War for ballot fought in cyber space

Last Monday, two cyber incidents happened. One boomeranged on Narendra Modi, the BJP Prime Ministerial hopeful, while the other arose curiosity among his followers. The good news for Modi was the buzz created by his personalized Holi greetings to followers on Twitter. But within hours, over enthusiasm by a section of his warriors virtually hit him as Wikileaks took to twitter to debunk as fake their claims of an endorsement of Modi by its founder Julian Assange.

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Welcome to the war for the ballot fought in cyber space this summer as the 2014 election is not fought on the streets alone. Facebook, Twitter, Google Hangout, WatsApp, and Youtube – you name it and every tool is used. Hashtags are hurled at opponents like ‘brahmastra’. Supporters, paid and otherwise, are out in strength to transform themselves into trolls to malign someone else’s leader. With the war on, #Pappu, #Feku and #YoKejriwal among others are fighting to manage and sometimes manufacture perception and debates thus helping to maintain the propaganda machinery.

It was the Tahrir Square protests in 2011, which nudged the Indian politicians to the challenges and opportunities of social media. Even before, our politicians had realized social media’s multiplier effect. In 2011, L K Advani’s blog was two years old, Modi was already on twitter and Shashi Tharoor had to quit Union Ministry following controversy over IPL erupted on twitter. They were the early birds but it took the anti-corruption movement of Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal to show the power of cyber tools in mobilizing youth to take on UPA government on corruption.

When Kejriwal formed AAP in 2012, his backroom boys were once again active mobilizing supporters, reaching out to people to convince them why they fell out with Anna Hazare and building the AAP brand. They brought transparency into the ways of mobilizing man and money. People started to get a feeling of involvement, techie-supporters developed applications for donations and a full-fledged cyber cell was set up.

With over 15 crore youth to vote for the first time in this election, none could turn its face against the new media. It was like ‘Hobson’s choice’. Modi knew it in 2009 itself and dived into it. He built a team of young professionals to manage his cyber persona. Modi tweeted his mind on issues, greeted prominent personalities on their birthday and remembered great men on their death anniversaries. His supporters flooded social media with statistics on Gujarat to build a development man persona for Modi. He ‘hung out’ with party workers on Google, made BJP start providing live feeds of his rallies and discussed issues over a cup of tea and streamed it live on internet. Reaching out to many was his goal and he built his claim on being Prime Ministerial candidate.

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This dragged a reluctant Congress to go aggressive on social media as the party and its leaders, including Rahul Gandhi, were badgered by BJP and AAP. The problem for Congress was the reluctance of Rahul to enter social media. The party conceded space to BJP and AAP by its hesitance. Congress woke up only after BJP trolls trended #Pappu, which could mean a simpleton, to make fun of Rahul. The Grand Old Party retaliated in style with #Feku to target Modi to depict him as a leader who just floats wrong information. Later, senior leaders Digvijay Singh, Kapil Sibal, Shakeel Ahmed and Manish Tewari and young brigade led by Deepender Hooda MP became active on social media to take on anti-Congress propaganda. Rahul finally did a Google Hangout earlier this month.

In such platforms, the drill is same for all parties. Congress, BJP and AAP are doing it big. What the players have to keep in mind is that there are 16.48 crore broadband users while 14.30 crore could access internet on their mobile phones. The social media handlers have to be glued to what is happening, check whether opponents are up to and target them, share videos and news links laudatory about own party and negative about opponents.

All the big ones have their own core cyber team deciding on what to share and make it a trend. Messages are sent from the core team to streams of supporters across the country who tweet it or post it on Facebook and other platforms. The core teams look for opponents’ embarrassing tweet or statement to corner them.

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A member of a party cyber cell explained the modus operandi. They have identified around 20,000 supporters who will set the ball rolling by tweeting with a pre-decided hashtag conveyed to them through mails or WatsApp message. “This help in making it a trending subject like #Pappu and #Feku. Both were generated hashtags and not spontaneous. We also monitor the social media and give a fitting reply whenever needed,” he said.

A small move can be disastrous. So one has to be careful, he warns. The core team will also see to it how to increase follower base, even by buying followers.

Smaller parties also have not shied away with CPI(M) being the latest entrant on Facebook and Twitter. Sharad Pawar (NCP), Lalu Prasad (RJD) Mamata Banerjee (TMC), Omar Abdullah (National Conference) and Aditya Thackeray (Shiv Sena), and their parties came on social media. Pawar is going to have a Google Hangout soon. Not to be left behind, Samajwadi Party has bought rights of a Billy Joel song ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ and adapted it for “Man se hain Mulayam Irade Loha hai” (He is soft-hearted but iron-willed), which were shared in social media.

A sting operation last year had shown that at least a dozen IT firms several small companies were offering services to politicians to enhance their image and malign opponents. The sting operation by ‘Cobrapost’ claimed that some of the service providers told undercover reporter that they generated debate on Sardar Patel’s legacy and against Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar after the Patna blasts. One of the conversations also purportedly showed attempts to malign Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi.

Though internet is having a bigger role in the 2014 campaigning, no leaders or experts expect it be the game-changer this time. At the best, a study claimed, it would be a game influencer in about 150 constituencies. But parties are not willing to leave the field open for opponents as internet penetration is increasing even in rural households.

(PS: An edited version appeared in Spotlight section of Deccan Herald on March 23, 2014)

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