WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram are apps that became popular among the masses as they helped reconnect with long lost friends and also helped people stay in touch. Interestingly, with the kind of reach and influence these apps had, they soon turned into weapons in the hands of political parties. Political parties began to recognize the numerous ways in which it could influence users. Most political parties today have dedicated social media cells, consisting of young members, to help boost the party’s online presence. In Kerala as well, the UDF, the LDF and the BJP are trying hard to fully use social media in their favour.
Cheap internet data in India is a major reason why India has so many people on social media. Considering India has a sizable population of youngsters, political parties figured that social media could be put to use to woo their target audience. From memes, attractive posters, reels etc political parties are leaving no stone unturned to catch people’s attention. With just days left for the Assembly election in Kerala, political parties are in the midst of a heated social media campaign.
In Kerala, CPI(M), Congress and the BJP use various platforms for campaigning. On Instagram, CPI(M) Kerala has the largest number of followers, followed by the Congress. BJP Kerala has the least number of followers. On Facebook, the BJP is the leader with 7.16 lakh followers, followed by CPI(M) and then the Congress.
According to a source in the Congress, the party has more than 30,000 groups of WhatsApp. These groups are centrally coordinated. There are separate WhatsApp groups for each constituency and also separate ones for each mandal. While these groups are used for better coordination, they are also used by the party for pushing campaign-related content. Apart from the groups for party members and workers, the Congress also has groups for common people. The party sends attractive posters, updates and counters in these groups hoping to woo the voters. A highly-placed source revealed that more than 10 million people are part of WhatsApp groups that belong to the Congress party in Kerala.
The Congress has multiple teams working in tandem to ensure the party’s efforts are highlighted on social media. While the AICC Social Media team is headed by Mathew Antony, KP Anil Kumar is in charge of social media from KPCC. Jyothi Vijayakumar, the woman who had shot to fame in 2019 for her apt translation of Rahul Gandhi’s speech also plays a key role in the team. Anil Antony, the son of former defence minister and senior Congress leader AK Antony, is in charge of the digital media. Hasiba Amin and Lavanya Ballal are National Coordinators in the AICC team.
When asked about the team, Mathew Anthony, AICC In-charge of Kerala’s Social Media campaign said, “We have a sizable number in our team. We have a working mechanism in place and members of the team work from different parts of the state. There is a central team and also smaller teams in place to ensure better coordination.” The average age of the team would be between 24 and 27 years.
“We had a brilliant team for the Lok Sabha elections and now the team is far advanced in terms of aggressively putting things across. We are campaigning for winning this election, we are not in a defensive position in terms of campaigning. Kerala has seen a historical change in the Congress with the next generation featuring in the candidate list. We see a significant advantage of social media especially in penetration. In 2016 a report said social media can influence decision making in 70% of the constituencies. In 2021 this number can only be more than that,” added Mathew.
Though the Congress wasn’t too keen to share the finer details of the strategy, they shared with TNM the larger strategic points being adopted by the social media cell. Apart from creative, the social media strategy has not been outsourced to any agency and is being worked upon by the AICC team in coordination with the KPCC team. According to Mathew, this helps ensure the data is only with them and it also helps keep the distribution and dissemination in control. The social media cell also coordinates with the coalition partners, especially the Muslim League. They have an understanding about sharing the content and also the distribution.
When asked about what makes Congress’s campaign unique from the other political parties, Mathew said, “Unified effort is being put in and the branding adopted by us is very different. The colour, theme, mood, branding etc adopted by us is based on research analysis. We ask a lot of questions to the people instead of making political statements. We hope to make the electorate think about the questions we raise.”
The Congress party uses Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, however, WhatsApp remains the main platform used for communication. While the teams involved handle social media accounts for the party, individual leaders’ campaigns are handled by their own teams. If any candidate requires assistance then the central team steps in.
Trending topics, issues to be raised, approach to be adopted etc is all handled by the media committee of the Congress party. The social media team submits recommendations to the media committee based on the trends. The AICC media department is being handled by Pavan Khera.
To find out more about CPI(M)’s social media cell, TNM spoke to Dr V Sivadasan who is coordinating the party’s social media and IT cell activities. CPI(M) is banking on its organizational machinery to send home the message. “WhatsApp is the platform predominantly used for communication. More than social media, political campaigns and word of mouth is what has worked for the CPI(M). We predominantly believe in physical campaigns but we also do use social media. There is no dedicated team for social media but as part of party works, we have people supporting the campaign. Party workers are the ones who also suggest strategies. Our campaigns are all about involving party workers. We ask them to use social media too for campaigns.”
CPI(M)’s main initiative is to fight fake news and highlight the truth. “As soon as a fake news surfaces, the concerned team in the local area finds out the truth and puts it out. There is no central team constituted for this but the mechanism in place is quite efficient and is helping bust fake news,” revealed Dr Sivadasan.
While the BJP also uses WhatsApp for coordination and communication the Kerala unit revealed that it has no data about the total number of groups that the party had. Almost all these groups are centrally managed and often information as well as analytics from campaigns are passed on to the party cadres and members. Just like the Congress, the BJP also has groups for the common people.
The BJP has around 40 members working as part of the social media team in the state capital. Coordinators from every district work in coordination with the central team. The average age of the members of the team would be around 35 years old. There is an organizational structure in place but the efforts are largely coordinated from Thiruvananthapuram. BJP’s main reach is on Facebook followed by Whatsapp, Twitter and then Instagram. “BJP’s page in Kerala has the greatest number of followers when compared to other parties and the page is very active. Our strategy is based on the motto of ‘Puthiya Keralam’ or new Kerala. Our idea is to give positive messages based on this motto,” said S Jayashankar, IT Cell coordinator and Convenor of Kerala BJP’s hi-tech campaign.
All the BJP candidates have their own teams to handle social media. BJP has the greatest number of candidates contesting in the upcoming elections and hence coordinating it centrally makes it a herculean task, hence it has been left to the candidates’ teams to handle their social media.
The BJP has been roping in senior national leaders to participate in their digital conclaves. “We organize digital conclaves which are telecast from the official social media handles. BJP is the first political party to organize a digital conclave in Kerala. Lot of top national leaders have participated in the recent digital conclaves. Through these digital conclaves, the idea of a new Kerala is being conveyed to the people. Kerala has a very high digital penetration hence digital campaigning has a lot of relevance,” said Jayashankar.
“However, people dislike repetitive campaigning and aggression hence we have a very soft approach to our campaigns. Our entire strategy is based on E Sreedharan ji’s development model. Our campaign is largely based on education, employment, development and good governance,” revealed Jayasankar.
BJP has a national team coordinating with the local team for all the campaigns. The BJP social media’s team also looks into countering fake news. “We are very clear that we don’t indulge in trolling. We believe trolling is abuse. If you check our posts from our handle, people belonging to some extreme groups indulge in abusing us because of our stand on terrorism, love jihad etc. But we never abuse and troll posts of other political parties. Despite this people say we are intolerant, we don’t delete any comments nor do we reply to respond to trolls,” said the party’s social media convenor.
Also read: Kerala Assembly elections: Here's a checklist if you're voting this year