Parties using technology to impress Indian voters

Books Monday 08/April/2019 19:31 PM
By: Times News Service
Parties using technology to impress Indian voters

Muscat: The Indian elections are fast approaching. In seven phases starting on 11 April, over 900 million people will take part in the world’s biggest democratic exercise. With technology playing a huge role in the 2014 elections that swept Narendra Modi and the BJP to power, what’s the state-of-play for the latest political campaigns and how are they reaching out to voters?
Here, an insider who was part of the last election in India, reveals for the first time some of the hi-tech tricks employed globally to sway voters, and how they are widely used in the Indian election system.
We have withheld the author’s name but have verified his expertise and knowledge of the subject matter. In this special expose, this is what he had to say about India’s upcoming election:
The power equilibrium in the country will either maintain its status quo in the hands of the BJP or the Indian National Congress (INC) may return to power, after its defeat in 2014.
While the competition seems to be between only two major political parties — the BJP and INC— the real fight is happening behind closed doors, in front of computer screens and on social media platforms, rather than in rallies and on the streets. 48 nationally recognised political parties will be vying for over 900 million votes across 29 states in India.
There has been a shift in how political parties view and approach elections over the past decade.
There has been an unprecedented influx of money, technology and professionalism that was largely absent in the past.
To back party cadres that operate on the ground, these parties now employ boutique political consultancy firms that have been formed exclusively for them to offer a technological and data-driven edge over the competition.
In the past seven years, several large scale consultancies have cropped up. These consultancies employ many young professionals from varied backgrounds like media, management, software development, law, design.
Since their inception the purpose of these agencies has diversified from providing mere logistical and intellectual support to finding flaws in the Indian Election Commission’s guidelines to creating technological products for the parties to seamlessly disperse their messages by flouting the rules of existing social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter and messaging channels like WhatsApp and ShareChat.
Besides this, these companies also provide end-to-end solutions to the parties, such as gathering intelligence about people’s sentiments in a particular state, or working with the party cadres to move the needle away from existing norms and towards professionalism and innovating on how technology can be married to the parties’ ideas. But more than anything, these consultancies provide a roadmap for parties to navigate the labyrinth of socio-economic and caste-laden vote banks and give them solutions to leverage them to win elections.
Call Centres
Political parties in India are taking full advantage of the high unemployment rate in tier-2 and 3 cities in India. They offer short-term employment contracts (6-8 months long) to young people with empty promises of further extension once the elections end.
Tasked with providing behind the scenes support to foces on the ground, this group consists of about 75 unemployed youth — usually below the age of 25 — and they are then divided into two groups. Those who can make calls and work in a makeshift call-centre and those shuttled to the social media team.
Each candidate in the call centre is then given a cheap, throwaway “burner” phone, which they use to make calls to people in remote villages all over India to spread pre-recorded messages by political leaders. This team then takes the political temperature of a particular area and this information is then compiled in an Excel sheet which is then forwarded to the planning team of the consultancy.
The planning team then organises events, rallies and other outreach programs for local leaders so that they can sway the audience in their favour.
These calls are also used to understand key focus areas which the leaders need to work around. These points are then accumulated as bullet points for speeches for the local political leaders who now have targeted notes to address the audience.
Political consultancies buy phone number data from telephone network providers, local recharge shops and often outsource number data gathering to other national media organisations who are paid depending on the veracity of the phone numbers that are provided.
Social Media
Most of the practices of the social media wing of these consultancies take a leaf out of Donald Trump’s 2015-16 election campaign and work done by Cambridge Analytica.
Their approach to social media is three pronged: puffing up the achievements of the candidate, tarnishing the image of the opposing candidate and spreading false news about the opposite party.
For spreading false news, they mostly come up with the most outrageous scenario and/or plot point and push that news on messaging platforms. This news is not spread on Facebook and Twitter to avoid scrutiny by the Election Commission. For example: In a state election, news was spread on WhatsApp that the son of a renowned politician was arrested with a pound of narcotics in his car, and that his father had gotten it swept it under the rug.
The social media eco-system created for and by these political parties rely heavily on Facebook fan-pages, fake Twitter handles, Twitter bots and fake handles on YouTube and other social media platforms.
As the election nears, Dark Ads are released on Facebook. Dark Ads basically act as Facebook posts that do not appear on a particular page’s timeline but are visible to the audience for a period of 24 hours-or-less.
Besides this, a number of fake profiles are created in Facebook that are used to abuse the opposing candidate and propagate fake news on social media and these profiles are terminated within 48 hours to avoid scrutiny.
Weaponising WhatApp
The youth hired in smaller cities are handed two to three cellphones each and are asked to simply ‘forward’ messages on WhatsApp. Each phone has close to 1000 WhatsApp groups in them that cover voters in almost every district, every village, every state in the country.
These phone numbers almost never engage with the members on the groups but only share messages as directed.
Other aspects
Several keywords and pressure points of the competing political parties are then identified by the social media team, the call centre team and the ground research team.
These words are then used in media advertisements across all platforms - Newspapers, radio and television. Many political parties have tied-up with international advertising companies to help them create advertisements that are then spread in the region where the elections are to take place.