For decades, parties have been relying on armies of booth-level workers to tap voters, but this time they are equipped with a new tool — data. With analytics, algorithms and AI, data is allowing parties to customise messages and target voters with precision. So, what you have on your smartphone is a relentless, 24×7 digital campaign, says Shubhra Pant
You may struggle to read your neta’s mind but the neta has a lot of help reading yours.
This election season, you may have noticed a trend in the kind of political videos popping up on your feeds. And posts related to polls you haven’t participated in but are there for your reading anyway. You might have also noticed ads from election candidates in your vicinity. And when you want to find out what’s trending? There’s a pattern there too, right?
While reading about elections in newspapers, you may have come across a story about the explosion of ‘Gully Boy’ rappers with their politics-themed numbers on Kolkata’s hip-hop scene. What you wouldn’t have known is that West Bengal is among the largest consumers of political videos in the country.
It shows how one trend begets another — in this case, a certain kind of online behaviour creates a demand, and as more videos are produced because of that demand, it drives up the trend line of the behaviour itself. And the politician who has access to this data would know that while the best way to a Bengali’s heart may be through food, the best way to her or his brain is through videos. Trust the WhatsApp group admins to make full use of that.
Pratham Mittal of the Neta App says of the 90 crore voters in India, around 54 crore are unique mobile phone users who have Facebook and WhatsApp accounts, quoting a McKinsey report. “An analysis shows around 30% of the total voters can be influenced with the use of social media in these elections,” Mittal says.
The ongoing Lok Sabha polls may or may not be an election for a new India, but they certainly are an election that’s about Big Data and its consorts — algorithms, analytics and artificial intelligence (AI). They are invisible but everywhere, creating endless patterns of political messaging around you by relentlessly tracking and decoding your online activity. In election season, when the neta wants to be in your head, this Big Data is worth its gigabytes in gold because it allows customised campaigns, just like targeted ads.
For example, if you have interacted with BJP posts of late, the algorithm would know if the nationalism message is for you. Similarly, how you react to Congress’ pet issues would tell the AI whether you like NYAY.
Poll pitch from data
Both national and regional parties are working with huge data sets of online behaviour to understand household and booth-level profiles in a constituency, first-time voters, floating voters, demographics, caste and socio-economic segments. This data is guiding campaign strategy (not only what to talk about but also what not to), selection of candidates as well as building a pro-party narrative.
Congress has given all its candidates a data docket for each constituency. Praveen Chakrabarty, chairman of Congress’ data analytics department, says the dockets have information on households, new voters, missing voters and local issues. “Instead of pushing down a single leader’s message using technology, we empower our party workers with data and technology. These workers pass on personalised or customised messages to voters.” The party tracks its on-ground activity through the Ghar Ghar Congress app.
But BJP is well ahead of others in using Big Data. It started using analytics in the 2014 general election when others were still grappling with the digital medium. But the technology five years ago wasn’t as advanced as today, when it has opened up new avenues to understand voters. Shivam Shankar, a poll strategist who worked with BJP in Manipur and Tripura in 2017 and 2018, and is now with the Grand Alliance in Bihar, says BJP has first-mover advantage. “BJP has around 25,000 WhatApp groups in all northern states whereas, by the time Congress came to forming such groups, the policies were changed by the social media giant. So, there is no way for Congress to match BJP’s reach,” says Shankar.
More personalised, the better
He says besides polling booths and caste, parties also collect data on utility bills (like power bills, which give an idea about the socioeconomic status of a voter). According to Shankar, the game-changer for BJP will be its latest campaign to target beneficiaries of government schemes. “BJP is working on data of beneficiaries of schemes like Ujjwala, which has never been done before. The data is used to approach voters and convince them to vote for the party,” he says. A BJP MLA from the northeast says analytics are also in pace to study conversations on social media WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook. This not only gives the party an idea about the “narrative” but, with its formidable digital network, allows it easily turn a conversation into a social media trend.
AAP, meanwhile, is working with a team of data researchers and scientists to design its poll strategy. “We use data to identify volunteers at the booth level, which are the booths where AAP is strong and which ones are floating booths and optimise our resources,” says Ankit Lal, who oversees analytics and IT.
Another party which has extensively used social media to canvass is Chandrababu Naidu’s TDP (though it’s now locked in a legal battle with Telangana over voter data). “the village and mandal-level committees upwards, we have party agents who use technology to target people about things we have promised and delivered,” says TDP spokesperson Rammohan Rao.
In Tamil Nadu, DMK has been using the digital medium to court first-time voters. “A team of IT personnel segregates information based on the target audience — youth, IT professionals, entrepreneurs, students and so on — and our messaging to them is tailored accordingly,” says TKS Elangovan, Rajya Sabha MP and organisation secretary of DMK.
SP is using Akhilesh Yadav’s social media popularity to explain the “importance of gathbandhan”. Its spokesperson Abhishek Mishra says, “In the Hindi belt, Akhilesh’s social media following is among the highest. The feedback, along with daily meetings, is what we use to convey that this election is not just a battle of politics and polity, but of ideology and philosophy.”
Enter, the startups
The same analytics that help a company sell toothpaste or Bluetooth speakers are being used by parties to peddle their poll pitches. But the need for expertise to sharpen their messages, and do it across a vast and bewilderingly diverse country like India, has taken them to specialists and startups.
Silver Push, a Gurgaonbased startup which is working with Congress, is doing a sentiment analysis of voters, using keywords. “Once the party has rolled out a campaign, we analyse its success. Then we share this information with the party, which helps them tweak their campaign wherever required,” says Hitesh Chawla, co-founder of the startup, which also analyses videos.
Others like Bangalorebased Next Election, Noidabased Vidooly and Delhi-based Neta App are also working with election-related data. The Next Election app is a bridge between candidates and voters. Amit Bansal, founder of the app, says voters have three tabs — discovery, accountability and contribution. “Constituencies and education of candidates come under discovery while accountability covers work done by candidates. Under contribution, candidates can communicate their message to voters through the app,” explains Bansal, adding he is working with multiple candidates across political parties, and also those contesting in Bangalore.
The Neta App, founded in January 2018 by Pratham Mittal, currently has a 55-member team. It allows users to rate and review their MPs and MLAs, handy data for political parties. The company says in the Karnataka elections, 90% of candidates who won were also rated highest on the app.
Vidooly’s analytics, meanwhile, tell them which political videos are gaining maximum traction, which it then shares with advertisers. “Our current study shows UP, Maharashtra and West Bengal see maximum consumption of political videos. And FMCG is the biggest investor in advertisements,” says Subrata Kar, founder of Vidooly. Founded in 2014, Vidooly analyses online video viewership for various companies.
(Additional reporting by Swati Mathur)