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Civic Media Project

Eric Gordon, Author

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Implication of social media on electoral participation in India


Pallavi Guha

This case will review the implication of social media networks on voter turnout in the recently concluded 16th parliamentary elections in India. This emerged as the biggest election in the world, comprising of 815 million registered voters . It also noticed an increase of 8.19% voter turnout, as compared to the previous election held in 2009. In the past fifteen elections, the voter participation has been an average of 59.37% (Appendix 1). It surpassed that average once in 1984, with a turnout of 64.01%. Since then, this has been the only instance in the history of independent India when the voter turnout has been 66.4%.

Voting is a democratic right, which asserts the electoral choices of the citizens of the country. However, not all registered voters engage in the electoral participation. The fact that India does not have compulsory voting is an important aspect affecting its turnout. 

Unlike in western democracies specially the USA, voters from rural areas and economically disadvantaged are more inclined to cast their ballot as compared to the more educated and urban-bred voters. Past literature on voter behavior and participation has been limited to the western democracies, neglecting the newer democracies of the global south. 

Based on the various macro and micro theories of voter turnout, the turnout is dependent on the individuals, countries, and the election . Internet Based Communication technologies (ICTs) are gradually emerging as an important factor-influencing turnout. There is no denying that sharing of information is easier owing to ICTs, thus motivating individuals to vote. 

During the ten phased elections in India, Facebook and Twitter witnessed a surge in sharing of voting images (selfies with inked finger), messages and hashtags, specifically by the millennial generation. 

Thus creating a campaign in their network to encourage voting. Some of the major factors resulting in the increase of voter turnout include the increase of registered voters and the use of ICTs in political information and discussion. ICTs successfully steered the campaign for voting rights in urban areas. Publicized as the first social media elections in India, the social media platforms helped create an environment of positive peer pressure, and encouraged the right to vote in their network. The 2014 Indian election saw a rise in motivation in the voter due to the country’s internal political situation and the hyper-information sharing in voters. Some of the popular hashtags during the ten-phase elections were #MyIndiaMyVote, #VoteIndia, #GetInked, and #Govote. These figured prominently in the searches conducted in Facebook and Twitter, generating an average of 150 tweets and re-tweets and shared-status messages in Facebook. 

These hashtags indicate that the citizens were not only voting, but also using the social media platform as a mechanism to encourage their network to exercise their right to vote. The influence of social networks in voting is well documented in research (Fosco et al. 2011). However, this case study addresses networks based on ICTs, where processing and sharing of information are faster, and not random physical social networks. 

Past research on voter turnout in western democracies indicate that the turnout depends on the utility of feeling valued, which is also the premise of the Rational Choice Argument (Blais and Young 1999). But in some cases, pure rational choice theory is unsuccessful in explaining voter turnout. Scholars only emphasize on individual utility and decision-making affecting turnout (Singh 2011), overlooking the other areas relevant internationally. 

Social media engagement in voters can change the feeling of utility to that of obligation. 

In this case, it spontaneously created a sense of obligation in their network, by sharing the various voting hashtags and, in some cases, selfies (Appendix 2). This obligation becomes a part of the ethical consideration and civic duty (Birnir 2007). However, in this case study, voting could be a result of “social media obligation” or “technological obligation” on the part of the voters. The technological approach (also called the digital peer pressure approach) is helpful in curbing political apathy by using technological peer pressure on the voters; it may be an emerging paradigm. The social media platforms inculcate a type of group behavior that is an effect of interaction within these groups—by the way of using the various hashtags. Turnout increases significantly due to the group dynamics (Geys 2006).

Rational choice theorizing is based on the premises that voter turnout depends when personal benefits exceed personal cost. In this context, the personal benefits would be participating in the elections, and also being a part of the coveted “responsibility peer group.” Participation in the online engagement using the vote hashtags and selfies is perceived as an act of responsibility. The press in the past has consistently blamed citizen disengagement for low voter turnout (Wolfinger 1991). Historically, it has been seen that the changes in communications can alter the role of media in elections (Tolbert and McNeal 2001). These scholars have also noted that the media including the Internet provides information and stimulates motivation in the voters in electoral participation. In the past, there has been inadequate discussion on the mechanism of motivation and interest on voting. Internet has also undergone changes in the past decade. ICTs now include social media networking platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which in this election have been able to engage voters by sharing hashtags and creating a mechanism of peer pressure. Some of the common tweets were: “I have voted now it’s your turn”; “Do your bit” (Appendix 2). However, this is not a foolproof mechanism as Internet access is still limited to urban areas; significant populations of absentee voters also include non-resident citizens. 

This case study is an indication of the effect that ICTs can have on voter turnout in a country—a place where Internet penetration is still limited to the urban and semi urban regions. Described as the first social elections in the largest democracy, digital peer pressure has the capacity to inspire people to cast their votes by sharing information and encouraging their network to do the same.

References

Birnir, Johana Kristin. "Divergence in Diversity? The Dissimilar Effects of Cleavage on Electoral Politics in New Democracies." American Journal of Political Science 51, no. 3 (July 2007): 602-619.

Blais, Andre, and Robert Young. "Why do people vote? An Experiment in Rationality." Public Choice 99 (1999): 39-55.

Fosco, Constanza, Annick Laruelle, and Angel Sanchez. "Turnout Intention and Random Social Networks." Advances in Complex Systems 14, no. 1 (2011).

Geys, Benny. "Rational Theories of Voter Turnout: A Review." Political Studies Review 4 (2006): 16-35.

Singh, Shane. "Contradictory Calculi: Differences in Individuals' Turnout Decision across Electoral Systems." Political Research Quarterly 64, no. 3 (September 2011): 646-655.

Tolbert, Caroline, and Ramona McNeal. "Does the Internet Increase Voter Participation in Elections?" Annual Meeting of American Political Science Association. San Francisco: American Political Science Association, 2001. 1-40.

Wolfinger, Raymond. "Voter turnout." Society 28, no. 5 (July/August 1991): 23-26. 
Appendix 1
Source: Website of Election Commission of India

Appendix 2

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