This election is different in more ways than one. The youth, 45 million new voters, are an X-factor. Not just what they vote for, but how they take that decision. This is the generation that barely looks up from the smartphone (India, by the way, has the highest penetration of mobile telephony). One may not have a regular job or access to good civic amenities, but a person without a mobile phone is a rarity, from the boondocks to the boardrooms.
The mode of campaigning and political publicity too has shifted from the traditional methods. Opinions are made, exchanged and revised not in live debates at the streetcorner alone. Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, TikTok, and ShareChat are the places where thoughts are now born and bred. And most crucially, multiplied. ‘Trends’ are set there, issues made to go ‘viral’.
The BJP, Congress, AAP, the Left, big regional parties, all play this new game now. The EC’s model code of conduct is ill-equipped to deal with this new epoch. Parties, and more often proxies acting on their behalf, now push in paid-for publicity material that’s an amalgam of ‘news’ and advertising on Facebook, Instagram et al. Throw in WhatsApp, and one is talking about footprints that expand exponentially, lakhs or more per day. But it’s skewing the level playing ground.
Parties with deep pockets can whip up a storm. And what’s peddled is not always straight, old-style publicity material, but often a surfeit of fake news and dubious ‘factoids’. The other day, a worried EC, under pressure from civil society and former CECs, called social media head honchos for a chat, and a code of ethics has been agreed upon, to be self-implemented. ShareChat policy head Berges Y Malu, for instance, has volunteered to work with the EC to maintain the ‘legality and integrity’ of social media campaigns. Those two words are the nub of it.