The 2008 Presidential election in the United States is widely seen as the first time social media played a big part in politics. Candidate Barack Obama’s skilful use of platforms such as Facebook helped him emerge as a winner.

In the same vein, was 2019, India’s first Internet election? Much of the media coverage certainly made it seem like that. Much emphasis was put on the Bharatiya Janata Party’s control of social media. Reacting to that, other parties, most notably the Congress, put in much effort to try and up their social media game.

However, opinion polling conducted by the Lokniti programme of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies has a more complex story to tell. While social media use has grown significantly, it was off a small base. As a result, the use of social media by Indians is still low compared to developed economies.

Moreover, while social media might help, the core of politics still remains the ground organisation of parties.

Social media use has grown in India

The use of the Internet and social media has shot up in India. CSDS data shows that nearly four times more people use Facebook today than they did in the previous general election.

Moreover, the number of voters consuming news over traditional mediums is falling, thus increasing the importance of social media further.

But the vast majority of Indians still have no access to social media

Social media usage might have grown relative to 2014 but it is still quite small in India, with usage rates nowhere close to developed countries.

In fact, 64% of voters – nearly two out of every three – CSDS spoke to did not use social media at all. Another 15% had low exposure, which meant they checked social media on a monthly basis.

Moreover, this social media usage is not evenly distributed across the country. It plummets in the East, driven by low smartphone penetration.

Social media isn’t that political – a majority of users never discuss politics

One of the greatest impacts of social media is believed to be the expansion of the sphere of politics. Social media users can access the political views of their family, friends and co-workers around the clock.

While this is a big change relatively, CSDS data shows that in the absolute, politics does not feature in online social conversations in a major way. Only a quarter of the social media users CSDS spoke to said that they express their views on politics either everyday or sometimes. More than half never do.

To sum: Two out of three voters don’t use social media at all. And of the third that do, more than half never use it to post on politics. So while social media certainly has had some effect on Indian politics, its impact might have been overblown given how small the numbers of politically active social media users are.

Social media replicates, not breaks, the upper caste dominance in traditional media

The low entry barriers of social media have given rise to hopes that it would break traditional societal structure. However, CSDS’s survey data shows that that is mostly untrue. On Indian social media, Hindu upper castes maintain their dominance, much as in the brick-and-mortar world.

However, there is a significant exception to this. The social media exposure of Muslims, who are otherwise economically similar to Dalits in India, was found to be “second only to that of the Hindu Upper castes”.

BJP leads with social media users – but does social media make that big an impact?

As could be expected, given the party’s well-funded information technology cell, the BJP is a clear leader when it comes to social media impact.

Both Congress and BJP did better among voters who use social media. Regional parties appear to be the biggest losers, with their support amongst high social media exposure dropping considerably compared to voters who don’t use social media.

However, what is interesting here is that the BJP did rather well even amongst the demographic that had no access to social media, netting 36% of their votes, significantly above any other party.

The takeaway: while social media has certainly helped the BJP, this has been built on top of their domination in the real world. Social media is not a replacement for ground politics.

This point is driven home doubly by the fact that the Congress’ social media performance in 2019 was significantly better than 2014.

CSDS data showed social media worked to the party’s advantage. The vote share gap between the BJP and Congress reduced from 27 percentage points to 21 percentage points among daily Facebook users. However, among those who don’t use Facebook at all, the gap increased from 7 percentage points to 16 percentage points.

But even though the Congress improved its social media performance, the actual BJP-Congress vote share gap in the polling increased from 2014 to 2019.

Social media deepens political consciousness

CSDS data found that high social media use correlates with people being more politicised. For a person with high social media exposure, his chances of attending an election rally were more than twice as high as compared with a person with no exposure.

All figures in % of respondants surveyed

While we saw earlier that social media provides a small advantage to the BJP by getting in more voters, that is only one part of the story. Not only does social media increase the number of BJP voters, it also makes existing voters more loyal to the saffron party.

CSDS data shows that while 47% of people with high social media exposure feel close to the BJP, that figure is only 18% for the Congress. Moreover, for voters with no exposure, the Congress figure actually increases slightly to 21% while the BJP’s drops to 38%.

This means social media use has barely any effect on the loyalty an existing Congress voter feels towards his party, but has a notable effect on a BJP voter.

All figures in % of respondants surveyed

This correlation of social media use and depth of party loyalty to the BJP partly explains what commentator Mukul Kesavan called the saffron party’s “overwhelming presence” online. The depth of loyalty BJP supporters feel towards their party will often mean they will volunteer their time on social media in order to push causes that the BJP holds dear.

Moreover, the BJP’s impressive social media presence also has a spillover effect. While CSDS data points to the limited use of social media in India, this does not take into account the fact that issues discussed on social media often drive programming on mainstream media.

Thus, while the BJP’s impressive social media presence might not directly affect a great numbers of voters, by using it to drive content in newspapers and on TV news channels, research shows that the party’s online efforts might indirectly reach a large proportion of the Indian electorate.