While interviews by five senior union ministers to two prominent YouTube content creators in recent weeks have raised ethical questions about whether public money was being spent on political promotions, they also highlighted an interesting political trend.

Politicians are now increasingly turning to online celebrities – commonly referred to as influencers – to interview them. Traditionally this role would be played by journalists.

The change in political outreach encapsulates a broader media shift towards YouTube content consumption enabled by cheaper internet access even as younger viewers move away from traditional outlets such as television. As a result, such interviews by influencers may be helping politicians reach young Indian voters.

However, there are some concerns about this trend. Critics fear it will distort the way young Indian look at the practice of journalism, given that YouTubers are rarely critical of the politicians they interview.

A growing trend

In the past two months, Union ministers S Jaishankar, Nitin Gadkari, Piyush Goyal, Smriti Irani and Rajeev Chandrasekhar have given interviews to two prominent YouTubers Ranveer Allahabadia and Raj Shamani. These interviews sparked a debate on social media, with some raising ethical questions about whether public money was being spent on these exercises.

This was the first time senior Indian politicians had such interactions with YouTubers. It has become a trend in recent years for politicians, across party lines, to give interviews to YouTubers.

For example, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal gave an interview to comedian Kunal Kamra in 2019. Similarly, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel was interviewed by YouTube content creator Samdish Bhatia in 2022. In June, Shamani interviewed Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan.

During his Bharat Jodo Yatra between November and January, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, then a parliament member, only gave interviews to YouTubers such as Bhatia and YouTube channels such as Curly Tales and Mashable India. He did not speak to mainstream journalists at all. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s Manoj Tiwari and Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray)’s Aaditya Thackeray, among others, have given similar interviews since 2022.

Since many of the content creators chosen for the interviews have millions of subscribers, these interviews are watched widely. For example, as of Saturday, Allahabadia’s interview with Jaishankar had been watched 6.6 million times, Shamani’s interaction with Gadkari had 2.2 million views and Bhatia’s November interview with Gandhi was watched 4.4 million times.

Some videos, as in the case of Goyal, Gadkari and Gandhi, were also reposted on their own YouTube channels or that of their political party. Additionally, excerpted clips of these videos were also widely shared.

Indians surfing the internet on their phones at a suburban railway station in Mumbai. Credit: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP
Indians surfing the internet on their phones at a suburban railway station in Mumbai. Credit: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP

The Jio effect

This high viewership is in line with a trend the platform’s parent company Google and data analytics firm Kantar highlighted in their jointly authored digital news consumer report on June 26. The report suggested that YouTube is now one of the top mediums of news consumption across languages and socio-demographics in India. About 93% of India’s online news consumers now use YouTube, the report said.

Additionally, data compiled by data visualisation platform Statista showed that at 467 million, India’s overall YouTube audience was the highest in the world in January. This also made YouTube the largest social media platform in the country. With an audience of 246 million, the United States was a distant second.

This large-scale YouTube usage in India is enabled by cheaper internet access in recent years, widely attributed to the so-called Jio effect. In 2016, industrialist Mukesh Ambani had launched Reliance Jio, a cellular service provider offering inexpensive data plans that gave millions of Indians access to the internet for the first time. Additionally, Jio’s entry forced its competitors to slash prices of their data plans.

This led to lower data prices across the Indian market, giving it one of the cheapest mobile internet rates in the world. Consequently, the percentage of the Indian population using the internet boomed from 15% in 2015 to around 48% by early 2023. India now has the second largest digital population of any country in the world.

Tapping the younger voters

At a time when current affairs content, news and political commentary has been exploding on YouTube, giving interviews to content creators on the platform may help politicians reach Generation Z voters. “[With such interviews] they want to tap into the younger voters who don’t consume other mediums for news,” said Akash Banerjee, a content creator whose YouTube channel The Deskbhakt has over 3 million subscribers.

Market research agency YouGov highlighted that YouTube is the preferred mode of consuming video content for India’s Generation Z, the demograph born between the mid-1990s to the early-2010s.

Manisha Pande, executive editor with the media critique website Newslaundry, concurred. “A lot of people now consume news on YouTube and WhatsApp, especially in the 18 to 35 [years] demographic,” she explained. “So, YouTube influencers have become very important especially to tap the young.”

Pande argued that this wider shift towards YouTubers’ content is also because journalists have failed to connect with their audience. “There is an information gap that YouTubers have been able to fill,” she said. “They are in many ways serving audiences good old explainer journalism in simpler language and an easy-to-consume format – this is ideally something newsrooms should be thinking about doing.”

The YouTube app is seen on a smartphone in this illustration. Credit: Dado Ruvic/Reuters
The YouTube app is seen on a smartphone in this illustration. Credit: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

The concerns

However, some have also highlighted concerns about this growing trend of politicians giving interviews to YouTubers instead of traditional journalists.

Pande pointed out that influencers are not obliged to adhere to traditional principles of journalism even when doing a journalist’s job. “My fear is that for many of the young people who consume news through them, their idea of journalism will be skewed,” she added.

Banerjee, who has interviewed politicians on his political satire show on YouTube, agreed with Pande that such interactions are not journalistic. “Currently, such interviews are a happy convenience for [YouTubers and politicians],” he said. “Content creators want views and traction, which a politician gets for them. The politicians also get an easy interview and access to the audience.”

Politicians prefer fireside chats, Banerjee said. “So, content creators don’t ask tough questions so that they keep getting interviews,” he said.

Here, the concern is that as a consequence, “the audience is deprived of hard answers”, he said.

In addition, Apar Gupta, the founding director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, highlighted ethical concerns in cases of YouTubers’ interviews with union ministers. “If preferential access is given to one YouTuber over another, the government needs to explain the process behind the selection,” Gupta said.

Another concern Gupta raised is that there is a stamp of credibility being given to the YouTuber in case of Union ministers giving them interviews. “Even when it’s stated as a ‘collaboration’, there’s a sense of endorsement of the YouTuber,” Gupta told Scroll. “So, it’s important to scrutinise [the YouTubers’] past content for scientific accuracy.”

Also read: Are YouTubers now as important as TV journalists in shaping Indian politics?