DOES SOCIAL MEDIA INFLUENCE VOTING BEHAVIOUR?

Manoj Pandey*

I am neither a psephologist nor a political analyst. I am a media/ social media watcher trying to share my take on how social media might (or might not?) influence voting behaviour. In the first part of this discussion, I would mention some preliminary and obvious things about elections and voting behaviour but allow me to indulge in that because it would contextualise the second part which forms the core of this essay.

 IT IS NOT ME, BUT A BUNCH OF FACTORS THAT CAST MY VOTE

Elections, as we all know, are decided on many local, regional and national-level factors. In any society, more so in the highly diverse Indian society, an individual attains an identity that is a mix of dozens of palpable factional identities. I might be a Bundelkhandi, a Rajput, a male, semi-literate, farmer, strictly vegetarian, worshipper of Lord Hanuman, and so on. On top of these identities, my upbringing, life-circumstances, social position, occupation, friendship circle, and many such other factors decide my leaning towards a particular vichardhara (political ideology), party or individual. The level to which I can accommodate opposite views or become rigid, get frustrated with the system or be forgiving, get irritated and impatient or remain cool, and other emotional and social traits also influence how I conduct myself in a particular situation.

Let us examine how my voting choice is shaped, say, for the present parliamentary elections. The accompanying graphic displays my personal views on some important aspects. Each of these possible determinants has been given a scale, from green to red. On the scale, there is a mid-point, and two tipping points- one on the green side and one on the red, marked as TP. In my case, I have an overall good feeling about a particular party and its candidate, so the pointer goes towards green. The party’s boss in whose name votes are being sought also appeals to me. In fact, I like him, his party and his candidate in many other aspects. These are also aligned with my caste and religion, which are big factors in my area. On the other hand, my traditional source of income dried up due to this party’s policies, and I apprehend that my prospects might be further harmed if this party comes to power.

Let me underline one important thing in this graphic: We do not vote rationally by analysing each favourable and unfavourable aspect and then forming ‘a considered opinion’. Even if we analyse them, we do not vote based on our analysis. We are swayed by one or a few factors, and whichever reaches a tipping point decides our vote. In my case,

My fear of being harmed due to the policies of this party is so strong that it crosses the tipping point towards the negative (red) side, and despite so many positive factors in favour of the party, I would silently cast my vote against the party.

This explains, at least in part, why ‘freebies’ make such an impact on voting. That also explains why voting is so unpredictable despite strong loyalties based on caste and religion.

Please also note that on the graph, the tipping point on the negative side is closer to the middle and that on the positive side is far towards the left. I have done so to signify that voting is likely more influenced by negative factors (which cause anger, and a desire to punish). Owing to this human tendency, we often see that even one unpleasant decision leads to anti-incumbency, undermining all good work that the ruling party might have done.

It also happens that the favourable aspects of a leader, party and/or candidate tend to move slowly and generally do not jump to the tipping point. A person is likely to reach the tipping point on the favourable side (and, so, he/ she will definitely vote in favour of that candidate) only when he/ she is deeply influenced due to ideology, identity considerations, personal gratitude or a ‘wave’. In other words, voters are more likely to vote against a person due to dissatisfaction and anger than to vote in favour of a person because of satisfaction and loyalty.

Please also note that since there are many candidates in the fray, which button is pressed on the voting machine is decided by the interplay of pulls and pushes towards negative and positive sides for the candidates/ parties in question. This makes the election much more complicated than what psephologists and analysts make us believe, based on the percentage of people of different castes, religions and genders in a constituency.

 SOCIAL MEDIA IS MORE MIRAGE, LESS MIRROR, MUCH LESS REALITY      

 Where does social media fit in this matrix?

Facebook represents one type of social media, in which primary content creation is easy and instant. On such platforms, most people are almost equal participants; they don the caps of a creator, content pusher and commenter at the same time. Though in recent years, youngsters like to be seen more on Instagram than on FB, and create quick content there too, FB is still massive. Instant messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram also cater to quick content creation.

On these platforms, political engagement is usually in the form of making a quirky statement or raising a slogan, sharing an embarrassing photo or video of the opposite camp, re-publishing a favourable post and making a strong comment. People share their frustrations, anger or appreciation and be happy that they did their bit in amplifying the anger or appreciation. Leave aside the committed ones, people are likely to quickly move forward and visit non-political posts.

Then there are social media platforms that need greater effort in content creation; blogs, YouTube and to some extent Instagram can be counted in this category. Twitter (now X) comes in yet another category, in which there usually are a few creators while most others are visitors or followers. We can also include FB pages in this category. Content creation on such platforms is easy, but the platform’s algorithm is such that only established influencers can have an impactful say.

YouTube and twitter type of platforms act like one-way broadcast media, and that makes them relevant for elections. In most cases of political engagement on YouTube and Twitter, the creator/ influencer publishes a post that suits its followers or subscribers. He/ she seldom has an interest in balancing the topic or even rarely praising the leader (or party) he/ she berates. He/ she is a cunning marketer in the garb of a socially and politically alert person with the responsibility of serving unbiased opinion. He/ she tactfully runs the cycle of bias, which in turn keeps feeding his/ her popularity and generating income for him/ her.

In all platforms, the engagement gets interesting, even heated, and then ‘viral’ when people amplify a topic or take strong positions for and against that topic. The end result in the first case is sloganeering and a sense of victory, and in the second case, toxic and abusive fights.

Let us now relate people’s social media behaviour with their likely voting behaviour, keeping in mind what we discussed in the previous section: We are driven to vote for or against someone mostly due to one or more extreme reasons rather than a dispassionate analysis.

When we engage in a political discourse on social media (What a euphemism for uncompromising political positioning!), we only amplify what we believe in, and we amplify it before those who are already converted to our way of thinking. We use it as a mirror, pleased with the cheer we get on our faces in following the crowd of like-minded people. When we see our like-minded social friends cheering our leader or our favourite political party, we also feel happy like the proverbial Arab on seeing a mirage in the middle of a hot desert.

Yes, there is an offshoot of this engagement, which is highly relevant to our voting behaviour: We get convinced of our own views, and there is a likelihood that one or more of our views reaches the tipping point. Sometimes, as in WhatsApp and Telegram groups, members also directly influence others towards a particular viewpoint and goad them to go vote.

However, assuming that by amplifying our frustrations, anger or happiness, social media improves our chances to vote in a particular way would be simplistic. There are greater chances of the opposite happening: Like most intoxicants, social media usage – especially heated political engagement – results in an orgasmic feeling, followed by a period of inaction, lethargy and, sometimes, guilt. While the hardy and committed ones are likely to overcome this, there is a fair chance that the political ‘high’ of those in the fringe is satiated by supporting or abusing someone on social media, and they do not feel any urge to go out and cast their vote. Many of those who engage passionately/ virulently on social media might even feel that their social engagement has achieved much beyond what their single vote could have achieved.

Please also recall the observation that anger and frustration are more likely to reach the tipping point, much more than appreciation. Perhaps social media has a strong role here. The success of social media movements such as Arab Spring, Me Too and Black Lives Matter points to that. Speaking of voting behaviour, it stands to reason that if the opposition is able to create social media buzz to highlight the failures and seemingly wrong decisions/ actions/ utterances of the ruling formation, it would drive the fence-sitters to the tipping point, thus making them vote against the party in position. 

I am tempted to give some real-life examples from the current elections. As a social media watcher, I have been visiting all types of entities on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. I find a number of YouTubers, with even millions of subscribers, who dutifully dish out highly biassed videos in favour of or against top political leaders and their parties. Their videos get millions of views and thousands of comments. But who are the ones they cater to? Mostly their followers who have been intoxicated into believing their social media god’s tales and waiting for the next dose. These followers get immense satisfaction when the next dose is served (“This is THE truth!”) and do their duty of commenting and/or sharing the post with like-minded friends and relatives. When such a post reaches adversarial social media participants they fume over it, thus amplifying their own opinion (“See, how shamelessly they are spreading lies!”).

On most social media platforms, especially on Twitter, politically-oriented engagement leads to ‘trending’ or getting ‘viral’. This trending of a topic is seldom organic; topics are usually ‘trended’ by interested people by the use of tech tools and/or an army of people who repeat the message multiple times. All sorts of marketing/ branding/ influencing tricks are used to manipulate the system. The social media team of big parties and political bosses make their masters believe that the trend in their favour or against their adversary would make a big impact on the poll outcome, it does not stand scrutiny. Trending a political topic is like slogan-shouting in a political road-show in which the majority of the people are either of one’s own party or have been brought in trucks to make a crowd. Even if the entire crowd comprises genuine supporters, and they shout slogans on top of their voices, that does not influence others to vote for the candidate/ leader.

THE THIRD SIDE OF THE COIN, AND THE FOURTH!

Sorry for trying to look smart by suggesting more than two sides of a coin. Let’s consider this matter as a dice, with at least six faces and those many possibilities.

One important consideration while discussing the influence of social media on voting behaviour is the quantity and quality of the content served and consumed. Social media is browsed and watched more than the mainstream media (which too is consumed more online than in print and on television/ radio), more so by people of the middle and lower ages. In such a scenario, people mostly get information about political events, speeches, etc. on social media. The way social media platforms work, once we browse a topic, more and more content on that topic is served to us from different sources. Thus, we often end up knowing much more about the topic than we could have from one newspaper item or one TV show.  This would certainly have an influence on our opinion on that topic/ person/ party, though the impact might not be too strong and immediate.

Another aspect to consider is the communication social media leads to. Unless the voter is politically alert above a minimum threshold level, he/ she is not likely to cast one’s vote, and cast it in a particular way. To be alert, the voter needs a constant flow of information and actionable prompts. While an excess of communication might act negatively, an absence of communication certainly leads to lethargy and indifference. Comparing it to the physical world, proper social media communication makes an impact much like the social visits by the political leader and his/ her participation in his constituents’ sukh-dukh (joys and sorrows).

The reality is, while a good majority of political personalities bombard the social media to amplify positive information/ views about themselves and negative information/ views about his/ her opponent, they rarely use it for communication with their constituents for building trust.  Of course, this approach (of building trust) needs sincerity and hard work at personal level, not a PR agency or an army of detached party workers. I feel that, for this reason, just good ‘booth management’ (which would include helping voters with information about their booth, helping them in finding their voting counter, helping the elderly to vote, etc) can achieve much more than months of shouting and spreading lies on social media.

Social media is now used as an input for collecting data about voters and analysing it for targeted campaigns. Artificial intelligence is being used more and more for making impactful social media strategies. Let me remind here that an ‘impactful’ social media strategy might deliver greatly in terms of likes, retweets, views and trending topics, but it often does not see the wood for the trees- it provides them new data and tools but it need not make the voter vote in their favour.

I have perused a number of research papers and articles on the subject, and found that most studies, and the mainstream logic, emphasise that social media has a big impact on election outcomes. Some have even tried to establish that the victory of Narendra Modi (=BJP) in the 2014 general elections was significantly helped by social media.

Like any other factor, social media seems to influence public opinion before and during elections. Social media is indeed a powerful tool for information dissemination and communication, but its impact on voting behaviour comes more from its effective use rather than the noise that it creates. In absence of granular data, a trending topic on Twitter might seem highly correlated with an election outcome; however, an inference drawn from this correlation might be fallacious.

In some elections, social media has helped bring out ‘real’ issues and amplified them, which has gone against the ruling dispensation. However, perhaps due to reasons explained above, its impact to help the rulers does not seem significant. Social media can amplify a ‘wave’ when it is already there, but we need leaders, events or actions on the ground for the wave to form and assume a critical volume. Let us not mix up social media noise with the popularity of a political leader/ party/ ideology.  

I find that I have made this article consisting of some motley thoughts rather than a coherent discussion, and it could go on and on. So, let me quickly summarise my assumptions, and say goodbye.

Social media influences every aspect of our lives and it does influence our political thinking. When it comes to politics, it seems to reflect our own opinions or amplify them rather than make us change our opinion.

The decision to cast one’s vote and do it in favour of a particular person or political formation is influenced by numerous factors, and social media is just one of them.

Social media pundits give too much importance to the noise created by influencer-based platforms and try to correlate it with the voting pattern. However, in reality, the crowd on social media often comprises already-converts, social-media-addicts and non-voters.

A voter’s strong stand on one or two aspects is likely to directly impact his/ her voting behaviour more than a gradual shift in his/ her opinion. Therefore, while social media is not much effective in garnering a positive vote, it has the potential to turn anger and frustration to a negative vote.  

Social media is generally used as a one-way communication. It is likely to impact voting behaviour if used for reaching out to the constituents, something that requires sincerity and personal effort.  

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*Manoj Pandey is a former civil servant. He does not like to call himself a rationalist but insists on scrutiny of apparent myths as well as what are supposed to be immutable scientific facts. He maintains a personal blog, Th_ink

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal opinion of the author and do not reflect the views of raagdelhi.com which does not assume any responsibility for the same.

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