As Rahul Gandhi started his voyage from Kanyakumari to Kashmir during the Bharat Jodo Yatra, it became clear that the Yatra would not receive much attention in the mainstream media.

The Congress leadership then sought to use other mediums to get the message of Bharat Jodo Yatra to the people. The solution was found on social media. At several points along the trip, Rahul Gandhi was introduced to various influencers. The interviews or collaborations with these influencers became a success.

Some of these influencers didn’t necessarily create political content. It was a well-thought-out move, as it added to making Rahul a leader of the people, accessible to all. He featured on Curly Tales with culinary and travel blogger Kamiya Jani in one interview.

While on the road, he spoke with those who created political vlogs as well. He chatted with Mashable India’s Siddharth Alambayan. But his chat with Samdish (from UNFILTERED by Samdish Bhatia) was the most talked about. Nearly five million people watched the interview, which was conducted in an informal and off-the-cuff style. Because of these influencers, Rahul’s long journey was always in the spotlight, and by the time he arrived in Delhi, the situation was such that even mainstream television networks found it difficult to ignore him.

The BJP, of course, wasn’t very far away. The campaigning for the Assembly elections in four states and Gandhi Jayanti in 2023 coincided. Around Gandhi Jayanti every year, the PM leads a cleanliness campaign. The campaign was dubbed “Swachhata Hi Seva” for 2023. But this campaign was a little different from the previous years. When Narendra Modi launched his cleanliness campaign shortly after becoming PM in 2014, he included a notable celebrity every time. A nationwide cleanliness mega drive on the eve of Gandhi Jayanti 2023 was led by PM Narendra Modi who was joined by fitness influencer Ankit Baiyanpuria. He uploaded a video of the PM and him on social media where both were seen cleaning while wearing blue gloves.

Baiyanpuria is a social media fitness expert. He has millions of followers on Instagram and many YouTube subscribers. Fitness-obsessed adolescents flock to his videos in significant numbers. Baiyanpuria has become one of the new generation’s celebrities known as “influencers” on social media due to the large number of followers and views on his posts. At a time when large-scale preparations for elections in some states and upcoming general elections are underway, the PM’s appearance with a social media influencer suggests an evolving new strategy.

When Narendra Modi was still the CM of Gujarat in 2014, after his prime ministerial bid, he was seen flying kites with Bollywood actor Salman Khan. His plan of identifying himself with the new generation of youth, namely first-time voters, proved successful. Despite the fact that the magic of social media had begun even at that time, the role models of the new generation were still cinema stars and cricket players, etc. The situation has now changed after nearly 10 years. The role models of this era’s first-time voter generation have shifted. This generation prefers social media over films and television. According to Dilip Cherian, “The role of these influencers has increased significantly in the new age elections. It could be a poet, a singer or an artist from your neighbourhood. It is critical that you find just the right type of influencer.”

This usage of influencers was evident on a variety of other levels as well. MyGov is a citizen interaction platform run by the Government of India (GoI). On the initiative taken by MyGov, certain senior central government ministers gave interviews to two social media influencers. Ranveer Allahbadia (@BeerBiceps) interviewed External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar. The second was Shamani who interviewed Nitin Gadkari, minister of road and transport. The Congress said that the government paid influencers for these interviews. These influencers clarified that no payment was made, despite the fact that the government provided tickets and lodging for them to get to and stay in Delhi.

The Rajasthan government of Ashok Gehlot announced a plan to work with influencers. These influencers would be paid between Rs 10,000 and 5 lakh to promote state government projects, based on the number of followers or subscribers they have. Meanwhile, Chhattisgarh’s Baghel government was preparing to connect influencers with the party. In Madhya Pradesh, the Congress was also observed adding influencers to its election strategy.

Now, many social media stars find advantages in associating with politics. They believe that if political figures join them, their following will grow rapidly. This has also occurred. Politicians see this as a lucrative deal in many ways. For example, for interviews, such influencers are chosen who do not ask very difficult questions or raise counter-questions on any answer. Giving interviews to mainstream media journalists may pose both of these risks.

However, another issue may develop owing to this. Many of these influencers were previously known for their songs, poetry, dancing, art, health advice, street food reviews and so on, but if they join the election campaign, they will also be seen with the party label. Another fact is that many of them have already declared their political party affiliation. Political parties are not products, and political affiliation in an emotionally polarised society might cause future difficulties for some influencers. However, individuals developing election strategies never think about the long term.

Earlier it was thought that as the world comes closer through social media, people will be increasingly exposed to new and different ideas. It was believed that when a lot of people would come together, there would be discussions and debates that would make people tolerant towards each other. Prejudices born out of ignorance would reduce significantly, as people would become more informed. A more analytical and forward-thinking society was expected to emerge. But that has hardly been the case. In reality, the exact opposite has happened.

But why did it turn out to be the exact opposite of what most people had anticipated? The answer lies in how the social media platforms do business; it depends on their revenue model. There’s an old adage in the media that goes, “If you don’t pay for the product, you’re the product.” This is true for social media. People don’t pay to use social media. The firms that run social media are in the data business. The corporation that runs this media gives individuals a platform and then makes their data available to advertising and anyone else who needs it for various reasons. The more the engagement of the people, the more data the company collects, which eventually translates into greater revenue. The more viral the content, the better; the more trending the hashtags, the better.

Now, how to engage more people?

Controversial opinions get more traction on social media. Assume you put a well-known quotation from an outstanding individual or a gorgeous picture of nature. Many people will like it, and many will describe it as lovely or even extremely good. The post will most likely disappear from people’s feeds after a few such exercises. On the contrary, if you say anything controversial, you will receive far more likes. Many people will also share it. This will elicit a greater number of responses. As a result, there will be counter-reactions. This frequently lasts for a long period. A controversial social media post results in increased exchange, traffic and data, all of which leads to increased revenue. The more contentious the post, the greater the potential for revenue.

Excerpted with permission from The Deception Industry: The Art, Craft and Science of Hacking the Electorate, Herjinder, Rupa Publications.