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WhatsApp-ened to the middle ground?

Civil discourse fades amidst heated political debates on WhatsApp as India gears up for 18th Lok Sabha elections.

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The most widely used social media platform in India is not X, or Instagram, but WhatsApp.

In 2024, the number of WhatsApp users in the country touched 535.8 million.

That’s about a third of the entire population, and growing at a rate of 16.6% pa. Add in the 32 million Indian diaspora, and this platform now becomes a powerful tool in the hands of the political parties.

No doubt WhatsApp has its uses, but the potential to create confusion – and discord – is huge.

The General Election in India will stretch across seven weeks from 19 April to 1 June, with results to be announced on 4 June.

With 543 seats in play, opinion polls are heavily in favour of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) which won the last election with 303 seats. It is now looking to further consolidate their hold over Parliament.

About A$140 million was spent in advertising across all platforms, by the two major parties in the 2019 election, as per Election Commission reports.

But while traditional media – print, radio and TV will have the usual spend with messaging, political analysts say that this election will be fought on social media platforms and those with the best ability to get their messaging out will benefit the best.

Facebook and Instagram have their limitations in this regard (the former with its restrictions on political advertisements and strict monitoring, and the latter with its restricted use across certain age groups). Tik Tok remains banned in India.

Social media influencers such as Ranveer Allahbadia and Kamiya Jani, with their millions of followers, have now found themselves inducted in the campaign. Leaders like Rahul Gandhi, Smriti Irani, Dr Jaishankar have set time aside for these new media darlings.

The ease of use on WhatsApp – and little or no censoring – has seen it become a preferred platform for political parties.

The BJP fired the first salvo by sending a personalised ‘Letter from the Prime Minister’ on WhatsApp — highlighting the achievements of the Narendra Modi government and seeking feedback from voters.

On the other hand, the Congress runs a Rahul Gandhi WhatsApp group in which the leader is said to interact with people and respond to their queries.

Yet, WhatsApp has been highly successful in amplifying not only the message but also the misinformation. Elections in India

Most people of Indian origin are members of multiple WhatsApp groups – the school group, the university group, the local suburb, the professional, the faith-based, the language-based, the hobby-based, immediate family, extended family, the larger extended family (!) – and to be sure, political messaging has ramped up over the last few weeks.

It is not uncommon to wake up to a barrage of say 200 WhatsApp messages – most being some pretty serious argy-bargy about some political flashpoint or other in India.

The greater the logic in refuting a message, the angrier the response.

No one’s really listening, because no one really changes their mind after all that discussion.

The middle ground between respectful debate and angry diatribe has all but vanished.

Judicious use of the mute button, or mindful distance – you decide.

Read More: The Year Ahead 2024: Elections, Rates, Regions and Revolutions

Pawan Luthra
Pawan Luthra
Pawan is the publisher of Indian Link and is one of Indian Link's founders. He writes the Editorial section.

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