The shifting walls!
Political rallies in every street, party offices buzzing in every nook and corner of the city and a whole lot of friction was what elections in India looked like until recently. There was a time when elections meant every wall in the city would have posters on them. Sometimes they would have posters of one party on top of the posters of another party leaving people confused as to why Rahul Gandhi is posing with a lotus. Clearly, first-come-first-serve didn't apply on these walls.
This election season though is a completely different ball game. The battle has moved from the streets to inside the houses. No, they're not putting up posters on the walls of your house! The wall on the street has been replaced by the Facebook wall and instead of rallies, we have a bunch of people abusing each other in the comment section these days.
The epidemic started during the 2014 election when first-time voters decided to show off their fingers with ink on it. This is where people realised political views and opinions get weightage on social media. Since then, one thing led to another, the cute democracy-promoting photos were soon replaced by politically incorrect and offensive photos. Since then, opposing opinions have continuously clashed on the battlefields of Facebook leaving hundreds, perhaps even thousands annoyed, and millions offended.
"It's like every time I open Facebook, I see some party people fighting with another party on the comments section of a 'news' report. That's what election campaigning has come down to these days," says Bhavneet, the author of this article, while breaking the fourth wall.
"The biggest indicator that the political campaigning has moved online is the fact that one of India's largest parties is running an online campaign to add the prefix 'chowkidar' to their followers' name in order to show support for them. This is a first in India," says Shadab Aziz, a popular radio jockey of a Hyderabad radio station.
In fact, every party has some sort of an extensive ongoing online campaign. Be it sponsored 'donation' posts or videos of their leaders giving power-packed speeches (including just saying the name of your election symbol 20-odd times), the power of an internet connection is obvious this election season.
"A lot of it also has to do with cheap internet in the country right now. Everyone has access to the internet, thanks to the big brother in Mumbai, making this a very useful mass of people for the parties," Shadab reasons adding, "If internet cost 499 for a gigabyte, I think all the posters would have stayed on the road."
However, the spillover of political campaigns on social media is not all nice and happy. With limited laws to control social media posts, a lot of pages have popped up on all sides of the political spectrum to spread their own political propaganda. The only problem with this is there's no way any of it can be verified leading to a lot of fake news being peddled in the process, influencing the voter, right in their bedroom.
In fact, the problem of fake news had reached such hazardous levels that Facebook had to step in and remove roughly 1,000 pages that were allegedly propagating fake news. "The most disturbing part of this news is that Mark Zuckerberg is the deciding authority, he is the court that decides which pages in India are spreading political misinformation. He's the one deciding what goes out and what stays. That's how limited our control of social media is," says B Teja, a Hyderabad-based social media manager.
"There are some dark allies in every city where the locals have warned you not to go. This election has managed to get those dark allies online with pages where you shouldn't wander off. It's unimaginable the amount of hate and misinformation," a distraught Teja adds.
Another thing that has happened with the campaigning shifting online is that the secret ballot isn't secret anymore. Some believe the ballots no more secret than high school dating gossip. "You can install all sorts of covering equipment around the EVM in the polling stations so that your choice remains a secret but the memes you share gives it all away. One look at a person's wall and you can tell who his 'secret ballot' is going to," Teja informs.
As Indians, we are used to finding unique solutions to everything. According to the model code of conduct, no political symbols are to be seen before the elections. So, every statue of a political figure is covered with a cloth. Unless you're in Uttar Pradesh, then a lot of cloth goes into covering up elephants (for which someone is going to be paying for if the courts are to be believed). It is to be seen how the Election Commission puts a cloth on the social media propaganda pages.
Despite all these changes in how political parties are going about campaigning this election, one thing that has remained constant. Widespread misinformation has been here for ages and looks like is here to stay. "I will vote for Congress because that's the party that got us Independence," says Hamza, a cab driver while discussing these elections (Whatever happened to a 'secret' ballot). "They fought the British for us, and now they are fighting the elections, so we have to help them by voting for them," added a determined Hamza. On being told that the two are completely different parties, Hamza threatened to apply surge prices to our ride.
On asking if he knows the candidates' list of his constituency, he said that didn't matter. "My grandfather told me that the party fought the British and saved our country and that's all that matters to me and my entire family. No matter who they field and what he's done, the vote is going there only," a determined Hamza added. To our relief, he had forgotten all about the surge pricing.
However, he added that he does miss the excitement that elections got to the street. "I've seen three elections and I can recall there were party offices of all parties everywhere. Drums going on all day, people dancing, sloganeering and rallies. In fact, I remember two rallies of opposing parties crossing each other on the same street while the police held on to their sticks and hearts. I think that's missing this time," Hamza adds getting nostalgic about political tensions. No, seriously!
Irrespective of who wins the elections and what that has in store for the country, one thing for sure is that this election is going to be a historic one. In terms of how social media affects the masses is to be seen. "I wouldn't rule out local IT cells in every district by the next elections," said Bhavneet, breaking the fourth wall and disregarding the fundamental rules of journalism adding, "I wouldn't be surprised if we have 'vote from home' by the next one!"
Also, there's a silver lining, a whole lot of paper is being saved.