When India votes in a general election next year, it will be the world’s largest democratic exercise, and the biggest ever test of the role of social media in an election.
As the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) readies for battle with the newly energized Congress party-led opposition in the election that must be held by May, the role of Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp could be crucial in deciding who wins.
India already has close to 900 million eligible voters, and an estimated half-a-billion have access to the Internet. The country has 300 million Facebook users and 200 million on Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging service – more than any other democracy. Millions use Twitter.
“Social media and data analytics will be the main actors in the upcoming India elections. Their use would be unprecedented as both parties now use social media,” said Usha M. Rodrigues, a communications professor at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, whose research has focused on social media and Indian politics.
The potential for abuse is also immense, with incendiary news and videos capable of fanning violence in the sprawling multi-religious and multi-ethnic nation.
Fake news and messages circulated on social media have led to more than 30 deaths since last year, data portal IndiaSpend says, mostly rumors about child kidnapping gangs.
Political differences have in the past been no less deadly.
“Social media discourse, already bitter, will turn bilious,” Milan Vaishnav, a senior research fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said of the coming campaign for the general election.
“It will be no-holds-barred on social media given that the opposition smells blood and the ruling party has its back against the wall.”
Both the main parties accuse each other of propagating fake news while denying they do so themselves.
Nevertheless, the battle lines between them are clearly drawn. Congress has attacked Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s economic policies and his party’s Hindu nationalist ideology, while the BJP dismisses the Congress as incompetent liberals out of touch with the people.
This month, Congress won elections in three major states that have been the bastion of the BJP, setting the stage for a tight contest in 2019. Helping the opposition party was a revamped social media strategy.