Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Opinion | Tech can disrupt politics, but we are yet to see an Uber-sized disruption

Social media algorithms are designed to make us consume what we want

Today, everyone is a social media advocate. Businesses, agencies, MBA colleges, politicians: Everyone is dancing to the tune of the social media gods. But, at least, in my field of election analytics, I am still not captured by its groove.

Act 1:

Social media cannot swing elections. There, I said it.

Political parties are pouring millions into social media with the belief that somehow by touching people on Instagram and TikTok, their votes can be acquired. But doesn’t it almost seem too easy? We should hope that gaming democracy has got to be more complicated!

So, we ran a simple study to find any correlation between the social media popularity of politicians and election results. We ranked the candidates in 112 random Lok Sabha constituencies, according to their social media following and engagement. Then, we simply compared this ranking to the actual election outcomes.

We (thankfully) found very little correlation between election outcomes and social media following. And, whatever correlation we did find, was actually inverse. As it turned out, 54% of all candidates who won did not, in fact, have the best social media presence. Clearly, social media is neither a necessary, nor a sufficient condition to win elections. Sorry for your business, marketing agencies. Nothing personal.

Act 2:

So what’s the catch? Most social media marketing in Indian politics is focused on the buzzing issues. A simple semantic word analysis of 67 political ads during 2019 general elections rendered ‘Rafael scam’, ‘farmer crisis’ and ‘chowkidar’ as the three most frequently used terms. But do such narratives work? Perhaps to an extent. But, if we look at the data on the issues most dear to Indians, it’s usually those that are local to them. Issues that touch them directly.

Is the highway to my workplace broken? Did I get the gas subsidy? You get the drift. Since the social media strategy is made centrally in Delhi, these hyper localized issues are never pushed on social media as widely. Punjab was perhaps the most deeply affected state (after J&K) from the cross-border tensions. And, even though the BJP’s campaign was designed around nationalism, it completely fell on deaf ears in Punjab. In fact, in Punjab, where the narrative should have technically resonated the most, BJP’s alliance performed the worst! This further corroborates that social media may not work if the messaging is not tuned to be hyperlocal. Not to forget, the Indian voter is extremely intelligent and aware. There was only a gap of 4-5 months between the state elections in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh and the general elections 2019, but still the voting behaviour in the two elections was extremely different. Congress marginally won state elections on account of anti incumbency, but was decimated in the Lok Sabha elections.

When the voter is so aware while exercising voting rights, he needs more than just an aggrandized social media strategy to sway his vote. People discount political advertising. In fact, they are repulsed by it. Finally, social media algorithms are designed to make us consume what we want to consume. Facebook’s key performance indicator, is clicks, not journalistic ideals. As a result, social media marketing only ends up reinforcing our own views.

Hence, in a two-party scenario, your exposure to the other side’s arguments will be limited, if not downright restricted. So, how will you even start to swing?

Act 3:

Social media doesn’t impact elections, but it does disrupt politics.

You only have to see the first episode of British TV series, Black Mirror, to gauge the extent of possible disruption. The princess gets kidnapped and the kidnappers make a ransom demand in a publicly available YouTube video asking the prime minister to have sexual intercourse with a pig on national TV.

This, (spoiler alert), does end up happening because the YouTube live stream of the princess being held hostage builds public support for adherence to the ransom demand. Albeit fiction, it is not impossible to imagine something of similar gravity happening in real life.

Then there is fake news. Now there are “deepfake" videos where you can programme Trump to rather convincingly sing Iran’s national anthem. Also, what about Snowden and Wikileaks?

Technology’s implications over politics are profound. Imagine if Google or Flipkart were running the government!

However, I do wish there was more technology being leveraged to improve politics. We are yet to see an Uber, Yelp or Tinder-sized disruption in politics. Perhaps an on-demand public works platform or a real-time feedback mechanism for politicians. Only if there was a venture capital fund to back political startups and products.

Pratham Mittal is the founder of Neta app, a political ratings platform for Indian politicians.