AAP CM candidate Elvis Gomes, pix credit, Devika Sequeira
The media has been an effective tool for electoral campaigns in Goa, given its high literacy rate of 88.70 per cent (92.65% for men, 84.66% for women). Past elections have showered windfall gains on those with ownership stakes in the print and visual media here. But as the Election Commission of India (ECI) tightened rules for campaign spending and defacement of public property, there was a visible shift in the recent past elections from focused print advertising campaigns to using the loophole of ‘paid’ news.
The 2012 election in Goa when the BJP powered to victory stood out in particular for the local media’s abdication of responsible journalism as sponsored content parading as ‘news, views and opinions’ edged out independent reporting. The trend offers research scholars an interesting insight into the workings, control and use of media as a propaganda tool in small states such as Goa. Do readers and viewers actually get taken in by paid spin posing as objective views and unbiased news? And as for editors and reporters on the take, are they journalists at all?
Evident in this election (voting in Goa took place on February 4) has been the apparent departure from paid editorial content—not entirely abandoned though—to the use of social media. The development, a consequence no doubt of the effect of demonetisation on opposition politicians and the ‘hard times’ that have befallen some, like the Congress Party, must have pinched some of the loudest and boldest local media groups in Goa.
A high ranking All India Congress Committee (AICC) politician lamented that the party had been unable to come up with the double digit figure (in crores of rupees) that a local English daily, notorious for paid content, had demanded for ‘exclusive’ coverage of the kind it had dished out to its main political opponent in the last election. Aam Aadmi Party insiders had a similar story to tell of this newspaper editor’s attempts to strike a deal with them, which the newcomer party claims it disdainfully brushed off.
Despite its very effective use of digital tools and social media to sell Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, it wasn’t the BJP but Congress and AAP that stole the digital thunder in Goa’s Election 2017.
With a predominantly young candidate profile, AAP, which contested 39 of the 40 seats in Goa, went full throttle with the use of Twitter and Facebook. Nearly 43 per cent of voters in this state are below 40, and AAP’s focus in engaging the young and disaffected and those on the borderlines of political ideologies churned an enormous amount of interest and chatter on Facebook. As of February 11, the Aam Aadmi Party Goa page had 138,140 likes much ahead of the BJP Goa at 104,177.
AAP also had a Goa Support Campaign page. With a buzz of volunteers—20 of them from the party’s overseas wing were assigned to the Goa campaign—working out of an apartment in Panaji, the AAP’s online campaign kept up a relentless presence, most of it focussed on Arvind Kejriwal’s public addresses through his three days of campaigning in Goa, and more interestingly on individual candidates and its chief ministerial contender Elvis Gomes.
An AAP media volunteer claims they spent not more than Rs 4.25 cr on the Goa campaign, some Rs 22 lakh of it on the media. Though these figures are most likely far from the reality, it was obvious the newbie party had a negligible presence in direct advertising in the print media compared to the BJP and Congress. This it made up with its visibility and reach on Twitter and Facebook, uploading video clips on a daily basis of candidates on the campaign trail, and often having them speak directly on camera to address the voter. When BJP trolls lashed out and latched on to 34-year-old single mom and Zumba dance instructor Cecille Lee Rodrigues who contested for AAP from the Taleigao constituency, Rodrigues took to Facebook to respond directly and spiritedly. The clip went viral and won her scores of supporters.
AAP candidate Cecille Lee Rodrigues took to Facebook to counter trolls
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the Goa poll campaign was the Congress Party’s online and social media presence. The party that has come be seen as jaded and out of sync with the times made a serious attempt to connect with the young. It’s presence on Facebook—2,44,961 followers—outstripped both AAP and BJP. More surprising was its systematic use of WhatsApp as a campaign tool. The party’s IT cell in charge Avinash Tavares says a Delhi PR agency was down to set up the Facebook page and volunteers from the Congress’ NSUI wing then took full charge, setting up a 10-people ‘war room’. Though it’s hard to measure the success of a campaign using social media, he believes they “outdid the BJP strategically,” aided to a large extent by the anti-incumbency that shadowed the ruling party in this election.
But the Facebook campaigns of the three main contending parties in Goa could not have been more different. While AAP focussed largely on its candidates making a direct connect with voters through their individual videos—their candidates, practically all first-time contenders, were largely unknown to voters—the Congress projected only the party and its achievements when in government in Goa. This, Tavares says, was to counter BJP attempts to claim credit for schemes started by his party. He also makes the telling comment that it is far more challenging to attract positive responses rather than negative ones on social media and a team was set up to keep the trolls at bay.
“We’ve been getting a large dose of spin on social media from political parties and their candidates, but if I really want to figure out what’s going on, I have to read the newspapers,” a voter said to me before the election. With five English dailies and a half dozen vernacular ones in contention here, newspapers still play the biggest role in unveiling the news and shaping views.
One of the reasons the BJP seemed to have not targeted Facebook as much as the others, using it primarily to propagate its schemes and doles, is the poor connectivity in rural Goa where the vote really counts. And it is the voter’s reliance on what appears in print that the saffron party has learnt to exploit. It did so in the 2012 election when the O Heraldo fully endorsed its campaign which helped tilt the ‘Catholic vote’ in its favour. It did it again in this election through two Marathi papers. One of them, Tarun Bharat, known for its right-wing slant, was running headlines in the run-up to the polls to the effect that the saffron flag would fly over Goa again.
Journalist Mayabhushan Nagvekar, an avid media watcher, believes we’re still a long way from exterminating paid news and sponsored editorial content from print and visual media in Goa especially during elections. Short analyses of candidates’ prospects run by cable news networks here smacked of sponsored slots, he says. An English tabloid ran a cover story promoting a Congress politician for the chief minister’s post even before the election happened. In the age of social media, separating the chaff from the truth becomes all the more challenging. That’s why we have professional journalists. But what if they too turn out to be untrustworthy?