New Delhi: It’s a bit like the chicken and the egg puzzle. What came first — Congress’s new digital media strategy or Rahul Gandhi's willingness to engage with people more proactively?
“The mask is off. Not that we did not raise these issues earlier,” explains Kannada actor-turned-politician Divya Spandana, popularly known as Ramya, her stage name. Ever since she has taken charge, Congress’s social media communication has been noticed among supporters and opponents alike.
So it’s a bit of both?
“Well, Rahulji recently asked in Gujarat ‘what has happened to vikas’. And people responded by saying it’s gone crazy”, she replies, slowly sipping her espresso, referring to the popular memes the Congress has used on Twitter and Facebook in the poll-bound state to target the BJP.
That’s a vintage politician's response! Especially, the subtle attribution of success to the leadership. Not overt. Not in your face. A mere passing under-statement of sorts to put across the point.
Ramya was picked by Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi this May to lead the party’s campaign on social and digital media, a front that was seen in absolute control of the BJP. She was active on social media and known for her fiery criticism of the ruling party in general and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in particular. A rank outsider of sorts in a party where leadership is encircled by impermeable concentric rings. Where patience is the ultimate virtue. Where leaders over years have mastered the art of tiring the opponents out by prolonged silence and inaction.
To bring about a change in the way the grand old party of India communicates is no mean task. Especially, in the new media environment where — as British political scientist Andrew Chadwick posits — power is wielded by those who ‘recognise the importance of time and the circulation of information — when to act quickly and when to delay’.
That there has been a perceptible shift in the Congress’s social media strategy in the last few months is evident. The BJP, with over a decade of head-start, is feeling the heat.
“Well, if we are into politics, we might as well play the game,” says Ramya on her well-entrenched rivals.
In the last three months, she has recruited professionals to double her team strength and 85% members of Congress’s new social media team are women. There were just three women when Ramya first walked into the party’s digital war-room.
She is not sure if the gender composition of her team has made the Congress an effective communicator on the social media, but it’s getting reflected in the language. “Women do things differently, they think differently too. I can’t deny that having a women-centric team has been a huge plus,” Spandana adds.
Moving First and Fast to Muzzle Trolls
The first and biggest challenge before Ramya’s team has been to counter trolls and fake news. The challenge is both within and outside. Internet is unforgiving. A small mistake can blow up to disrupt a well-calibrated media strategy. For instance, recent tweets by Digvijaya Singh and Manish Tewari, making personal remarks on PM Modi, which backfired.
“Now, we can’t do much about that. We just have to deal with it too,” she laughs.
But the most encouraging sign for the Congress in the last couple months has been perceptible willingness shown by Rahul Gandhi to engage in the digital space.
The Congress leader was once reluctant to even have social media presence. Now his tweets are both timely and incisive. Sample this:
Playing With Data and Video
It’s a big leap of faith for Congress leaders who used to mock at the power of new media. However, some in the party were ahead of their colleagues in gauging the latent potential of digital media tools.
In May 2009, party MP Shashi Tharoor was the only Indian politician to have a Twitter account. He had 6,000 followers. Today, Tharoor has about 6 million followers, highest among Congress leaders. But PM Modi has six times more followers than Tharoor.
Clearly, the Congress has a lot of catching up to do. Ramya’s team — including videographers, content writers and data researchers — is experimenting both in form and content.
For example, the party has started rolling out highlights of each of Rahul Gandhi’s appearances or speeches, in visual format which is mobile-friendly.
Also, until now, the party did not pay much heed to data analysis and archives. Now, there is a dedicated team for that.
Data has become such an important part of the party’s strategy that every argument by the government or any resistance against policies is countered and supported with numbers.
Take the recent campaign by Dalits in Gujarat to don moustache. The Congress blog created a post on the atrocities against Dalits and backed it up with NCRB data.
Data and facts, rather than plain polemics and jibes, is what the party wants to focus on. Even when the Congress started its #KnowYourLegacy campaign, it received tremendous response, though posts did invite trolls, but that’s part of the game.
“We frame questions in our Twitter poll with a specific intent. For instance, the other day we asked who called Gandhiji as Mahatma. And we put RSS as an option,” said a member of Congress social media team.
Surveys, quizzes and memes are all very diligently made part of the social media strategy to target the voter with ‘right messaging’. The surveys help the party ensure that it knows what a particular segment of voters want.
This process is repeated at all levels across states. Ramya has made sure, a source in the party said, that the team focusses on the likes/dislikes of voters.
Every Vote Matters
Of late, there has been an exponential increase in Rahul Gandhi’s Twitter followers. “All of it is organic,” Ramya is quick to add.
In a battle where every vote matters, it is important that who is connecting with you.
When quizzed on the use of big data analytics, the Congress social media head is reticent. There have been reports of Congress signing up data mining and analytics giant Cambridge Analytica, the company that was closely associated with Donald Trump’s presidential bid last year.
Micro and targeted messaging is the new mantra in the field of political communication today.
From India Against Corruption Movement to 2014 general elections, Congress has been bitten many times over. A laggard in adapting to the new tools of communication, it has had to pay a heavy price for its lethargy and status quo-ist tendencies.
Now, as the party prepares for the next general elections, it is not shying away from experimenting and innovating.