07/28/2023, 15.00
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Indian political parties investing in influencers ahead of 2024 elections

In March, India’s BJP-led government floated a tender to get MyGov, a government platform for citizen political engagement, to work with influencer marketing companies. Yet, content promoters are sometimes not disclosed, with conflict of interest. Other political parties are also using Internet celebrities to reach out to voters, especially first timers.

New Delhi (AsiaNews) – As India’s 2024 general election approaches, the country’s political parties are recruiting influencers in an attempt to motivate young voters, some observers suggest.

To mark Prime Minister Narendra Modi's nine years in office, the ruling ultranationalist Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) held a meeting in Mumbai in late May with about 500 influencers thanking participants for their contribution to the party’s success.

More meetings followed in Jammu and Kashmir, Gujarat, and the capital New Delhi.

But the BJP is not alone in turning to social media celebrities. The main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, which is in power in the western state of Rajasthan, announced last month that it would pay influencers US$ 120 to US$ 6,000 to promote welfare schemes on various online platforms.

“Influencers have replaced mainstream TV anchors to a large extent,” an anonymous YouTuber told the Rest of World. “However, influencers are not journalists, they are entertainers.”

Compared to radio and newspapers, propaganda via social platforms allows influencers to engage specific demographic groups who follow specific content on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.

Shudeep Majumdar, cofounder of Zefmo Media, an influencer marketing company that worked on some political campaigns in 2017 and 2019, notes that his company is already receiving a large volume of requests from various parties.

For Naresh Gupta, co-founder and managing partner of Bang in the Middle, this is a temporary phenomenon; "influencers can sell a product, a restaurant or a brand,” he says, but “By the time the elections come closer parties will be defocusing from this.”

In March, the BJP-led government floated a public tender to select influencer marketing companies to work with MyGov, a government-run citizen engagement platform.

Partnerships are not always disclosed though, and this has sparked several controversies. Back in January, the BJP itself required influencers to highlight if their trips and hotel stays were paid for by the brands they work with.

The issue came to the fore after podcasters and YouTubers interviewed government members; at least, five ministers have already appeared on YouTube thanks to the collaboration between MyGov and influencers like Ranveer Allahbadia and Raj Shamani, who have great followings.

Nowhere on the videos posted online was it disclosed that MyGov had paid for travel, board and lodging to the YouTube interviewers.

“This too very much falls in the category of promoting a brand, except that brand is the government of India,” said Manisha Pande, executive editor of Newslaundry, an Indian media watchdog.

Many influencers are enthusiastic about this new type of marketing that expands their follower base and brings in thousands more viewers, but this blurs the boundary between general content creators, who are paid to produce what they advertise, and reporters who collect and gather information.

Unlike trained journalists, “These guys approach everything as content creators, and a lot of what they do is dictated purely by views, by what gets them hits, by what gets them ad money,” Pande explained.

Under such circumstances, politicians have an opportunity to avoid hard questions that a journalist might ask on television. Indeed, influencers can create content that looks like “news” to most viewers, but one that reflects their political affiliation to one side or another.

Above all, social media are a highly profitable domain, with parties willing to pay more than US$ 2,400 for six tweets a month.

In the 2019 general election, the Election Commission reported that the total number of voters was around 900 million, with some 15 million first timers aged 18 and 19 years. In next spring's elections, the latter are likely to be many more.

First-time voters “have never consumed television news at 9 pm or opened newspapers in the morning,” said Akash Banerjee, a former journalist who now runs a YouTube channel with more than three million subscribers.

India’s has some 752 million active Internet users. More than half follow online news, while 45 per cent say that online news is more popular among their peers than traditional television.

Marketing operations by political parties are also aimed at other segments of the electorate, including niche groups, even in rural areas, which are harder to reach for politicians. With a mobile phone and an Internet connection., these remote voters can now find information about candidates.


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