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Twitter’s India head: The people now have power

May 14, 2014
May 14, 2014
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Rishi Jaitly, who runs Twitter’s operations in India(Twitter)

The election that concludes in India on May 16 is the largest in human history, and one in which Indians have been able to connect in an unprecedented way.

More than 500 million new mobile subscribers were added in the last five years. Usage of services such as Twitter have erupted in response, and contributed to an unprecedented digitization of the election—and the conversation about it. On April 30—the day that 89 of India’s 543 constituencies went to the polls—696,000 election-related tweets were sent. Since Jan. 1, the breakdown of tweets for the various national candidates/parties has been 34% for Narendra Modi or his Bharatiya Janata Party, 27% for Arvind Kejriwal or the Aam Admi Party, 4% for Rahul Gandhi or the Indian National Congress.

At the center of the digital election is Rishi Jaitly. Jaitly was working for Google during the previous election as the head of public-private partnerships, where he led the creation of the Google India Elections Centre and voters could view information about their polling station, evaluate success indicators in their constituency, and check their registration. Another notable accomplishment at Google: Getting Pakistan and Bangladesh to lift their bans on YouTube.

Since 2012, Jaitly has run Twitter’s operations in India. Quartz spoke recently with Jaitly (@rsjaitly) about this year’s elections as seen by Twitter. Edited excerpts:

Quartz: Why do you call this the “Twitter Election?”

Jaitly: What’s exciting about this election, this “Twitter election,” is that our activity, our investment, cuts across the “media business,” increasing distribution, and helping marketers. When I say “media business,” I use the word generally, [to refer to] all the people and organizations in the business of audiences. What’s exciting is that we’ve also enabled mobile capabilities in an elections context. We have both Mr. Narendra Modi and the Congress Party, for instance, using the “missed call to receive tweets via SMS” service. On the marketer side, we have, for the last four quarters, been enabling our promoted products for use in India and all national political parties have leaned into those products and have seen results from them.

So what you have in general is a pretty comprehensive investment from Twitter in this election and it’s yielded what is undeniably a “Twitter election.” We’ve hired in this space: we have a “head of news and government” based in Delhi. In the last year, we’ve seen a 600% increase in the political conversation on Twitter. In the first four months of this year, we’ve seen 49 million tweets about the election when, last year, we saw 20 million.

Quartz: It’s interesting that you said “Narendra Modi and Congress” rather than “BJP and Congress” or “Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi.”

Jaitly: I was referring to the Twitter/SMS innovation we announced last year, the “missed call to follow.” The @NarendraModi account and the @INCIndia account are both connected to this service that we have invested in, which essentially allows a user to make a missed call to a phone number and receive tweets via SMS for free.

Quartz: And that’s open to other parties to participate in as well? So that would be available to the AAP should they choose to avail that service?

Jaitly: As part of our investment in this election, I am in Delhi very often. I have a colleague of mine who is based in Delhi. We have been equal opportunity. We have been out there meeting with every significant news organization, every national political party, and making sure they understand what’s different and unique about the Twitter service.

Quartz: So AAP has just opted not to participate?

Jaitly: As I said, we’ve made all stakeholders aware of the range of possibilities that are possible on our platform.

Quartz: Compare Twitter across election and cricket matches—larger events—versus politicians and Bollywood personalities. What do you see?

Jaitly: The conversation about public leaders and public issues has been at the top of the list for years. We were digging through the history of Twitter in India and one of the first spikes in conversation happened during the 26/11 attacks. You can find tweets of people tweeting about being stuck in the INOX Theater in Colaba that night. Fast forward a couple of years: If you were on Twitter in India at the end of 2012, you could hear the roar of the crowd on Twitter as Indians were protesting in Delhi and elsewhere. And the state elections last year, in particular in Delhi where the Aam Aadmi Party was particularly successful using the Twitter service, and then this year, as well.

Quartz: As far as covering the entire swath of India’s electorate, is the bottom half of the economic pyramid using Twitter?

Jaitly: One of the most exciting things about Twitter for me personally in the last couple of years is how eclectic use of the service is. I’ll start with an example that’s not about elections. You’ll recall what we did during [cricket player] Sachin Tendulkar’s final farewell. We all know Sachin has wide appeal across socioeconomic strata and if you were on Twitter watching the hashtag #thankyousachin in November, 2013, it was pretty self evident how many people were joining Twitter to connect and converse with content in real time—with his farewell in real time. They were tweeting to Sachin and receiving back his picture in real time. Particularly because Twitter is built on SMS [short message service via mobile], I think that if you were to talk to the BJP, if you were to talk to Congress, they would tell you the wide range of people across the country who have embraced using Twitter in these ways.

Quartz: I want to rewind back to you personally and you running an election from a digital standpoint in 2009 with Google and then fast forward to this election in 2014: can you talk about the differences in how the election has played out on a digital platform and what you’ve seen from your two vantage points?

Jaitly: So in 2009, a lot of the work I was leading with Google in that election’s context was largely one way, which was ensuring political parties had websites; that their websites were optimized for the Google search engine.

The biggest sea change in the last five years is that people now have power. Citizens now have an unparalled ability to make their own choices about what kind of information, people, and organizations they want to follow, and have the ability to influence and create media and narratives with political parties, with candidates, with news organizations in an elections context.

We at Twitter are in the business of ensuring that everyday our users are deriving value out of our platform through the opportunity to follow content, converse with other users, and to self-express. And so if you look at the India Today Group’s Live Election Show, every Friday night, citizens across India can tune into a show where for a full hour, they are using Twitter to ask questions of candidates from the national political parties. They are using Twitter to decide who performed best in the debate. They are using Twitter to ask Arnab Goswami questions live on air. They’re using Twitter to participate in Q&As that leading candidates from all political parties are engaging in. That to me at a personal level is what I’ve observed to be gratifying—to give people newfound agency.

Quartz: Can you talk about the role Twitter has played in movements, in stoking middle-class movements in India, specifically, and also comparatively to other places in the world where Twitter has played a role?

Jaitly: What you saw in India in 2012 is a great example of how Indians use Twitter, and a few tweets come to mind. There was the tweet of the young woman who believed she was being arrested illegally on Parliament Street in New Delhi and that tweet was retweeted thousands of times, including by Bollywood figures. There are tweets from many political leaders, including Arvind Kejriwal, from that period saying “Meet at India Gate at 6pm for the protest.” So what you see in the media is a distinctly Indian use of the service in the context of democratic conversation, which has been anchored in organizing, anchored in engaging influencers, anchored in connecting to news organizations.

Quartz: People are being hypercritical of the media in this election which is nothing new. Putting aside the notion of “paid news” for a moment, the idea that this conversation in the newspapers, in media, and between journalists happens in a disjointed way from what is actually happening on the ground in India is a common criticism. Do you think that Twitter is a part of that? For example, if I were just looking at Twitter and trying to figure out what the major issues in the election were, I don’t know that I would find that the price increases of basic staples are the No. 1 concern of most of the electorate because the Twitter audience is not really necessarily the type that is tweeting about price increases. Do you see the Twitter universe as being slightly isolated from the wider electorate?

Jaitly: Twitter is providing a bountiful window into the roar of the crowd in India. For instance, one of the things we’ve enabled in the runup to this election is ensuring Twitter Trends are available in many more Indian cities. You can now see Twitter trends in 22 Indian cities from Amritsar to Pune to Trivandrum. So when I talk to journalists who for years were perhaps unable to get such a real time public window into the mood in any particular city, now they’re able to go on Twitter and search the conversation in real time.

Quartz: Twitter is able to render in all of the country’s languages, but do you see those language groups interacting with one another? What are the differences you’re noticing in the context of the election in those different groups of users?

Jaitly: In an Indian context—such a diverse country, so many different languages, exceedingly heterogeneous—I think the power of Twitter is amplified because you have an opportunity for a voter in Chennai, who perhaps hasn’t had an opportunity to connect with the conversation in Delhi, to not only keep track but to ask questions and rally others and be expressive about the conversation in Delhi. I’ll give you a great example. My grandmother lives in Nagpur in central India and she enjoys Aaj Tak, of course the most popular Hindi news channel. She, on her phone, types in “follow aajtak”—no @ symbol, nothing—and sends that to Twitter short code, which is 53000, and she now receives tweets from Aaj Tak in real time as SMSs, which is phenomenal.

Quartz: Have you had to train politicians or political parties to use Twitter, or has it been mostly an organic process?

Jaitly: Candidly, it’s been both. The Twitter service has been available for years in this country, so you have politicians who have been moving to the service for years. But we, too, have been investing in that process intentionally. One of the untold stories here is how entrepreneurs across India have seen value in being creative on the Twitter platform. I mentioned ZipDial, BrizzTV, Frrole is another one—that’s three Bangalore companies that have seen the Twitter platform as a space to innovate and create value in an elections contex,t and there are many more.

Quartz: When you walk into a room with a politician or a news organization, how do they view you? What is their perception of Twitter and has that changed since you first came here?

Jaitly: One of the exciting things about working for Twitter and leading on behalf of Twitter in a business, in an elections context, is that your business partners, they take Twitter personally. And so the conversation in the room about Twitter at once is about their audience strategy, right—how they’re thinking about driving core objectives through the use of Twitter—but then it is also about them as people on the platform. They’re interested in understanding, as people, how they ought to be optimizing for the service, interested in learning about the history of Twitter.

Follow Thane on Twitter @ThaneRichard. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

Read more of our Indian elections obsession:

Silicon Valley is using India’s elections as a PR exercise—and it’s working

There’s one place Arvind Kejriwal can still be a common man—on the banks of the Ganges

India’s markets are having a pre-election rally, but it’s foreigners doing the buying

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