WhatsApp has changed political messaging on economic matters

The popularity of social media has led to the need for constant creation of content, and that has led to political economics reaching our smartphones.
The popularity of social media has led to the need for constant creation of content, and that has led to political economics reaching our smartphones.

Summary

  • Whether it’s for the better is doubtful, as this social media phenomenon tends to indulge echo chambers and fan confirmation biases.

The popularity of social media has ensured that anyone with access to a smartphone and an internet connection can say what they want to say, and if it catches the fancy of people, the message can go viral. Take the case of an infographic showing that the size of Uttar Pradesh’s (UP) economy had overtaken the size of Tamil Nadu’s; it recently went viral on everything from LinkedIn to WhatsApp.

P. Thiaga Rajan, minister of IT and digital services in the government of Tamil Nadu, wrote a piece in Frontline debunking the same. Indeed, Tamil Nadu’s gross state domestic product (GSDP in constant prices, base 2011-12) in 2022-23 stood at 14.53 trillion or 11.4% more than UP’s GSDP of 13.05 trillion. In 2011-12, the GSDP of Tamil Nadu was 3.8% more than that of UP. The difference has grown since then and peaked at 13.9% in 2020-21.

Nonetheless, the important point here is that UP, with its much larger population, shares its GSDP with many more people than Tamil Nadu, which is why the average income of someone living in Tamil Nadu in 2022-23 was 1,66,727, against 47,066 in UP.

The argument made for UP at the domestic level is usually made for India at the international level—in the form of an obsession over India becoming the ‘X’ largest economy in the world. Data from World Bank shows that in 2022, India’s gross domestic product (GDP in constant 2015 US dollars) stood at $2.96 trillion, making India the sixth largest economy. Data from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) suggests that India’s GDP in 2023 is expected to be $3.73 trillion, making it the fifth largest. The IMF data, unlike the World Bank’s, is in current terms and doesn’t totally adjust for inflation.

Nonetheless, the figure to watch is India’s per capita income, or what each Indian would earn in a year if everyone got an equal part of national income. As per the IMF, it’s estimated at $2,612 in 2023, ranking us 140th out of 190 countries, with Bangladesh ahead and Nicaragua behind us. In 2024, India is expected to retain this position, with Bangladesh slipping to 143rd place.

Another piece of information that tends to go viral is that of India growing faster than China. Recent forecasts from the World Bank suggest that China is expected to grow slower than India in 2023, 2024 and 2025. While that makes for a great WhatsApp forward, we also need to take into account the size of the Chinese economy, which in 2022 stood at $16.32 trillion. So, slower Chinese growth is on a much larger base.

This comparison reminds me of a period in 2012 when news reports appeared saying that Bihar’s economy grew faster than Gujarat’s. In 2011-12, Bihar’s GSDP( constant prices, base 2004-05) grew 10.3%, whereas that of Gujarat grew 6.7%. But Gujarat’s GSDP was 3.92 trillion, whereas that of Bihar was 1.44 trillion.

Such reports and online messages were a rarity in 2012, but have since become the norm, primarily due to the rise in popularity of WhatsApp, Twitter and LinkedIn. Earlier, political parties and their supporters, other than word-of-mouth, could reach citizens only through newspapers and magazines, and also radio and TV (if they happened to be in power). Given this, any political economic messaging had to be simple and straightforward.

Things have changed. The popularity of social media has led to the need for constant creation of content, and that has led to political economics reaching our smartphones. Parties operating in different states and their supporters constantly need to keep telling voters that they are better than the rest, and the states they are governing are doing economically better than other states.

Of course, for political purposes, the underlying message of such content, more than being true, needs to be clear and coherent, like in the case of UP’s output versus Tamil Nadu’s. There can be no ifs and buts. Any nuance creates doubt in the minds of people and undercuts the message. Coherent messages sound more believable.

Further, social media lends itself well to repetition of a message and feeding it into echo chambers, where people wait to hear things that confirm their political biases. And the more a message is repeated, the truer it sounds. The truer a message sounds, the more people are ready to share it. Which is where the virality of a message comes in. And for a message to go viral, it has to be crisp and clear. This completes the circle.

Further, economics reaching our smartphones also feeds what Sander van der Linden, in the book Foolproof, terms the epistemological need or the desire to make sense of the world around us. While the desire exists, people have neither the time nor skill to sit and figure things out. Infographics and forwards with inherent biases built into them landing up free on smartphones can feed on and satisfy this paradoxical need. Also, unlike some nuanced writing in the conventional media, these messages are clearer and sometimes even entertaining, egging people on to forward them further.

To conclude, as Van der Linden writes: “Social media has fundamentally reshaped the flow of information in society. Specifically, it has changed… the social context in which information is delivered and manipulated."

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