On the 26th of June, it was announced that newly-elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attained 4.99 million Twitter followers on his Twitter account, @NarendraModi . Though this is a significant number, it still lags behind those of three other noteworthy individuals in the public realm: United States President Barack Obama, Pope Francis, and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, with 43 million, 14 million, and 5 million followers respectively. In just a matter of days since this announcement, Mr. Modi had surpassed the 5 million mark. Can Mr. Modi continue to harness the power of Twitter to get his message across? It is essential to examine the dynamics of social media by virtue of its interaction with policy and understand the impact of this interaction towards Mr. Modi’s Twitter objectives.
Important leaders, decision makers, government officials, and private organizations of countries are relying ever-greatly on social media sites such as Twitter to communicate with the large number of modern internet-savvy citizenry. What are the implications of this?
First, communicating with people on social media allows politicians and leaders to convey their policy decisions and opinions on policy on a platform accessible to many. However, the high incidence of partisan-policy subjects suggests that individuals might shy away from talking about a certain political topic if they do not adhere by it. Opposing such a topic would require considerable evidence to suggest their position, and in situations without such evidence, the best action would be indeed, to take no action. Furthermore, a significant number of Twitter users are not very active on the social networking site, as evident by the fact that a mere 241 million out of 982 million people with Twitter accounts use it consistently on a monthly basis.
Second, voicing one’s own opinions on policy-related matters has the ability to raise the interest and awareness of the modern Internet user towards politics in general or even towards a specific politician or political party, but it does not imply that it always does so. An individual who is interested in politics can gain greater awareness, and possibly appreciation, about the specific policies that Mr. Modi or Mr. Obama is advocating just by following their Twitter page. However, Matthew Wallin asserts that “Facebook ‘likes’ and Twitter followers do not necessarily equate a strong connection with an audience.” Mr. Wallin also adds that “Neither does it necessarily indicate whether those followers are undertaking action to support a user’s communication goals.” Indeed, there is nothing to suggest that all the Twitter followers Mr. Obama or Mr. Modi agree with the strategies underlying the posts made by these political leaders. People could follow politicians for a wide range of reasons, ranging from the obvious indication of support to the undesirable distribution of spam messages.
In fact, there is a popular phrase found on the accounts of many Twitter users: “Retweets and follows are not equal to endorsements.” The idea behind this is that even if a Twitter user follows an important politician or re-tweets the politician’s quote, there is nothing to suggest that the Twitter user agrees with the political orientation of the politician or agrees with the statement that was re-tweeted. Such actions could purely be undertaken on the basis of popularity of the politician or the number of times the statement has already been re-tweeted, creating a chain effect that indicates the attention-garnering potential of the statement.
Third, social media is being widely recognized as a legitimate form of communication that citizens could use in case they wanted to connect with specific politicians or even political departments. Many websites of politicians and government agencies specifically include the links to their Twitter, Facebook, and other social media accounts so that they can communicate with citizens. This allows them to raise their profile by providing them with the ability to communicate with a greater number of people. The large number of social media websites today suggests that individuals might either want to “stay in the loop” and hence join all the possible social media sites, or that they might want to focus their attention on just a limited number of sites.
The mixed impact of social media on political communication suggests that while it has the capability of serving as an effective tool for political communication, there exist several kinks that need to be dealt with in order to maximize its power. More specifically, a lot of criteria and conditions need to synchronize perfectly to garner the best action from the political power of social media. There needs to exist a fair balance for politicians to communicate with their citizens, taking into account the availability of online resources, the prior political communication trends evident amongst the citizens, and the time commitments that the online community is often confronted with. If Mr. Modi bases his Twitter strategy around these criteria, he could soon surpass the other politicians ahead of him in terms of Twitter followers – but whether or not this ultimately changes the way democracy works in India remains to be seen.