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Are social media influencers a game changer in Indian politics?

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  • 8 min read

As India prepares for the 2024 general elections, social media influencers have emerged as a formidable force in shaping political narratives. Political parties actively engage with influencers, recognising their potential to sway public opinion and drive election campaigns. As this trend gains momentum, social media influencers are becoming hot properties, and their popularity is being sought after by various political entities.

Here we delve into the growing influence of social media stars on Indian politics and the implications they present ahead of the 2024 elections.


Rise of influencers in Indian politics

Not so long ago, before Jio disrupted the cosy telecom industry, the internet was a luxury for most Indians. However, things took a drastic turn after Jio launched with free internet plans. Data plans tanked as other telecom companies had to compete with Jio, which was on a mission to provide free data to the people. Thus began a truly digital age for the country as now even the have-nots have at least the internet within their reach.

Whatever the reason, this tug-of-war between Jio and the others led to cheaper internet and call rates for Indians. As of 2022, India has the world’s third-cheapest mobile data plan.

In the digital age, social media has become a powerful tool for reaching and engaging with a vast audience. Social media influencers, who wield considerable influence over their followers, have become sought-after assets for political parties.

They offer a unique opportunity to connect with the younger demographic and niche communities, which traditional media may not reach as effectively. As the average age in India is below 27 years, which is below the global average, it is no wonder the political parties are after these young influencers.

Influencer marketing firm Zefmo says that the organised influencer marketing sector will breach INR 3,000 crore n 2023-24, with a revenue share of micro-influencers increasing from 9% in 2022-23 to 14% in 2023-24.

As the 2024 elections approach, political parties recognise influencers’ strategic value in shaping voters’ mindsets and driving their election agendas.


The lucrative market for political promotions

The demand for influencers in the political landscape has led to a lucrative market. Influencers, both big celebrities and nano-influencers with a specific niche following, are offered substantial sums to create content promoting political parties’ agendas.

Thus, it was no surprise that the Rajasthan’s Congress government announced that they would pay influencers up to INR 5 lakh per month to promote government policies on various social media platforms. Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) was not far behind. BJP leaders in Nagpur, Maharashtra, invited several social media influencers to woo young voters in the city. BJP leaders have also interacted with several influencers in Kashmir. Many big and small influencers covered Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra (Unite India March).

So, what is in for influencers? The market is very lucrative, and if you have a few thousand followers, you can get a piece of the pie. Influencers have reported being offered incentives, kickbacks, and significant financial compensation for engaging in politics-related content.

“Some political parties ask us to make six tweets monthly, which easily makes more than two lakh rupees ($2,437) monthly. It’s a very lucrative market,” a political commentator with almost 200,000 Twitter followers told Rest of World.

This has raised questions about transparency and accountability, as such promotions often lack proper disclosures, potentially misleading their audiences.


Influencers as tools for party propaganda

Influencers’ power lies in their ability to influence public opinion through covert messaging subtly. Unlike traditional media, influencers can sway opinions without appearing overt or obscene in advertising.

Although the Indian government released guidelines for celebrities and social media influencers, it was mostly to tackle the menace of false advertising. Politics-influencer nexus was conveniently left out.

Unlike digital marketing, where you have to be overt, an influencer can be covert and subtle while implanting the ideology of the respective political party. Political parties find value in this approach, recognising that even if an influencer influences only a portion of their followers, it can significantly impact politics and optics.

“In politics, overt messages never work while covert messages influence voters,” said Harish Bijoor, a brand strategist. “Nearly half of an influencer’s audience does not understand what is motivated and gets swayed. If an influencer can sway 50% of [their] followers, that is good enough for politics and optics”.

One such case is of a popular Youtuber — Ranveer Allahbadia — who touts himself on LinkedIn as a “social media entrepreneur, YouTuber, motivational speaker, leadership coach, and soon-to-be author”. He has been engaged in conversations with government officials on his Youtube channel over the past few weeks but didn’t disclose that these were paid collaborations with the government until he received online backlash.

For the next Lok Sabha elections, BJP is eyeing comedians, bhajan singers, food vloggers, dancers and other influencers to boost the party.


Ethical dilemmas for influencers

The increasing involvement of influencers in political promotions has raised ethical dilemmas for some content creators.

Many influencers understand the responsibility they hold as public personalities and are mindful of potential repercussions for their audience if they engage in politically motivated content. Some have chosen to avoid creating such content altogether, concerned about maintaining their credibility and trust with their followers.

Even those influencers who are not into this stuff are first offered kickbacks, then money, and after that, the political parties create problems for them.


Government ft Influencers

In May, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi celebrated his nine years in office with a meetup of 500 social media influencers organised by the BJP. Recognising their impact on the BJP’s success, the party has held similar influencer meetups nationwide.

Various ministers of the Indian government appeared on Youtube channels giving rise to allegations about misappropriation of public funds.

Also, recently many Union ministers appeared on the Youtube channels of influencers. This has raised eyebrows as the video description states ‘co-presented by MyGov’.

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology issued tenders to select influencer marketing agencies for empanelment with MyGov, a citizen engagement platform of the Indian government.

The controversy surrounding these interviews came to light when Apar Gupta, founder of the Internet Freedom Foundation, questioned whether these interviews were related to a tender floated by the government in March. He further raised the issue of public money being used to fund influencer interactions with senior government officials and called for transparency in such processes.

While the BJP is yet to respond to these claims, Monk Entertainment, the digital media organisation co-founded by influencer Allahbadia, refuted the allegations that he was paid for the collaboration. However, concerns persist about the lack of transparency in MyGov’s operations in these domains.


Will influencers drive politics in the future?

Social media has proven to be a significant factor in shaping voter mindsets in India. With an extensive user base and diverse demographics, platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and WhatsApp have become virtual battlegrounds for political narratives. However, all is not well regarding social media and elections.

Social media and politics have a rather old relationship, as seen with Facebook’s interference in the 2016 US Presidential elections. The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal exposed the raw data of millions of Facebook users to Cambridge Analytica, which led the digital campaigns for then President-elect Donald Trump. This shows the power of social media in influencing people. Now, combine the same model with on-screen media influencers, and we have one of the most influential marketing mechanisms.

With political parties actively engaging influencers, their role in influencing public opinion is only set to grow. However, the rise of influencer-driven political promotions also raises ethical questions regarding transparency, accountability, and the need for proper disclosures.

As the country embraces the digital era of politics, striking a balance between leveraging influencers’ reach and maintaining integrity in political messaging becomes crucial. The impact of social media influencers on Indian politics is undeniable, and their role in shaping the outcome of the 2024 elections will be there for all of us to see.

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Kumar Hemant

Deputy Editor at Candid.Technology. Hemant writes at the intersection of tech and culture and has a keen interest in science, social issues and international relations. You can contact him here: [email protected]

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