As Kerala witnesses the last lap of the electioneering for the April 6 assembly polls, cyber space is bustling with political activity like never before.
Political parties, cutting across ideological lines, are using the virtual universe as a real battleground where the shape and nature of campaigning keep evolving.
With dedicated volunteers and tested strategies, all the three major political parties in Kerala – the CPM, the Congress and the BJP – have been working overtime to maintain an edge on various social media platforms.
With a little over than 10 per cent vote share and winning just one seat in the last assembly polls, the BJP is still a distant third in Kerala.
However, going by the number of supporters on Facebook, the most popular social media platform has a saffron hue.
The BJP has 6,77,246 followers on their official Facebook page while the CPM has 5,94,685 and the Congress has only 2,86,744.
The numbers dos not necessarily mean all those followers are the supporters of a particular outfit.
However, the number of followers co-relate to the activity on the platforms.
Though Facebook is a key platform political parties have given much importance to WhatsApp and Instagram also.
While WhatsApp is the most popular and used messaging platform among all sections and age-groups of people, Instagram is where the youth meet.
Focus on Insta
“This time we have given much importance to Instagram because the youth, many of whom are first time voters, are more active there. On Instagram, we used photos and short videos customised for the medium. Long texts and videos do not work there,” Anil K Antony, the KPCC digital media cell convener, told Onmanorama.
The party's official Instagram page is filled with photos and videos of Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Vadra's campaign tours in Kerala.
Anil Antony said his party could make inroads on Facebook during the past two weeks when the campaigning reached its crescendo.
“In last two weeks, the Congress had more reach on social media than the CPM and BJP,” he said.
The party has thousands of WhatsApp groups and they have been managed by the centralised war rooms in Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode.
Apart from the party's official accounts, the social media handles of senior leaders like Oommen Chandy, Ramesh Chennithala and Shashi Tharoor have also been functioning like full-time campaign machinery during the past few weeks.
Chennithala's page posted allegations against the government which the opposition leader had been spearheading.
As a last-minute strategy, Chandy has posted detailed list of the achievements of his UDF government (2011-16) in reply to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan's challenge to discuss development instead of peddling communal narratives.
Chandy's posts have gone viral with over 16,000 Congress supporters sharing it. All the leaders kept updating their campaign trails with photos and videos.
Sources in the BJP said this time they had given more importance to videos, especially live ones. They got massive views for the campaign rallies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah.
“Our social media campaign was based on Modi government's development agenda. The youth wish to join BJP due to the party's development agenda. So our focus was to promote that agenda. The live videos helped us showcase our strength in the state,” S Jayashankar, BJP's IT cell coordinator in Kerala, said.
The party coordinates its social media campaign from Thiruvananthapuram. It also has district level coordinators. At the ground level, the campaigns were done by the local leadership.
No centralised mechanism: CPM
Unlike the Congress and BJP, the CPM said it does not have a centralised structure for social media campaign.
V Sivadasan, who coordinates the CPM's social media activities, said the party's main agenda was to use social media to bust fake news during the campaign.
“When mainstream media keep publishing fake news targetting the party, we use social media to bring the truth to the people. There's no centralised mechanism for that,” he said.
The CPM had landed in a soup a last year when senior leader M V Jayarajan asked party workers to be active on social media in the wake of the death of a PSC rank holder and to defend the government.
In a voice clip, shared in a party forum, he was heard saying that more comments should be posted on Facebook and that it would be given to them in capsule forms.
Coordinated or not, all the three major parties and their allies have been flooding social media with trolls, memes and comments that show no mercy to the opponent.
The use of bots (software-powered fake accounts) to make topics trending and thereby hog the limelight was also widespread.
The BJP had even reportedly used Artificial Intelligence technologies to send customised messages to various age groups.
Rahul Gandhi is one leader who realises the power of popular vloggers to reach the public. Ahead of the elections, he ventured out to the deep sea along with a group of fisher-folks at Vadi in Kollam.
He was accompanied by popular vlogger Sebin Cyriac, who shot the trip and published it on his YouTube channel.
Before that, the Congress leader had joined the Village Cooking YouTube channel in Tamil Nadu.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had convened a meeting of popular vloggers in the state in the first phase of his campaign.
Old posts, new comments
It's usual for social media users to comment on photos posted by somebody years ago. The result is that the photos, which often look funny now, become a laughing stock. Now, this behaviour is being replicated by party workers who dig up old posts by political leaders, which are contrary to their present stand.
The Facebook posts by CPM leaders levelling serious charges against Kerala Congress (M) leader K M Mani are key examples.
Mani's son and Kerala Congress (M) leader Jose K Mani is now the Left front's poster boy in Kottayam.
Apart from the centralised social media campaign, in each constituency all the parties have been running their own localised campaigns.
Using advanced technologies and design elements, all parties posted short videos introducing the candidates. Constituency-specific videos were also shared in large numbers as the key political fronts vied for the attention on the cyber space.