The street-level campaigning that was the hallmark of elections in the past is no longer visible with the old intensity. Without a doubt this is because much of the canvassing and exchange of views is taking place in the news and social media. It may also be because the parties feel undecided voters are fewer in number and are, instead, focusing on areas and demographics where they can get the bigger bang for the buck. The cost of contesting elections, after all, has gone up many times in recent years and using technological means for the outreach is certainly more cost effective.
This obviously comes as considerable relief for ordinary citizens, who are spared the cacophony and jostle of street level campaigning. Of course, there is the odd procession during filing of nominations, the occasional road show, or crowds going to and from a major public meeting starring parties’ high-flying campaigners, but the stress levels are on the decrease. If they do not like the noise and name-calling, people can log out of social media and change channels on the TV. There are exceptions, of course, where the reliance is on the old booth-capturing on Election Day, which was the bane of earlier years. The recent panchayat polls in West Bengal are an example of this.
Unfortunately, on social media, it’s a very contrasting picture. Every shade of opinion – no matter how intelligent or moronic – is finding place on people’s news streams. Short of ‘unfriending’ people, there is no way to keep out this unmitigated flow that comes in on the back of one forward or the other. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., have introduced provisions for blocking what one does not like, but these manage to sneak in under various guises.
It is only natural, therefore, for political parties to ride this wave and get professionals to introduce their agenda through fake accounts. It is far more difficult to get actual supporters to shape discussions and analyse events exactly the way they desire. So, readymade material is introduced into the stream for followers to forward. Every party is in on the game. In fact, the BJP, being more technology and media savvy, is probably a pioneer in the game. The sources may be better concealed because its supporters are more numerous.
Of course, for the viewer, the problem is not just of receiving unsolicited material, but also of being served downright falsehood and offensive stuff. The harm this causes by confirming biases and creating echo-chambers is already well-known. This leaves social media users with little option but to retreat into the real world, where the aggravations are actually fewer, for once.