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Social media influencers are India’s new election campaigners

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Social media influencers are India’s new election campaigners

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Indian social media influencer Chandni Bhagat has been creating devotional videos on Instagram for three years – now she’s mixing politics with her daily dose of religion.

Bhagat is one of thousands of social media influencers mobilised by political parties in the runup to elections with the aim of wooing a young and ever-online India.

Last year, 18-year-old Bhagat – who has more than 200,000 Instagram followers – was among 100+ content creators in the central Indian city of Indore invited to meet workers from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Since then, her Instagram grid – dominated by the Hindu Lord Shiva – was punctuated with at least five posts promoting the BJP, one backing its regional women’s health scheme, another showing a smiling selfie with a former minister from the party.

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“I attempt to talk about things that will benefit my audience,” said Bhagat.

India has more than 800 million internet users and the world’s largest takeup of Instagram and YouTube, so courting top influencers to wave party political flags makes sense.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP has since last year reached out to several hundred social media influencers, all of whom have clout on either Instagram or YouTube.

Some boast millions of followers, others mere thousands.

They are offered ministerial interviews – bypassing the more critical mainstream media – along with photo ops and themed posts spreading Modi’s message.

The campaign culminates in general elections this April and May, with travel, food, religious and tech content creators among the myriad of influencers tapped for their reach.

“Last year we had influencer meets across segments where we told them about the party’s policies, the implementation, the achievements by the government in nine years and requested them to recreate and reshare their own experiences,” Devang Dave, part of the BJP’s election team, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“It gives a lot more credibility if it comes as a third- party voice.”

All parties partake

Nor is the BJP alone in this strategy.

Vaibhav Walia, who runs social media communications for the main opposition Indian National Congress party, told Context his party actively courts influencers to leverage their popularity.

“We try to reach out to like-minded people and many of them have been posting for us,” said Walia.

“(Even) if (the content) is not directly Congress (related), they are voicing opinions which are aligned to our political ideology and stand.”

Late last year, the Aam Aadmi Party in Punjab tried to enlist influencers to promote their initiatives.

At the same time, the Bharat Rashtra Samithi in the southern Indian state of Telangana hired some 250 influencers to promote their cause in state elections.

Yet the strategy raises concerns, too, given India’s growing problem of online misinformation and all the risk that fake news poses to the world’s biggest democracy

Transparency is also a worry, say researchers.

“We don’t know if there’s a monetary exchange or the expectation of a quid pro quo of some kind — which blurs the lines and bring in the fuzziness,” said Prateek Waghre, an executive director at the Internet Freedom Foundation.

Evolution of influence

The idea of Indian influencer-based campaigning dates back three or four years to farm protests in New Delhi, when online posts amplified the demos, according to political consultants.

“Influencers and local YouTube news channels had a huge role to play in helping propagate the message,” said Ankit Lal, founder of a political consultancy called Politique Advisors.

“That is something that caught the BJP’s eye. They needed to reach out to a newer and younger audience and utilise the already-established influencers.”

India has more than 20 million voters aged 18-29, and millions more go online to watch influencers promote and interview politicians of all parties.

These posts “serve to humanise the politicians” even though they “may well be direct propaganda”, said Joyojeet Pal, a professor at the University of Michigan.

Hyper-local

Samyak Jain posts travel content to some 110,000 followers on Instagram and has been to four BJP influencer meetings.

“It’s a general interaction where we are told what all to do,” said Jain, 22. “They tell us what work the party has been doing, the work they plan to do – their journey.”

Jain is among several hundred regional influencers tapped by the BJP for their hyper-local reach.

If, say, a new road were to be built near an influencer’s home, the party asks them to talk about how the change has made their life better, BJP’s Dave said.

“It’s not about the party giving them something to post,” he said. “It’s about going to the public and talking about …why the Modi government should come back if they want the development trend to continue.”

Social media consultants believe local is key, since influencers can build one-on-one trust with their audience.

“Elections in India are won at a grassroot level and these influencers are known very well (in those regions),” said Kumar Saurav, founder of Savin Communication, a PR agency.

Posting on behalf of a politician can make money, too, according to one content creator who said they were asked by several opposition parties to create anti-BJP content ahead of regional elections in Madhya Pradesh last year.

“Many politicians are active on social media but they don’t have followers,” said the creator, who was tasked with making posts critical of ruling party policies.

“They asked to not mention it’s a paid or sponsored post.”

The creator, who did not wish to be named, said they had made five such posts, earning about $180 for each.

With campaigning now set to ramp up, the parties say they are ready to launch into online action.

“Once the candidates are declared, we will reach out (to influencers) at the micro level across all constituencies so that they also understand how this particular candidate will be good for their constituency,” said the BJP’s Dave.

“It’s about showing how Modi ji has been leading all these changes across all states and the entire country.”

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