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It’s A Social Media & WhatsApp Election In Tamil Nadu
2019 Polls

It’s A Social Media & WhatsApp Election In Tamil Nadu

Sandhya Ravishankar

Sandhya Ravishankar

As campaigning winds up ahead of polling day on April 18, The Lede finds out how important messaging apps and social media were to this election

For every meme, there is a counter-meme. For every video there is a counter-video. Like this one put out within days of the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) releasing several promotional videos criticising the Narendra Modi government over lack of jobs, NEET and GST.

The ruling AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), unhampered by the Damocles sword of their Amma’s wrath hanging over them, now appear to be barring no holds in their battle of wits against the DMK, especially online.

“Because 18-30 year old voters are more than a crore in number and those younger than 39 years of age is close to 50% of the voter list, it is important to take to social media in order to reach them,” said Singai G Ramachandran, General Secretary of the AIADMK’s IT Wing. “Only a certain percentage of these voters are aware of and know of Amma’s rule. As for the rest, we have to tell them what good work we are doing and the negative points of the opposition and it is important for us to tap into social media and WhatsApp for that,” he said.

The AIADMK has its own team and says it does not work with consultancies, something the DMK does. A 6-member state team leads a 750-strong district team. These are members who hold positions. An army of approximately 8000 people across Tamil Nadu works on a voluntary basis across the state, apart from this core team.

“Last election, in 2014, the social media campaign by the Sangh parivar and BJP was very powerful. This election, the Congress and regional parties have also taken it up in a big way.

WhatsApp and social media campaigns happen more in the city, urban areas and among the middle and upper middle classes,” said political analyst C Lakshmanan, Associate Professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies. “WhatsApp is ruling the roost because the young voters are more in number and they are habituated with smartphones and social media. But in rural areas, conventional campaigns are also required.”

The DMK though is the more tech savvy amongst the Dravidian majors and its younger party members in districts outside of Chennai often use WhatsApp effectively to both campaign as well as to spread false information about their rivals. The AIADMK is fast catching up.

Take a look at how the DMK has managed to place its ads on the YouTube channel of the AIADMK mouthpiece NewsJ. This coordinated effort at ensuring that the party is all over social media, YouTube and WhatsApp has managed to draw much attention and mirth as well.

DMK ads can be seen on the YouTube channel of even the AIADMK mouthpiece NewsJ
DMK ads can be seen on the YouTube channel of even the AIADMK mouthpiece NewsJ

“This campaign has been much more about online campaigning in all forms than in traditional media like newspapers, TV etc. If you take our party – in the 2016 elections, the spend on ads in traditional media was 100% and on social media it was 0%. But this time 25-33% of our total spend has been on new media,” said PTRP Thiagarajan, head of the DMK’s IT wing.

Apart from the fact that the young voters are large in number, another reason for the increased focus on social media and WhatsApp, according to Thiagarajan, is that it is cost-effective. This, combined with the high rate of internet penetration in Tamil Nadu, only makes political parties want to explore this avenue further.

“The overall cost of campaign media spend has come down as a result of spending on online advertising,” continued Thiagarajan. “The reality of the world is that it is significantly cheaper and more effective to do online campaigning than it is to do the traditional media campaigns.

If there is a place in the world where the media shift is justified, it is probably India where the penetration levels of smartphones and internet is jumping at huge levels. Tamil Nadu is the number one state in terms of population going online now. In 2016, it was 40% and now it is 70% and it continues to climb. In just three years, the number of people online has doubled. The best place in India now to do online campaigns is Tamil Nadu,” he said.

The DMK has a similar team size as far as its IT wing is concerned – 8000 on average. Thiagarajan says the ultimate goal of the party is to have over one person per booth – an 80,000-strong team which provides information to party workers, candidates and sends information from the grassroots up to the leadership.

Sadly though for the Tamil Nadu BJP, since the DMK was a number of steps ahead in terms of lapping up online advertising space, the saffron party was unable to put out ads in Tamil for its campaign in the state.

There are, as a result, the national ads being put up on YouTube channels of Tamil news television brands like Polimer. These ads, which are in Hindi, are not likely to be understood by the Tamil viewer.

The BJP has only pre-booked national ad space so will have to make do with Hindi ads hitting the Tamil populace
The BJP has only pre-booked national ad space so will have to make do with Hindi ads hitting the Tamil populace

Quirky Campaigns

This set of images was doing the rounds of WhatsApp about a week ago – patently false information attributed to the English news channel Times Now which never carried any such story.

But within the limits of Coimbatore, Salem and Namakkal, the Kongu belt where the AIADMK and especially minister SP Velumani is seen as a strongman, the forward caused consternation, at least for a few days.

Of course it is not known as to where the forward originated from.

Fake WhatsApp forwards doing the rounds using the Times Now logo
Fake WhatsApp forwards doing the rounds using the Times Now logo
It’s A Social Media & WhatsApp Election In Tamil Nadu

Online videos are also being used as a way to defend a party’s stand or hit out against rivals. Reacting to the BJP’s campaign about the DMK being an anti-Hindu party, the rationalist, atheist ideological roots of the party had to take a backseat as DMK’s IT wing videos painstakingly explained that the DMK was far from anti-Hindu.

In urban constituencies, the AIADMK is aggressively campaigning to ensure wins. Households in south Chennai for instance, have already been visited at least thrice by AIADMK cadre to hand over pamphlets with the party manifesto, once to simply wave flags and symbols at the residents and the third time to hand over a neatly folded personal letter from the candidate J Jayavardhan to vote for him.

Jayavardhan, who is the sitting MP and the son of Fisheries Minister Jayakumar, addresses each voter by name in the letter, along with their EPIC number, reminds them of his “achievements” and also makes a number of promises in the personalised letter.

A personalised letter from AIADMK candidate Jayavardhan delivered door to door appealing for votes in his south Chennai constituency
A personalised letter from AIADMK candidate Jayavardhan delivered door to door appealing for votes in his south Chennai constituency

Apart from such novel campaigns, caste-related vitriol is also available for those who react to that poison.

“There is a lot of anonymous casteist propaganda against Dalits and leaders like Thirumavalavan which do the rounds of WhatsApp,” said political analyst Lakshmanan. “Some people use very foul language in caste terms on social media quite openly.”

As a feverish campaign comes to a close, Tamil Nadu’s residents are likely to continue to be bombarded by WhatsApp forwards which are “anonymous” and by propaganda disguised as opinion on social media. Unwilling to come on record, officials with the Election Commission say there is precious little they can do about it.