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

He’s entitled to a free cab ride.
He’s entitled to a free cab ride.
Image: Reuters/Adnan Abidi
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If you lived in New Delhi and went out to vote today, you could have used Uber’s recently launched India service to get there and back for free. All you’d need to do is enter a promo code into the Uber app to get two rides worth up to Rs 1,000 ($16.60) between 7am and 7pm. You wouldn’t even need to vote. And the thing is, it actually wouldn’t make much sense to use the codes to vote—the maximum distance a voter needs to travel to get to a polling booth in Delhi is 2 km (1.25 miles), a much smaller fare. The California-based transportation network’s promotional deal may end up having the perverse effect of encouraging voters to skip voting and go see friends instead—specially since election day is a holiday in Delhi.

Uber probably has good intentions, even if the execution leads to undesirable outcomes. Its Silicon Valley peers Google and Facebook are also using India’s elections as an excuse to build their brands, but their exploitation of the aura of significance that surrounds voting in the world’s largest democracy is arguably more pernicious. Those companies are using the elections to sell a beguiling myth: that the internet promotes democracy. The reality is more complicated, as the outcome of the Arab Spring has shown, and as polemical thinkers such as Evgeny Morozov have argued.

Google is perhaps the classiest of the lot. The search company released a rather lovely (if emotionally manipulative) YouTube video featuring 97-year-old Shyam Saran Negi, identified as India’s first voter. Pitched as a public service announcement—the video is called #PledgeToVote—the advertisement’s message could not be clearer: witness our awesome search prowess, reaching even into the remote mountains of Himachal Pradesh. Although Negi had popped up in Indian papers every now and then, he was hardly a household name until Google introduced him to nearly 2 million Indians.

That’s not all. Google has a special page crammed with news and resources; partnerships with several media companies to conduct online “hangouts” with politicians; and a Klout-like “Google Score” that it uses to measure politicians’ influence. “The ‘Google Score’ is intended to inform, not to endorse or oppose any candidate,” the website notes.

The Indian press, eager to fill pages, has lapped up what Google has fed them. For instance, pretty much every newspaper in India reported a survey finding that Narendra Modi of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party is the most Googled chief minister in India—failing to note that he is also the only chief minister in the running to lead the country.

That remarkably unenlightening survey also showed that 37% of urban voters are online, while 42% are undecided about whom they will vote for. “To be sure, the two sets needn’t necessarily be mutually exclusive,” Mint, an Indian business newspaper wrote by way of analysis. The New York Times also picked up on these dubiously connected numbers, while quoting Google India’s director of marketing, Sandeep Menon, pronouncing: “It’s really important to engage with the undecided voter especially in urban areas.” Whether or not such reporting helps promote democracy, it has worked out well for Google, which has its name plastered all over the Indian and international press at a time when Indians are paying attention to the news.

Compared to Google, Facebook is losing the marketing battle. Its election campaign is a somewhat lonely Indian Elections page, which is a retread of something Facebook tried in the United States in the 2012 elections. But there’s more: Facebook also has a cumbersome “I’m a Voter” feature, which the social networking site’s community managers need to break down into three steps to explain. Like Google, Facebook espouses neutrality while pointing out how incredibly important its platform is to democracy: “Of the 800+ million people eligible to vote in India, 170 million of them are on the Internet and well over half of Internet users in India are using Facebook,” a spokesman told BuzzFeed.

It’s not just Silicon Valley firms that use the elections to win new business. As India Today, a newsweekly, points out, restaurants are offering discounts to people who have voted (India marks voters’ fingernails with indelible ink to ensure people don’t vote twice). Some gas stations are offering 50 paise ($0.008) off on petrol, and cinema halls are offering free popcorn. But unlike Facebook and Google, none of these businesses are packaging their products—food, petrol, entertainment—as one with the very existence of democracy.