Thousands of groups, targeted messaging: How DMK and AIADMK are using WhatsApp

WhatsApp has been a virtual ‘wingman’ of sorts for the DMK and AIADMK, helping the fronts woo lakhs of voters in different corners of Tamil Nadu.
A graphic of a WhatsApp chat with a background of WhatsApp logos
A graphic of a WhatsApp chat with a background of WhatsApp logos

A pandemic-time election calls for heavy dependence on technology. As Tamil Nadu heads to its Legislative Assembly polls in April, its two major Dravidian fronts – the DMK and the AIADMK – have moved a lot of their clashes to the internet. But even online, the biggest wars are being fought on one app. WhatsApp, the parties say, has been a virtual ‘wingman’ of sorts, helping to reach lakhs of voters in different corners of the state

Representatives of the IT wing of both parties tell TNM that they have devised elaborate game plans on WhatsApp, with the help of their 24X7 live IT cells. The ruling AIADMK has 80,000 WhatsApp groups so far. These are operated by 1 lakh foot soldiers handpicked by the party.

“Our groups are not generic. They are cohort specific. We have groups of doctors, students, working professionals, auto and lorry drivers, entrepreneurs, self-help groups, farmers, homemakers, pensioners and many more. So each message on each poll issue is curated for a specific group,” says Aspire K Swaminathan, AIADMK’s IT Wing & Joint Coordinator (Media Relations).

The AIADMK calls this strategy micro-targeting. “We know that one size doesn’t fit all. So if the issue is about waiving off farm loans, we send it to farmer groups. If it’s about jobs, we send it to young voter groups, and if it’s investment and education, we send it to working professionals and students respectively,” he explains.

Not just cohorts, AIADMK also does demography specific targeting. For instance, the party takes note of the caste classification and major poll issues of constituencies. “For instance, if it is about the 10.5% reservations for Vanniyars in educational institutions and government jobs, we know that there are 120 constituencies in 12 districts with a major Vanniyar population. We target it to voters there,” he says.

The party’s one lakh WhatsApp foot soldiers are always on the move, collecting all possible data on voters. They get details of constituencies, age, sex, political affiliations and pincodes, before categorising them and adding them to groups.

Though the AIADMK set up its IT wing in 2014, it was only in May or June 2020, with the pandemic and upcoming elections, that the party decided to penetrate deeper into its voter base.

“Earlier we had office bearers till the district level. But with COVID-19 and elections, we were uncertain about physical campaigning. So our IT cell officials interviewed young, literate and tech-savvy candidates down till booth levels and formally appointed them. This is our WhatsApp army now,” Swaminathan adds.

The office bearers are appointed at district, zonal, ward, pakuthi and booth levels for maximum reach.

The DMK has taken a slightly different approach to voter base reach. In addition to its poll manifesto, they have also released district-wise manifestos that trace primary issues of its constituencies and voter concerns down to the local level.

“We have traced issues down to every booth and every street. We know people’s long-standing wishes and main concerns down to each booth. In every street we have traced the main problems. This is the data we are using to reach out to voters via WhatsApp,” says a representative of the party’s IT wing.

The DMK IT task force also stresses on two-way communication. The party’s WhatsApp task force also ensures that voters convey local level information back to the IT headquarters. However, the party has refrained from cohort-based groups and targeted messaging based on collection of voter details.

While most of the campaigning is done on WhatsApp, about 20% is also reserved for Telegram, another cloud based cross-messaging platform, which allows large groups with up to 2 lakh members to be formed.

Boot camps to train foot soldiers

The AIADMK started off by holding regular and intensive boot camps over Zoom for their WhatsApp army. Over many months, these people were trained on using WhatsApp, Twitter, Telegram and other platforms.

“We taught them to navigate algorithms for best reach, best ways to add members to groups, ways to keep members engaged and reduce attrition, etc. We basically function like a corporate entity,” Swaminathan says, adding that the camps have now reduced in frequency.

The DMK too has held multiple boot camps for its office bearers. “We have had tech majors – WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter – teams fly down to teach our IT task force on how best to use these apps. We then convey all this information to our WhatsApp army across districts,” DMK’s IT representative says.

Most importantly, with regard to its messaging, the parties take care to bust propaganda against them while promoting their ideas and promises.

“There are about 89 lakh new voters in Tamil Nadu who have never witnessed a DMK government. They might be thinking of giving the DMK a chance. But we tell them about corruption cases, land grabbing allegations, lack of industrial growth, and law and order concerns prevalent during the DMK regime. And reassure them on the administration efficiency of the AIADMK government,” Swaminathan claims.

The DMK too has been careful to bust fake news about the party and promote the poll promises made to each of the districts.

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