If you are a keen observer of social media in India, you wouldn’t have missed a slow yet sure change in political messaging on the medium in recent times.
Congress, the main Opposition Party, has elbowed its way into conversations on social media in the last three-four months. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which with its allies rules in the Centre and in 18 of India’s 29 states, used to be virtually unchallenged on Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter etc. before that.
This change, which is small at best, has come about with a studied and deliberate strategy of the Congress on social media.
“We are seeing a change on the ground. While there are still a lot of negative messages, there are a few positive ones. That’s a good indicator,” says a public relations and brand consultant, who has worked with political parties including the Congress, but doesn’t want to be named. He said it was too early to talk numbers.
The bet that the Congress is making on social media is part of its strategy to reach young voters ahead of the 2019 general elections. The use of social media in the Uttar Pradesh elections earlier this year drove home the point yet again how effectively BJP understood social media dynamics and combined it with its campaigning on the ground.
More than half of India’s population is under 25 years old. Facebook and WhatsApp each count more than 200 million accounts in India. Couple that with the growing affinity of Indians for data – showcased by the more than seven-fold jump in data consumed every month (150 crore GB) triggered by aggressive pricing of telcos led by Reliance Jio – and you have a no-brainer.
In May, Congress party vice president Rahul Gandhi handpicked former south Indian actor Divya Spandana a.k.a Ramya to head the party’s social media strategy. She replaced Lok Sabha member Deepender Hooda, who was heading the division for a few years. Hooda is the son of former Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, and a close aide of Gandhi.
Spandana’s appointment came about because she was active on Twitter and would often take on the BJP party and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. She moved base from Bengaluru to Delhi to head a 20-member Congress team and has doubled it by making hires spanning content creation, research and data sorting, and training since then.
Tackle the trolls first
Spandana explains the BJP’s social media reach is due to its first mover advantage and agrees it is tough to be heard. “It is a big challenge on my part to counter the fake news that is going on, and to make sure that the message of the (Congress) party travels,” she says. It is best to ignore the thousands of trolls on social media – she is referring to the BJP ones – and focus instead on the “right messaging”, she says.
To start with, Spandana says, it was important to have Rahul Gandhi actively tweeting. That is mission accomplished: he has a team that manages his social media handles. He, too, tweets.
Recently, FactorDaily reported that BJP has set up 5,000 WhatsApp groups ahead of assembly elections in Karnataka, slated for next year. “That’s such a small number,” says a surprised Spandana.
She pulls out a sheet of paper and does the math. “India has 4,120 assemblies,” she says. After a pause, she continues: “That’s more than 4,000 people contesting for the party. Each of them has multiple WhatsApp groups.”
“We don’t want to give the BJP a target,” she says.
A source close to the party tells FactorDaily that the Congress is targeting 3 lakh WhatsApp groups by end of this year. They are being created by members of Parliament, members of legislative assemblies, aspiring candidates, members of the Youth Congress and the party’s students wing NSUI, other regular members, friends, and families.
That’s a huge number. The BJP in the Uttar Pradesh elections is reported to have set up 9,000 WhatsApp groups covering the state’s roughly 200 million population. Extrapolate that to all of India and you will see why the Congress’s target sounds almost incredible.
Team Spandana at work
About a month after Spandana took over, the Mandsaur farmer agitations hit the headlines. Hundreds of farmers were marching towards the Madhya Pradesh capital. Police opened fire killing five protesters. Like every instance when politics meets social media, there are at least two versions of the story. The supporters of the BJP chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan said the protesters were instigated by the Congress and had a number of anti-socials elements in their midst.
The Congress did respond but quickly changed tack to put up a one-month-long campaign focussing on “three years of Modi” using data and statistics on where the government faltered on its promises. What followed was social media campaigns on the triple talaq issue, Gorakhpur children deaths, loan waiver of farmers, Aadhaar and privacy issue, unemployment, and demonetization and its impact on the economy.
The base material for what the Congress wants to put out is sorted and arranged by its researchers, and then sent to each of the political leaders for tweeting and posting on Facebook. If they want some clarification, it is sent back to the researcher. And once the process is over, it is pushed out. The same process is followed by the central social media team, which tweets from the Congress handle.
The trick is to combine large sets of data with what works on the ground. The Congress party has started doing surveys and polls, the outcomes of which is carefully sifted through and fed into its social media strategy. That helps it to target the voter better. So if someone likes spirituality, movies, or Shahrukh Khan, messages that would interest that person will be sent. “And somewhere I will connect you with the Congress,” explains Spandana.
A team inside Congress works on sorting the data. So far, data from all the surveys and polls was not archived, which the party is doing now. It has hired a few data researchers to study the data and to help in better communication.
Everything is measured in Spandana’s domain. “We have tools that give us the numbers,” she says. Whether the campaign did well. Or it didn’t. Which demographic watched it more. Which state. Where did it get more traction. All this and more is monitored.
Every vote matters
For Congress, which performed its worst ever in the 2014 elections, every voter is important at the hustings coming up. So, Spandana is spending time setting up the party’s social media architecture. Congress now has a small social media team in each state — one person for content, another for research and one to make videos. The party has also finalised the social media in-charge for each of the more than 4,000 assembly constituencies. All former central ministers are on board.
Spandana tells FactorDaily that Congress will not invest in bots and paid influencers like she insists the BJP does. “If we pay them Rs 5,000, someone else will pay more and take them away… I would rather get each and every member and ask them to come online and trend something. We have already started the training for this and in the assemblies,” she says.
She is preparing the strategy to go down to the booth level and train people to use online tools for targeted messaging. The Congress has also floated openings for analytics managers, caricaturists, digital media planners, video editors and animators to beef up its social media platform.
There are enough reasons for the Congress to get its social media game right. “BJP has always been ahead of the curve. They always had an app, even if it was a basic one,” says Subi Chaturvedi, a former Delhi University professor and a PhD. scholar at IIT Delhi.
She adds that social media will play a larger role in 2019 elections. “In 2014, 160 constituencies were impacted by social media. In 2019, that number will go up to over 300,” Chaturvedi says.
How will the BJP counter the Congress social media march? BJP declined to comment for this story. “We will speak at the right time,” said Amit Malviya, head of BJP’s IT cell, without specifying when.
WhatsApp for politics
Back to WhatsApp. The Congress’s biggest bet is not Facebook or Twitter — it’s WhatsApp, a former Congress member of Parliament said. “We have managed to crack the WhatsApp thing. We have managed to micro-voter targeting by using big data, and we have managed to do strategic messaging,” the person added.
WhatsApp, with over 2 billion users worldwide, is currently not suited for marketing or promotions as it’s still a closed ecosystem. It’s hard to analyse how well your messages have performed or how much it has travelled. However, WhatsApp has started testing solutions for enterprises and businesses to communicate with their users better.
“None of the (social media) groups have my number, but when the messages or the videos that have gone out from the group land up on my mobile phone, it means that the message has travelled,” Divya Spandana.
Political parties see the potential for deep virality on WhatsApp. They form user groups to interact better with party leaders – exchange messages, formulate strategy and even share information through videos and presentations. Then, there is more: sending messages to specific groups of voters like students, teachers, housewives, businessmen, among others.
Spandana has a simple way to measure whether the Congress messaging is working even without resorting to inorganic promotions like advertising. “None of the (social media) groups have my number, but when the messages or the videos that have gone out from the group land up on my mobile phone, it means that the message has travelled,” Spandana says.
Congress doesn’t want to hire an agency to run its social media campaign. “We don’t have the kind of money BJP has,” says Spandana. “If you go to an agency and tell them that these are the lists of colleges. They will just spam you.”
What about internet and social media professionals? The BJP is said to have benefited massively from the understanding of experts such as BG Mahesh, the founder of Oneindia.com, Arvind Gupta, who heads Digital India Foundation, and Rajesh Jain, NetCore’s founder.
Spandana says that the Congress enjoys the support from volunteers — many of them are from IITs and other engineering colleges, management institutes, and techies working in Bengaluru. Some of them are already volunteering with the Congress, helping it with technology understanding. She does not give more details.
This is just the beginning of the game. “In India, we are a few cycles (elections) away from having a WhatsApp election… With social media, you look at a very small set of audience but true sentiments are shared on WhatsApp because it’s personal,” says Naman Pugalia, former political campaigner and strategist.
For Indian politics on social media, it is still Day 1. Spandana is happy to have reduced the trolling against her party and have the Congress get a foothold on India’s teeming social media landscape. But she and her party know that the medium is the message.
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Copy updated at 10.50am, September 7, 2017 removing the home location of Divya Spandana over privacy concerns. A few typos were corrected at 12.05pm the same day.
Disclosure: FactorDaily is owned by SourceCode Media, which counts Accel Partners, Blume Ventures and Vijay Shekhar Sharma among its investors. Accel Partners is an early investor in Flipkart. Vijay Shekhar Sharma is the founder of Paytm. None of FactorDaily’s investors have any influence on its reporting about India’s technology and startup ecosystem.