From WhatsApp groups to bot army: Political fronts devise digital strategies for Kerala polls

Social Media
Representative image. Photo: IANS

Are you a candidate? Then you can get a bot army to follow you in the digital space, fight it out for you and beat the rivals. Bot army is the term given to thousands of bot accounts, created with the help of software, instead of authentic social media accounts.

Even if you are new to the world of social media, you do not have to worry. Agencies will deploy the bot army and turn you into a star. They would set hashtags trending in your support and against your rivals, and turn the public sentiment in your favour. This digital show of strength is the newgen version of lining up supporters at public events.

The bot method is widely used at the national level, and its presence in Kerala was recently noticed in the Twitter handle of the Digital Workforce Management System which was started by the state government some weeks ago. Within five days of starting the profile, 95 per cent of 321 followers were fake bot accounts. The Twitter handle was operated by a PR company based in Mumbai. The attempt was to inflate the number of followers. As this came to light, the fake foreign accounts were removed.

Ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Tamil Nadu in February 2019, two hashtags were trending - #GoBackModi and #TNWelcomesModi. The Atlantic Council Digital Forensic Lab had found out that these two hashtags, one in favour of PM's arrival and the other against, were artificially created with the help of software bots.

The upcoming Kerala Assembly polls will also rely heavily on digital media. All major political fronts in Kerala are coming up with strategies to reach out to the voters in the digital space.

Befriending vloggers

The influence of people, who have become internet stars through YouTube vlogs (video blog), will also be crucial for the election. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi had appeared on the popular ‘Cooking Village Channel’ on YouTube by chefs in Tamil Nadu. A YouTuber Sebin Cyriac, a Kottayam native, was also called in when Rahul Gandhi went sailing with fisherfolk from the Vaddy beach in Kollam district. All these are a continuation of this strategy to utilise the influence of vloggers. Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had recently organised a meet of vloggers in Thiruvananthapuram.

United Democratic Front (UDF)

Three people have been given the charge of digital media in each district. Apart from this, a six-member team, comprising representatives of the KSU, Youth Congress and Mahila Congress, coordinate the digital strategies at the district level. Training for these members were completed the other day. Block and constituency-level workers would also be deployed to work for them. This network will extend till the booth level. Instructions would be passed on to the grassroots level through WhatsApp.

KPCC vice-president P C Vishnunath has been given the charge of social media campaigning. The digital media cell is led by Shashi Tharoor and Anil Antony.

Vishnunath said that the Congress has limitations in bringing in big agencies for campaigning, which is the strategy of certain other fronts. “To overcome this, the services of volunteer party workers are used. We got a good response for the online registration to become Congress social media warriors. The party formed the team by selecting members from those who had registered after much scrutiny. This time, the thrust would be on the explainer videos of the projects that would be implemented if the Congress comes to power in the state,” he explained.

Left Democratic Front (LDF)

CPM state committee member V Sivadasan, who is in charge of the social media campaigning, said that the LDF does not wish to emulate other fronts by seeking the services of big marketing agencies. “Instead, the party has requested the cadres and supporters to pitch in. We have been getting good responses for this. Majority of the people have mobile phones these days. Even while at work, several people are frequently putting up posts in the digital space for the party. This is beneficial to the LDF. The best part is that those in colleges and factories can equally make contributions,” he added.

Though active in the digital space, the CPM stance is that the social media cannot replace the direct campaigning methods. Organisational special systems have not been set up for digital campaigning. Sivadasan said that the party's fight was also against the central government's attempt to turn the digital media in their favour.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)

As many as 12,000 official WhatsApp groups have been created for communicating with the workers at the grassroots level. Apart from this, innumerable unofficial groups. A core team of 40 members coordinate the digital war room. The team has been divided into four groups of video, writing, poster, and intellectual. A special advisory committee and district convenors are also present.

At the panchayat level, there are digital single points of contact (SPOC). The messages sent from the higher-ups are communicated to the workers in the lower rungs by these members.

There are also artificial intelligence tools that send messages suitable for a particular age group. For instance, in the Sabarimala issue, different messages would be sent to youths and the elderly. The comment for the elderly would be mostly connected to faith.

The BJP camp is confident that it has a bigger digital presence than the CPM and Congress. Around 6.7 lakh people follow the Facebook page, BJP Keralam. The CPM has 5.81 lakh followers while the Congress has 2.74 lakh followers.

S Jaishankar, BJP state committee member and hi-tech campaign convenor, said that instead of raising allegations, the focus is on engaging in positive politics and talk more about what the party can do.

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