Sunday April 21, 2024

Social media influencers are India’s new election campaigners

Some boast millions of followers, others mere thousands. Some boast millions of followers, others mere thousands

March 28, 2024
The picture shows Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook logos on mobile phones. — AFP/File
The picture shows Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook logos on mobile phones. — AFP/File

BENGALURU, India: Indian social media influencer Chandni Bhagat has been creating devotional videos on Instagram for three years - now she’s mixing politics with her daily dose of religion.

Bhagat is one of thousands of social media influencers mobilised by political parties in the runup to elections with the aim of wooing a young and ever-online India.

Last year, 18-year-old Bhagat - who has more than 200,000 Instagram followers - was among 100+ content creators in the central Indian city of Indore invited to meet workers from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Since then, her Instagram grid - dominated by the Hindu Lord Shiva - was punctuated with at least five posts promoting the BJP, one backing its regional women’s health scheme, another showing a smiling selfie with a former minister from the party.

“I attempt to talk about things that will benefit my audience,” said Bhagat.

India has more than 800 million internet users and the world’s largest takeup of Instagram and YouTube, so courting top influencers to wave party political flags makes sense.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP has since last year reached out to several hundred social media influencers, all of whom have clout on either Instagram or YouTube.

Some boast millions of followers, others mere thousands.

They are offered ministerial interviews - bypassing the more critical mainstream media - along with photo ops and themed posts spreading Modi’s message. The campaign culminates in general elections this April and May, with travel, food, religious and tech content creators among the myriad of influencers tapped for their reach.

“Last year we had influencer meets across segments where we told them about the party’s policies, the implementation, the achievements by the government in nine years and requested them to recreate and reshare their own experiences,” Devang Dave, part of the BJP’s election team, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “It gives a lot more credibility if it comes as a third- party voice.”

Nor is the BJP alone in this strategy.

Vaibhav Walia, who runs social media communications for the main opposition Indian National Congress party, told Context his party actively courts influencers to leverage their popularity.

“We try to reach out to like-minded people and many of them have been posting for us,” said Walia.

“(Even) if (the content) is not directly Congress (related), they are voicing opinions which are aligned to our political ideology and stand.” Late last year, the Aam Aadmi Party in Punjab tried to enlist influencers to promote their initiatives.

At the same time, the Bharat Rashtra Samithi in the southern Indian state of Telangana hired some 250 influencers to promote their cause in state elections.

Yet the strategy raises concerns, too, given India’s growing problem of online misinformation and all the risk that fake news poses to the world’s biggest democracy

Transparency is also a worry, say researchers.

“We don’t know if there’s a monetary exchange or the expectation of a quid pro quo of some kind — which blurs the lines and bring in the fuzziness,” said Prateek Waghre, an executive director at the Internet Freedom Foundation.

The idea of Indian influencer-based campaigning dates back three or four years to farm protests in New Delhi, when online posts amplified the demos, according to political consultants.

“Influencers and local YouTube news channels had a huge role to play in helping propagate the message,” said Ankit Lal, founder of a political consultancy called Politique Advisers.

“That is something that caught the BJP’s eye. They needed to reach out to a newer and younger audience and utilise the already-established influencers.”