Wednesday, 25 April 2018   |   

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Karnataka election fever: Social media turns mercurial

BENGALURU: When the BJP organised a mega social media conclave in Palace Grounds in August last year, its leaders clearly knew of the significant role social media was going to play in the upcoming election.

Eight months later, when the BJP set up a war room for poll campaign, the other major parties — the Congress and the JD(S) — promptly followed suit. For the first time in the state, all the three parties appear to have taken social media as an effective tool.

While the BJP and the Congress have set up their war rooms, in Malleswaram and on Cunningham Road respectively, by deploying a mix of professionals and party workers who spread messages on WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and Youtube, the JD(S) has a small team of volunteers with IT background handling social media at the party’s head office in Seshadripuram.

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The high penetration of social media in Karnataka makes it an unmissable platform for political parties. Balaji Srinivas, the convenor of the BJP's social media cell, estimates that of the 4.9-crore voters in Karnataka, 3 crore have access to the internet. “3.5 crore have access to smartphones, 2.5 crore have access to Facebook and 2.4 crore can watch Youtube. With this kind of internet penetration, we can do a lot of campaigning online,” said he.

The BJP’s 40-member cell mostly has IT professionals planning strategy, creating content, distributing and monitoring it. “Though the party’s IT cell was formed in 2010, a huge team has been set up to handle social media in this election. In the past eight months we have created a structure ,” Balaji said. The party claims that it has created 23,000 active WhatsApp groups and has around 4,500 volunteers to handle social media.

The Congress’s 25-member cell is a blend of party workers and professionals. Srivatsa YB, convener of its state social media cell, said the social media team formed in August has a good number of professionals not just from IT but also from art and design background.

Apparently, messages generated on the Congress party’s social media cell can reach at least 12 lakh people through WhatsApp at any given point in time. The party in fact has state, district, assembly and booth-level coordinators exclusively for social media.

While party leaders are aware of the impact of social media in these elections, there are also worries about the occasional negative impact it could have at times. “A lot of fake news spread on social media will adversely affect the party. While we would, by and large, focus on promoting the government’s achievements, at times we do end up in counter-attack mode,” KPCC state working president Dinesh Gundu Rao said.

Unlike its bigger counterparts, the JD(S), with a large rural voter base, woke up to social media much later. In fact, the party’s Facebook page was created as recently as in February. Facebook live videos, which initially got 50-100 views, garner up to 8,000 views presently. That, clearly, is no mean achievement. A team of three members spend 5-6 hours a day to rustle up support.

Somashekhara K, working president of JD(S)’s IT cell, said that the party has created 3,000 WhatsApp groups too. “We are for two-way communication. The party uses social media not only to spread the message but also to receive feedback from our supporters. We get hundreds of messages specially from the rural population on the selection of candidates and problems in their areas,” Somashekhara said.

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