Is the Narendra Modi Government’s use of social media really transformational?

(This post was updated on September 5, 2014 – see update at the end of the post)

First, there was this piece in Business Standard.

The crux was,

Since the Narendra Modi-led government took charge at the Centre, journalists tracking central government ministries and departments have been busy 24×7. Not because the new establishment is holding back-to-back press conferences, going all out on interviews or cutting ribbons at events; rather, the media is busy tracking it on Facebook, Twitter and various blogs, waiting for that significant statement worthy of making the headlines.

Today, this is what Bangalore Mirror has to say about Modi’s Japan visit.

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There are quite a few interesting precedences being set here.

1. Mainstream media becomes yet another participant

Where mainstream media was seen as THE vehicle for Government’s news dissemination, they have now been pushed into the stream of information as just yet another participant.

This is what happened to brands when social media happened anyway. Earlier, brands did the talking, people listened and talked about brands amongst themselves (usually heard by brands through the filter of surveys and research agencies). Now, brands are just incidental participants in the stream of conversations between people, on social media. They still own a lot of clout, given advertising and marketing budgets, but all that guarantees is merely visibility, not necessarily trust and loyalty.

Similarly, mainstream media in India is now in a position where they listen to what the Government has to communicate, at the same time as the common man (at least technically, possibility-wise; don’t ask me if a villager in Nangloi is tuned in to Modi’s tweets – he just may be or ‘can’!). Mainstream media is in an unenviable position of hearing what everybody else heard, and reporting/opining on it.

The instances Business Standard has cited, about Arun Jaitley taking to Facebook to explain his point of view on railway price hike, among others, seem to have stopped. After that burst of opinions and explanations, Arun Jaitley merely seems to be broadcasting bland updates, on topical days, his visits and so on. I assume the gag order that Business Standard refers to has come into place on social media too.

Our Prime Minister too seems to be sticking to a similar pattern. There is no doubt that he has been communicating a LOT more than all the past Indian Prime Ministers combined, but they, predominantly, seem to be not his views or opinions. They seem to be broadcasts of his visits, events etc. Yes, there’s nothing wrong with that anyway, but this was a function performed by mainstream media, before it was disintermediated (to do this job, on behalf of the Government) by social media, handled directly by the Government.

2. Broadcast vs. conversation

Now, I have argued in the past that social media need not always be a conversational channel. That it’ll be good to use the 2-way communication capabilities of social media is undeniable, but there’s no rule that they cannot be used for broadcasting. I had used the PMOIndia handle on Twitter, when India was under the UPA rule – rather, when India was being served by the UPA Government, to explain that point.

Conversation, for a scale of India’s (India’s social media population, at least) numbers is really not feasible. At best, the Government representatives can only selectively engage. Even the opinions shared by people like Arun Jaitley (before the gag order set in) had a pattern – it was an opinion shared as a broadcast and there was zero response from the man himself to *all* the comments and queries that followed it.

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In a way, it merely looked like an imaginary journalist posed a question (it was collective questions from many journalists/people) and Arun Jaitley took them all up in one swoop of a Facebook comment. There was really no conversation.

Modi’s social media updates too end up merely as broadcasts. Again, nothing wrong with that, and in a way expected too, given the sheer numbers who could pose questions.

The crux is, conversation on social media seems impossible to scale when you are dealing with numbers of the magnitude of a country’s population online.

This is where mainstream media comes into the picture. Where Modi was very keen to speak to as many people as possible (he has set a record for pre-poll public rallies), he was also keenly engaging with media, though carefully selected for maximum reach… pre-election. Post election, the same media finds Modi unresponsive. He may get selectively responsive again, depending on the need, but that’s hardly to be blamed, given time constraints and pressures. But, media can still play a crucial role in being the voice of people and pose questions and counter-questions to what the Government does and how it performs. The role of editorials becomes crucial too, in this case.

But the Government could also think of selective, planned open house sessions using social media. There is no reason why someone like Modi or Jaitley could open themselves to questions on say, Twitter, in a Tweetchat session, for a pre-defined set of time, periodically. Trolls will troll, abusers will abuse, but they could always pick and choose questions to suit their agenda and communication goals and still manage an image of being responsive and attentive to people they intend to serve.

3. Controlling the communication

Before social media happened, controlling the communication literally meant calling up a publication’s editor and ask him/her to not let one of the publication’s journalists file a story. Now, post social media, there is just no control. You can still call that editor, but chances are someone would have already broken that story as a question on Quora or Reddit. And it will find a way into mainstream media as a more researched story eventually.

So, is that mythical control gone forever? No, not at all!

The Modi Government is holding that control mighty well, by not letting the media be the voice of people (with or without agenda/bias – that’s a different topic anyway). By choosing to tell its own story and not relying on media being the intermediary between them and the people, the current Government is shrewdly handling its own perception. There is so much happening in Modi’s work life, if you just go by his tweets.

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Questions, doubts, follow-ups, updates on those things? That is something media has to undertake, in the wake of it not having priority access to these updates.

But you see how well this is playing out for the Modi Government, right? Instead of releasing advertisements periodically to proclaim their work, they can now break that work into real-time updates and share all through the year, at no cost, and reaching people directly, with no intermediary to add views and opinions to color the communication in any way. Millions of people will ask questions and seek clarity, but as I said earlier, scaling conversations is impossible when the numbers are so huge. So, a Tweet has replaced a television appearance and a Facebook status update has replaced a newspaper interview, but with nobody to counter or question what is being communicated. It’s no different from a newspaper advert, really. There is only an illusion of conversation, since the platform chosen to communicate offers the possibility of 2-way conversation (where a print advert does not, at all). But merely using a 2-way communication channel to communicate doesn’t automatically mean the communicator is a conversationalist. He could be an expert broadcaster on Twitter too, like Modi (or countless other actors) has demonstrated.

4. Only the ‘what’; seldom the ‘why’

All this means that the current Government’s use of social media is hardly transformational. It is, in some way, if you compare it with the earlier Government, but that’s not saying much. Instead of using mainstream media, where they will ask questions and bother with the ‘why’ of the ‘what’, the current Government is shrewdly using 2-way communication channels to merely update the ‘what’, with nobody to bother with the ‘why’.

It is a clever facade no doubt and a really intelligent illusion, but it is an illusion at the end of it. They can say what they want and can reach people unfiltered by annoyances like mainstream media. And the fact that they are hyper communicative (broadcast-wise) helps in keeping that facade alive.

The earlier Government had to contend with taking sides and winning (or buying) allies within media and we saw journalists being identified as pro and anti Government. Now, media, as a blob, is kept out of the communication from the Government, to the people, though media does help amplify it to the non-online dark spots. The only hitch, media is merely a participant, not THE dissemination vehicle. The dark spots exist not because people have chosen to tune out the Government’s communication, but merely because we, as a country, haven’t evolved to include all people into the social media spectrum.

And if we hold the ‘why’ questions around the ‘what’ of policy decisions broadcasted by Government on social media, the best we can do is comment and respond on Facebook and Twitter to make ourselves heard. The trouble is, the intended person may not hear it, leave alone responding to it. It *may* be heard by other participants, for whatever it is worth (not much, I’d wager).

As I mentioned earlier, having conversations on social media, for the scale of a country’s online population is definitely not feasible. But that does not mean the Government should always be in broadcast mode on social media either. Controlled and periodic interventions could help in side-stepping that view of Government only being a broadcaster on social media, like Google Hangouts and Tweetchats. Is it necessary? Not really, but if the image of the Government is that of an autocratic machinery not keen on sharing updates with media and using social media only to broadcast, I’m sure an administrator as intelligent as Modi would be interested in changing that perception. For PR’s sake.

It may still be controlled and tunneled into what the Government wants to send out as messages, but that has always been the case – with Governments and brands. People will ask, counter, demand answers, shout for updates. But ‘people’ do not have the reach of a Modi or even a Jaitley. The voices will remain fragmented and eventually disappear. The loudest voice will remain the most heard.

But, at some point, if the Government is callous enough to let that situation spiral out (like how the earlier Government did, without being cognizant of what was happening away from the ivory towers), then there may be a tipping point where the collective voice of a lot of individuals may become louder than the might of the Government voice’s reach. I’m not talking of social media anymore – just referring to the democratic process of electing a Government, though it could apply to social media too!

Update (September 5, 2014): Just came to know about MyGov.in, signed up and joined a few groups to see how things are. Early days, but this is great progress! This may be the first Indian, Government-owned website that I joined voluntarily (besides the ones that we are forced to, for things like property tax, income tax etc.). There are already a few simple crowdsourcing efforts (around name and logo suggestions) that have been completed and a few groups for assorted purposes that seem to have attracted a small base of early users and comments.

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Considering how new it is, and the fact that it is happening on the back of an already demonstrated adept use of social media, I find this extremely promising.

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