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Can social media be a useful tool this election?

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MUMBAI: The largest democracy of the world is set for the “big fight”. The General Elections are just a month away. The biggest challenge in front of the parties: to woo the public/voters who have have grown in more ways than one, thanks to the social media and the availability of information on the finger tips.

The requirements of the political parties to win the voters confidence: more than just promises. And thus, they are doing everything possible to grab the voters’ attention – from being present on news channels and spending big moolahs on advertising, the political parties are doing everything to be actively involved with the voters on the social media.

And if elections and social media both have become so big, the FICCI Frames 2014 could not have missed having a session on the raging topic. Thus, “Internet and Democracy: Interloper or Catalyst?” – a session that discussed if internet is a mere communication tool and an intruder into our privacy or is it an unparalleled minefield of education, community-building and a catalyst for social and economic change.

Anchored by BBC Global News senior anchorperson Jon Sopel, the session saw panelists President Obama’s campaign PR expert Roger Fisk, Google India public policy and govt relations head Chetan Krishnaswamy, NDTV.com managing editor and NDTV director of strategy Suparna Singh, NowFloats.com founder Ronak Samantray, Harvard University Berkman center for internet & society Mike Best.

Sopel brought to the fore the examples of Egypt and Libya because of which established social media as a tool for gaining freedom and ending the misery.

Fisk elaborated on Obama’s election campaign, which is termed by many as the first political campaign in history to truly exploit the power of the social media to spread the word, garner support and engage people. “My experience in social media is that it helps amplify human nature. It lets people have dialogue with each other. Social media opened up the political campaign to people and gave them a chance to be part of the campaign - up, close and personal.”

But cut to homeland and Singh didn’t sound optimistic about social media and politics, at least not in the present edition of the elections. She thinks it can become a catalyst of change, but we are one election away from it. “There is only limited exchange of opinion of social media today and is mostly crowd-based anger,” she remarked as she spoke of the recent incidents in Delhi between AAP and BJP supporters. “The #ViolentBJP and #NaxalAAP trended a week ago but if we take a closer look into such trends we will see how we are losing on an opportunity of using the social media well. People on twitter don’t want to listen to others but only want others to hear what they want to say. There is just too much noise.”

Nonetheless, no one can deny the fact that the internet has become an important part of people’s lives today and social media is also a major part of it. On the growth of the internet, Krishnaswamy says that since 2000, internet has seen a tremendous growth in India. He predicts that by the end of this year, there will be 250 million users and believes that by the 2020 there will be half a billion internet users. “The most interesting part of it is that the next 100 million users will come from non-English speaking sections of our society,” he says while adding that language content has increased by 57 per cent in the recent past and hence, it shows how center of gravity is shifting.

“The urban voter is using a lot of time online and looking at choices. And if a politician has an online presence, he/she is seen as more dynamic than others by these voters,” points out Krishnaswamy.

Taking a cue from here, Singh adds, “Social media is also helping new political parties like AAP and independent candidates, who don’t have huge advertising or PR expenditure, to spread their word among people as well as interact with them.”

The discussion concluded with the thought that social media is more than a communication tool but it hasn’t been exploited completely. Changes are needed before it can be used as an important tool, especially during elections.

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