'Political parties and leaders understand the impact the new media can have on outcomes.'
'From treating them as broadcast tools five years ago, now they look at them as arsenal that can potentially change electoral outcomes.'
Yuvraj Malik reports.
Gone are the days when rallies and speeches were considered paramount for winning elections.
While these continue to be important means for politicians to get their message across to the public, one more medium -- social media -- has emerged as an integral part of the electoral battle.
With the general election round the corner, social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and even upstarts in the space such as ShareChat and TikTok are buzzing with political conversations -- conversations that the parties are hoping to leverage to woo the electorate.
With 500 million Internet users, which is about half of India's electorate, no party can afford to ignore the digital space.
In fact, they are all using new media tools, especially the highly intricate user profiling by Facebook and Google, to disseminate their poll propaganda.
"Political parties and leaders understand the impact the new media can have on outcomes. From treating them as broadcast tools five years ago, now they look at them as arsenal that can potentially change electoral outcomes," says Naman Pugalia, founder of FourthLion Technologies, a company that offers analytics and marketing for political campaigns.
There are several ways of using the digital space for campaigning.
These include paid advertisements on Facebook, Google, YouTube and other online publishers, and disseminating political propaganda over private groups on Facebook and WhatsApp.
The third is the more traditional SMS-based campaigning that takes place closer to poll dates.
Of these, the formal route is paid campaigns on social media.
Facebook and Google, the two most popular digital platforms, have amassed tonnes of data on users, which gives advertisers access to intricate user profiles.
Today, any advertiser can target its campaign to a very precise audience -- say, 18 to 20 year olds who watch Game of Thrones, or audiences in Bengaluru who do not speak Kannada.
Whether it is brands of political parties, online profiling is now used in all campaigns.
A typical media campaign can be broken down into three parts -- campaign planning, campaign setup and optimisation, and post-campaign analytics.
Campaign planning is when the advertiser decides what channels, Web sites and media to use.
Deciding the target audience comes next. Demographic data points like age, gender and location, users' interests and affinities are used when selecting the audience for a campaign.
Facebook uses 'Facebook Campaign Manager', a dashboard-cum-analytics tool for running ads.
After identifying the target group, marketers feed in the demographic details and several other levers in the analytics tool to define the right audience.
Then the campaign is pushed online. Using the same dashboard, advertisers are able to see precise user engagement data, including ad views, number of clicks, page views, time-spent, likes and shares.
Based on the response, campaign managers can alter the target audience even while the campaign is on.
"When it comes to ad campaigns, political parties work like brands. They hire an agency to create ads, a media agency to manage the media portals like TV, print, etc, where the ads will be pushed, and then run organised campaigns," says a digital marketer who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The other, and often less measured, area where election messaging is on the rise is Facebook pages and private chats groups.
In some cases, these pages, often with lakhs of followers, are managed by professional teams and may not be directly linked to a political party.
And this is where questionable party propaganda flows.
"Political parties figure out which influencers can be used for trolling, pushing propaganda and posts," says a Delhi-based political analyst who did not wish to be named. "They pay a bunch of agencies to nurture groups and online communities."
Ever since it was revealed that Russia used Facebook to influence the 2016 US presidential elections, the social media giant has been under pressure to prevent the spread of fake news and disguised propaganda.
Last month, Facebook introduced new guidelines for political ads and said that all such ads will carry a disclaimer, the name of the entity running them as well as the one paying for the ad campaign.
The Election Commission of India has also acknowledged the often dubious role of social media in the run-up to the elections.
Announcing the poll dates, the EC said all such political ads on social media will have to be pre-certified by it.
The EC and the government's information technology departments are currently consulting with major social media platforms to execute this process.