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There are major shifts and challenges underway in political communication in Tamil Nadu politics as in other parts of India. According to the ‘Internet in India Report 2022’, India is second largest country with 759 million active internet users after China and followed by the United States. More curious is the distribution of this data that 360 million are from urban India and 399 million are from rural India. Another study reveals that over 50% Indians are active internet users. There is growing number of WhatsApp users with 530 million, followed by YouTube with nearly 450 million, Facebook with 410 million and Instagram with 210 million users in India.
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been riding the crest of this social media wave with close monitoring and application of human, party-political, financial and government resources with deep dive strategy and reasonable success for close to a decade. All these developments in terms of usage, application and expansion of social media tools are beginning to redefine the course, content, narrative(s) and the outreach of politics in India. The underlying challenges are far beyond the electoral outcome or successes aimed by the political parties. BJP is further investing and exploring to exploit this medium in the coming elections with other political parties both at national and state levels stunned by the new tools of political communication, technological depth and strategies of deep penetration.
It is highly significant to acknowledge that social media platforms are beginning to transform the political landscape, influencing the way elections are run, campaigns are managed, and voters are being mobilised besides the mass circulation of political content. There is a growing evidence to suggest that social media platforms are turning into fertile ground for the spread of misinformation, fake news, conspiracy theories, hate campaigns, disinformation through clever manipulation of social media algorithms resulting in political, regional and communal divisions. Along with other critical concerns such as data privacy, disinformation and digital divide, the information and technology (IT) wing of political parties have become war rooms of political competition through application/exploitation of social media tools. The techie is the new ideologue.
Tamil Nadu has one of the highest internet users’ ratios in terms of both urban and rural internet users. The use of labels, hashtags, Facebook, WhatsApp and X (formerly Twitter) in political communication is more common among the urban, literate and professional classes. But there is an emerging social media industry with heady cocktail of popular cinema, memes and remix with tremendous outreach potential cutting across the rural and urban divide. In the process, allegations and counter allegations are traded with playful derision of the opposition and sanctioned political discourse. The BJP is reinventing itself in usage, adoption and application of social media tools in Tamil Nadu with complex strategies of promotion of personality cult and cultural identification because of the strong political and ideological resistance against the party itself. The BJP is also cautiously resetting the political agenda and attempts to redefine the political narrative with special focus on Tamil Nadu and its political culture.
The rejuvenation of (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi as a political brand with development image and the Dravidian parties free Tamil Nadu as a political project executed through social media platforms and leaders like Annamalai are ideal components of this strategy. BJP is readapting its media strategy and social media applications to meet the challenge in Tamil Nadu with enormous flow and diversion of funds for social media networking more than grassroots party work. The padayatra of the state BJP president Annamalai is a pure social media networking than an ideologue or a leader marching with a clarion call for transformation, enabled by the collaboration between the social media marketing and the covert funding channels for the party. This type of political promotion is posted on public platforms without any verification of the credibility of leader(s) and full disclosures of the sources of funding. This is not altogether a new phenomenon in Indian politics but the systemic transfer of party and public funds to the social media networks needs attention.
The real challenge for the BJP and even for other Dravidian parties like the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) is the level of political awareness among the public. It is more important to acknowledge the fact that an average voter in Tamil Nadu is more confident whether the stories shared/planted are true or false as indicated by a recent Harvard University study (2022) on the effects of social media on voters with experimental evidence(s) from an Indian election. A critical dilemma in the future is how to decipher hope and promote peoples’ voices in politics in the age of social media networks run on Artificial Intelligence (AI) driven algorithms with fake news, hate campaigns, communal divide, disinformation and political propaganda.
(Prof. Ramu Manivannan is a scholar-academic-social activist in areas of education, human rights and sustainable development through an initiative “Multiversity.” He is currently the Visiting Professor at the Global South Institute, Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, Colorado, USA.)
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