Punjab election: How candidates and parties used social media - Hindustan Times

Punjab election: How candidates and parties used social media

Mar 22, 2022 02:30 PM IST

In what was considered largely a digital affair due to restrictions on campaigning, candidates and parties took to Twitter and Facebook. Here is how they used these platforms to connect with voters:

The 2022 assembly elections have largely been a digital affair. Restrictions on physical campaigning by the Election Commission of India (ECI) have pushed parties and candidates to rely more on digital media. Here, we focus on how candidates and parties used Twitter and Facebook in the Punjab election. For Twitter, we look at the online tweets posted by candidates. For Facebook, we look at advertisement data on posts that circulated on both Facebook and Instagram (which is part of Facebook's parent company, Meta).

As we begin to learn more about the use of social media by political parties and candidates, we cannot afford to rush to conclusions on how social media affects voters. (Mint) PREMIUM
As we begin to learn more about the use of social media by political parties and candidates, we cannot afford to rush to conclusions on how social media affects voters. (Mint)

Our analysis shows that in Punjab, the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) had the largest number of candidates active on Facebook, with a clear advantage for the Congress in terms of numbers of followers. The Congress had the strongest online presence on both platforms, larger than AAP. The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) trails behind, both in terms of candidates active on Twitter, number of tweets and average number of followers. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — a minor figure in Punjab politics — lags far behind. It is interesting to note that while the AAP relied on digital platforms to compensate for its lack of ground organisation, it still did not surpass the Congress in terms of digital presence.

Besides its stronger online presence, Congress candidates were also retweeted at a much higher rate compared to other parties’ candidates. Figure 1 (below) shows a correlation chart for the number of tweets against the number of likes, with each bubble representing a single candidate. The blue line indicates the average likes for tweets across candidates. Thus, any bubble above the line was above average in getting likes on their tweets, and the higher one goes along the y axis, the more efficient they have been. The chart confirms that Congress candidates were indeed more present and more effective on Twitter than any other party. It benefited particularly from its youth wing handle, the Punjab Youth Congress, which consistently amplified its outreach. The AAP comes second, but is separated by a big margin. The SAD was not as effective on Twitter.

Figure 1: Number of Tweets vs. Likes
Figure 1: Number of Tweets vs. Likes

The Congress also leads on Facebook

The four major parties spent about 2.5 crore on Facebook ads. While Twitter posts are free, Facebook ads are paid for and aim at reaching a larger audience of social media users, who may not necessarily follow directly parties or politicians. In this section, we look at expenditure as well as the reach of these ads. Reach is calculated through a mix of interactions with the ad, including likes and reshares.

Data tells us that the Congress spent and posted more on Facebook ads than the AAP ( 1.3 crore against 1.1 crore). In fact, it posted 15 times more ads than any other major party — though its average reach for the ads was only the second-highest, behind the AAP. This difference of magnitude is curious given the fact that the AAP almost spent as much money on ads as the Congress. The AAP spent, on average, more than 18,000 per ad, compared to 4,000 per ad for the Congress. the AAP also had a poorer return for their money, getting only four likes for each rupee spent. Most other parties managed to get 12-20 likes per rupee.

The price of running ads, as well as the outreach of the ads, depends on a variety of factors. These include the target audience chosen by the advertiser, Facebook’s own algorithms, and also how other networks amplify the outreach, by consistently liking and resharing the posts. Hence, the AAP’s higher pricing could well be an outcome of choosing a more niche audience, while the Congress’s approach could be an indicator of choosing quantity over quality.

These differences, however, did not prevent the AAP from sweeping the Congress. There are many factors outside social media that account for parties’ performances. 

So, can we take these numbers as a proxy for electoral outcomes? It is difficult to assess the impact of social media content exposure on electoral behaviour. This question has many aspects — such as the effect of manipulated content (bots), or the sociology of users (rural vs urban, men vs women) that are difficult to disentangle.

If we look at the content of these posts and ads, we see another interesting variation. Figure 2 indicates that the AAP posted more often in Punjabi than any other major party. By contrast, the Congress tweeted more in English, while the BJP tweeted a lot more in Hindi. The SAD was the only other major party that tweeted mostly in Punjabi, though with a smaller presence. This might indicate why the AAP’s social media strategy might have paid off qualitatively, rather than quantitatively. It helped the AAP connect more online with a distinct audience, compared to the Congress.

More qualitative work is needed to paint a clearer picture of social media’s role in elections. 

The Congress’ stronger presence online might have come from its legacy of a party in power for a long time in Punjab. Its youth wing was particularly active and greatly amplified its social media presence. However, the AAP’s efforts seem to have been more organised. 

The odd character in this story is the BJP, which did not try to compensate for its small ground presence in Punjab by enhancing its digital print. By contrast, the BJP social media campaign in West Bengal last year was impressive, matching the Trinamool in that regard. The lack of interest in the Punjab election might account for this. 

As we begin to learn more about the use of social media by political parties and candidates, we cannot afford to rush to conclusions on how social media affects voters. Our observations are more limited to the way parties use these tools, and on how political campaigns change over time. 

Neelesh Agrawal is research engineer, Trivedi Centre for Political Data. Shivam Gangwani is research assistant, Trivedi Centre for Political Data. Aggam Walia also contributed to the development of the dataset.

The views expressed are personal

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