you get someone to tweet about it," explained Tushar Panchal, founder of WarRoom Strategies, a communications consultancy for governments and politics. “It’s not going to help you much, unless they’re (influencers) used very strategically keeping in mind their expertise," he added.

A political influencer, hence, can be anybody who fits the narrative, from financial advisors to experts and anyone else. “Unlike a marketing campaign where a brand is very specific about the influencers it wants, it’s not the same in a political campaign," Majumdar said. He has to dig into his database of over 60,000 influencers to make the right match. “In certain cases, if we haven’t worked in that territory, we go into it and build that database," he added.

It’s not about likes, it’s about engagement. It’s about helping a politician making “relevant news". “A picture shared even out of context, if shared amongst enough users becomes a narrative," explained political consultant Sharma.

While Twitter may be banning political ads, parties can still bring in influencer marketing firms to create what is called “user generated content" which is the “essence" of influencer marketing, according to Majumdar.

WarRoom Strategies’ Panchal said that while social media is important in politics, every tool has to be used differently. Every platform has its own influencers. Identifying those influencers and convincing them is not easy. “They won’t just say yes to everything just for money. They have built their followers by investing a lot of time and money. Otherwise they will lose their credibility," he suggested.

So, while the dependence of social media on political campaigning is only just beginning, it’s certainly picking up. “When I did a campaign with an influencer, of the million people who watched his video, 800,000 downloaded my app," said Pratham Mittal, founder of political civic technology app Neta. “In comparison, an ad on a news channel gets me perhaps a 2% download rate, so I can only imagine how much of a role they can play in actually getting you votes as well," Mittal added.

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