The downside of Narendra Modi’s social media savvy

Formative years.
Formative years.
Image: REUTERS/Amit Dave
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Media and social media will be major battlegrounds for political parties in the run-up to the 2019 general elections in India.

Prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is extremely resource-rich and tech-savvy in both conventional media advertising and on social media. But the largest opposition party, the Indian National Congress, which won three crucial state elections last month, may be catching up. The Congress’s digital game in particular has stepped up over the past two years or so, with party president Rahul Gandhi, by some metrics, giving Modi a run for his money on Twitter.

Meanwhile, fake news, which has sometimes even led to mob violence and lynchings, dogs both conventional and social media.

To better understand where media-related issues might be headed from here, a history lesson is in order.

Media’s Shifting Terrain: Five Years that Transformed the Way India Communicates is a new book by Pamela Philipose, a journalist and researcher, who is also the public editor for the digital news outlet The Wire. In the book, Philipose discusses key moments for Indian media and social media that occurred between 2010 and 2015.

Philipose spoke to Quartz about her book, as well as other media-related issues that promise to be crucial in the upcoming general election.

Edited excerpts:

Your book focuses on events from 2010 through 2015. Why did you write about this time period?

Around 2010, the rest of the world was emerging from the 2008 recession, which had led to incomes declining and media industries suffering. But in India, things were gung-ho. The next year, the country saw the India Against Corruption movement, which showed that mass mobilisations were now possible in ways that were not possible even five years earlier, because of social media. There was a melding of content across platforms; mainstream media was forced to acknowledge social media by encouraging their own readers to connect with them online, to retain their readership or viewership. Other events—the 2012 gang rape of Jyoti Singh in Delhi, the 2014 general election, and the 2015 Delhi state elections—were also crucial moments for media in this five-year period, which I call the “mediatised half-decade.”

How did Modi develop his style of media management?

Even when Modi started his career as an RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) pracharak (worker) in Gujarat (in the late 1970s), he clearly understood the role media plays in political projection. When organising events, he’d ensure that journalists knew the day’s programme ahead of time and that they had the resources to send out a copy. The BJP (in 1998) made him the general secretary of the party in Delhi, shifting him from Gujarat because he was such an ambitious man that he was a thorn of the side of the then chief minister (Keshubhai Patel). In Delhi, he had the opportunity to interact with national media, and he made full use of it. But after the 2002 riots in Gujarat, national media descended on the state to raise questions about his conduct in managing the violence, and Modi became resentful. He said national media was giving him a bad name. So he learned to develop media that accepted him, right or wrong. He cultivated them, made himself accessible to them. He got many corporates—large media owners—on his side. Modi’s type of governance appeals to corporates because it means they have a one-person channel to policymaking.

How does Modi use social media?

Modi has always been tech-savvy; he used the internet in its early days, and was one of the first politicians to get on Facebook and Twitter. He would make friends with people who had vast followings, like (actor) Rajinikanth or (novelist) Chetan Bhagat. He would greet Chetan Bhagat on his birthday on Twitter, getting Bhagat’s fans on board. Modi’s usage of social media allows him to put out the messages he wants to, without submitting himself to scrutiny. The fact that we have not had a press conference from him (since he became prime minister) indicates that he has seen value in persisting with this model of communication.

How has fake news and misinformation in media changed over the years, and do you think it is worse now than in the past?

Fake news is as old as the hills. Many classic thinkers—Machiavelli, Chanakya—wrote about the importance of using information like a tool. In Nazi Germany, radios were placed in shop fronts and the information that came out of them was homogenised material that told you how great the Führer was. The Rwandan genocide was fuelled in part by the constant attack on Tutsis on the radio. And in India, the Muzaffarnagar riots (in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh in 2013) were based totally on fake news. But now, it is possible to influence people with information in real time, and in ways that of course Chanakya couldn’t even imagine. For instance, when newspapers report on cow slaughter and gau raksha (cow protection) networks, they put out information like: “20 kilos of meat were transported.” They might add that there’s no way of checking what type of meat that is, but even something like that is enough to actually generate a lot of interest and then bring together a critical mass of people who take action into their own hands.

What trends do you expect to see during the 2019 general election?

Modi made great efforts to reach young voters in 2014, and I think the young cohort will be targeted this time too. Young millennials, born in the 2000s, will be able to vote in this election for the first time, and there’s a huge number of them.

I think we will see more polarisation among voters, and more attempts to use media to polarise. In the (2017) Uttar Pradesh state assembly election, WhatsApp groups were a large part of campaign machinery. At every level, party workers could activate people, who in turn activated a number of people within their neighbourhood. So there will be point people who will be given the responsibility of bringing people to booths and posting on WhatsApp groups.

We’re also going to see a lot more use of Instagram and other visual platforms. Images jump across literacy barriers. And young people don’t like to read too much, so if you can have a nice video or meme, it matters much more than three lines of text.

What do you expect mainstream media will do? 

I think they will stick with Modi as their best bet. The corporates who own the media will want their outlets to continue more or less along the editorial lines that they have already adopted. There may be some independent initiatives, but even those will have to hedge their bets. Meanwhile, the Congress, because of its vote base, will have to go slow on seeming gung ho about corporate India. It’s not as if they won’t be gung ho—if you look at their record, they’re as gung ho as the BJP in some ways. But they cannot project themselves in quite the same way.

Read Quartz’s coverage of the 2019 Indian general election here.