The 2019 Lok Sabha election is an election like none other till date. While 2014 was touted as the first digital general election, 2019 is when social media has actually arrived. Not only have the early adopters like the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) or Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) improved upon what they were doing in 2014, but those who were reluctant or slow movers like the Congress, TMC, DMK, SP and RJD have embraced social media for this campaign.
It's not just parties but leaders whose social media behavior has changed in the past five years, most notably Rahul Gandhi. Others who have taken to Twitter and Facebook include new-gen politicians like Akhilesh Yadav and Tejashwi Yadav to seasoned stalwarts like Mamata Banerjee, Lalu Prasad Yadav and, most recently, Mayawati. Their deputies and lieutenants have followed their leaders, left, right and centre, pun intended. Right from MPs to MLAs to councilors to booth-level workers, everybody who is politically active has joined Twitter and also started using Facebook or WhatAapp accounts for political gyaan.
2019, some have complained, is a very boring election. No banners, pamphlets, posters - the elections are "happening" mostly on SM and TV studios, with rallies being used for TV PR more than anything else and to generate headlines. It's natural for the campaign to move from conventional printed material to screens with so many people even in rural areas using phones.
With better smartphone camera quality and increased performance, politicians are no longer dependent on only mainstream media for carrying forward their message. In 2014, there was no Facebook live feature available for the general public. In the 2016 US elections, the technology was made available for public usage and there has been no stopping it ever since. In this election, it is tough to imagine any rally not being telecast live on Facebook.
In India, platforms like Sharechat, MX player, ShareIT and Dailyhunt are already drawing huge ad budgets and will have a growing advantage in the next few years. These platforms are not overtly political but at the same time provide an opportunity window for political parties to reach out to the audience in a much more targeted manner at costs much lower than Facebook or Google.
The next innovations in tech will happen during the 2020 US presidential election, and I strongly believe that by the next Indian general election in 2024, social media will be completely transformed with virtual and augmented reality.
What Facebook should allow constituency-wise ad targeting. It would revolutionize the way Facebook ads work for political organizations. The good part is that the technology is already in place. All someone at Facebook needs to do is to put together the various pieces of it. It would also solve another problem for the Election Commission - tracking of ads during various phases of an election and ensuring that the embargo period is strictly followed. The problem around surrogate advertising and affiliates is yet to be solved but with whatever baby steps we have taken for online ad spend transparency in this election, the future does not look as bleak as it did some time ago.
Another problem that needs to be solved is patchy internet connectivity but as 5G is rolled out in coming years, that problem will be taken care of. Also, there are multiple internet bonding devices available these days but I'm yet to come across something affordable and at the same time dependable. Devices heating up during ground campaigns, especially during the Indian summer, is another problem consistent across the country. I'm not sure if any smartphone company has fixing this as a priority on their to-do list.
The tricky part for Digital Campaign managers like me however, would be to filter out the best from among the sea of average options available and put it to optimal utilization and at the same time not fall into the trap of perpetual campaign mode as it not only drains the audience but also makes them agnostic. We need to make sure that people are made aware but at the same time are not turned off due to information overload which is what has happened in this election.
(Ankit Lal is social media strategist, Aam Aadmi Party.)
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