By Nishant Arora
New Delhi, March 12 (IANS): In 2014 when the world's largest democracy organised the 16th Lok Sabha polls, the impact of social media on the voters was minimal and traditional media ruled the turf.
The number of Internet users in India was around 25 crore in 2014. Today, it hovers around 55 crore. Smartphone usage crossed the 40-crore mark last year in the country.
Facebook has close to 30 crore monthly active users in India, WhatsApp over 20 crore and Twitter somewhere over 3.4 crore.
It is evident that social media is going to play a key role in shaping up the political campaigns for various parties in electing the 17th Lok Sabha as the seven-phase voting begins from April 11.
"The number of Internet users has more than doubled during this period and a majority of these new users access the web through mobile devices. With various political parties having dedicated social media cells, this medium will definitely play a big role in this election," Prasanth Sugathan, Legal Director, Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) told IANS.
Active on Twitter since 2009, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had just 40 lakh users on May 26, 2014. Rahul Gandhi was not even there; he joined Twitter in April 2015.
Today, Modi has a massive Twitter following of 4.63 crore and Rahul over 88 lakh.
Not just Twitter, Modi has 4.3 crore followers and Rahul 25 lakh on Facebook. Narendra Modi app alone has seen over 1 crore downloads.
In such a scenario, fighting disinformation and how it affects voters would be a major issue in this election.
"Targeted messages based on religious and ethnic differences could polarise the electorate and affect the diverse cultural fabric of the country," added Sugathan.
There were 81.5 crore voters in 2014. The total electorate is 90 crore this time.
"The 2019 elections will be fought predominantly on social media. Already, social media has emerged as a vibrant platform for discourse in our democracy," said Thomas George, Senior Vice President and Head-CyberMedia Research & Services Ltd. (CMR).
Remember that this is the first general election where 400 million millennial "digital natives" will be voting for the very first time.
"As such, we anticipate the forthcoming months in the run-up to the election to see social networks emerge as a major battleground for misinformation as well as checks," George told IANS.
The owners of global social media platforms are already in a huddle over how to curb the spread of misinformation and fake news in a country where deep mobile penetration has made Facebook, its messaging service WhatsApp and micro-blogging platform Twitter available at the fingertips of millions.
(Nishant Arora can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)