Why does social media support BJP
Will digital communication decide India's elections? Five years ago, the BJP's Social Media Cell contributed to Narendra Modi's election victory. Volunteers from the American diaspora had forged Facebook and Twitter into handy election campaign weapons. Modi himself had already used these channels diligently as chief minister of Gujerat.
This was one reason that, after its overwhelming election victory, prompted the government to quickly tackle a “democratization of the Internet”. The Digital India initiative had a lucky draw because it harnessed the thrust of the global explosion in social media traffic. It became one of the successes of Modi's reign.
With a budget of $ 16 billion, 117,000 gram panchayats - rural political communities - were digitally networked, most of them with fiber optics. The number of users of mobile data then grew by almost tenfold to 300 million. Almost twice as many are now logging into the Internet, and mobile voice traffic today covers practically the entire adult population.
The demonetization ends in debacle
On the back of these increasingly dense networks, a digital economy has also grown, with online trading, data exchange and payment transactions. Government services, namely social programs, can be accessed digitally. This is mainly done on the back of Aadhar, the digital ID with which anyone can now identify themselves - the most important hurdle in online trading.
Cashless traffic, however, grew significantly more slowly than the technical offer, as did the promised start-ups. The demonetization in November 2016, with which Modi wanted to force the people into the cashless payment network, ended in a debacle. The state lost its image of an honest broker, and the promised drying up of the corruption swamp became a laughing stock.
There was a countermovement. The central bank had to print billions of new banknotes in a hurry to prevent major macroeconomic damage. The rural economy, which feeds 650 million people, has not yet recovered from the shock. The revenues of the fintech sector with its numerous payment intermediaries have just doubled in five years.
The hubris behind this decision by the Prime Minister also feeds the suspicion that the government's Digital India campaign was only about democratizing the Internet and spreading its economic potential. The potential is also political, as the networking deep into rural India can also be used as an election campaign tool.
Of course, this is also part of democracy, and parties of all stripes can use the network for their messages. But after the international scandals - keywords: Brexit, Trump election - the question arises as to how impartially the Indian state participates in the fight against fake news and hate news.
In the last five years it was mainly BJP trolls who established themselves particularly loudly and aggressively in this scene - without the state intervening. With Modi's second election campaign and the fateful significance of his outcome for India, the digital noise has now increased to a quiet hurricane.
Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp, TikTok and Facebook are doing - now finally pricked up - at least what is necessary to punish (as Facebook calls it) "Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior" (CIB) by withdrawing the platform. At the beginning of the week, the company said it had retired a number of groups, sites and accounts in India. Most are close to the BJP or the Congress Party.
Facebook defines “CIB” as behavior in which numerous groups network and specifically - “coordinated” - create and send false or hate mail to millions of users.
FB contends that it is not easy to define “inauthentic”. In the reason for a deactivation, the company differentiates between “disinformation” and “misinformation”. Both scatter false information, but in the case of “misinformation” it cannot be decided whether it is targeted or not. Where there is only “misinformation”, the account will not be deleted.
Is this mere window dressing? Many pages with false information come as advertising and are commercially interesting for FB. They also bring in money for the operators. Something like a political-commercial crony has established itself: private users pretend to be Modi fans and can earn more likes with the charismatic name. They peddle these with companies and activate their products.
WhatsApp groups take over the political content of the FB domain and distribute it, sometimes millions of times. Most of them also do this with the attractive NaMo etiquette: they are called MODIfied Indian, or NationWantsNaMo, FrustratedIndian, Bharat Positive. Even an app like MyGov, which comes along as a neutral government source of information, is now mainly a mode multiplier.
The promotional effect for the PM and his party prevents the Modi state from pursuing such campaigns - on the contrary. When Facebook and Twitter intervene, there are organized protests online, usually under the hashtag of “censorship” or “restriction of freedom of speech”. A few weeks ago online hatred even spilled over onto the streets. A protest marched outside the Twitter office in Delhi, with BJP politicians on the front lines. On the posters you could see the blue bird in Hitler's uniform.
More followers than Trump
With this strategic weapon in hand, it would be a surprise if the general did not cannibalize his iconic omnipresence himself. The journalist Pamela Philipose writes in a recently published book that Modi used the “mediatization” of Indian society to accumulate his “immense media capital”.
President Trump will not appreciate that Modi has left him far behind in his core competencies. With almost 15 million Instagram followers, the Indian prime minister has a third more than Trump, and with 43 million Facebook followers almost double that of the American president. With his tweets, Modi has 48 million followers on the digital drip.
There is now a NaMo television station that is widely accessible via YouTube and may soon flicker on every television screen. Practically all the news of the country, yes of the world, is projected onto the great helmsman (who belittles himself as “India's door guard”).
How extensive Modi’s media access is is illustrated by the recent downing of an Indian satellite by a space rocket launched from the ground. A Twitter message from Modi announced an "important announcement to the nation" on March 27. According to the media, the streets of the capital emptied within fifteen minutes, and over a hundred million Indians were watching television within an hour.
It is hardly surprising that in view of this omnipresent media presence, even state institutions allow themselves to be intimidated. A weapons test of this (physical and political) scope like that of March 27 would have required the permission of the powerful electoral commission.
Any government act that can influence the behavior of voters is either prohibited during the election campaign or requires the approval of the Election Commission. Modi didn't think it necessary to catch up with them. Despite this clear violation of the Code of Conduct, the commission could not even bring itself to a complaint.
The magician's overturning rhetoric?
The media election campaign is not yet exhausted with the digital barrage. The ruling party has a war chest of $ 150 million (five times more than the Congress party) to run newspaper campaigns, radio commercials and television advertising. Then there are the traditional poster campaigns and of course the megaphones of the actual election events.
In this all-round blow, is Narendra Modi's victory a done deal? It seems so. The electoral majority system makes it even more likely, because established parties are favored the greater the number of candidates and parties. Never before have so many parties and independent candidates courted voters (there are said to be over 2,500). And BJP President Amit Shah is known for supporting independent candidates in critical constituencies. A few thousand votes are enough to split the vote potential of the most dangerous BJP opponent.
Veteran election observers point out, however, that after seventy years of electoral experience, the Indian voter cannot be fooled. So it could well be that she perceives the overturning rhetoric of the magician Modi as a sham and lets the hubris burst.
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