Politics served with concise social media content

The popularity of concise social media content has the potential to impact political outcomes

Updated - May 17, 2024 02:21 am IST

Published - May 17, 2024 12:08 am IST

‘Viral political content is a strong indicator of how quickly political narratives can be set and propagated’

‘Viral political content is a strong indicator of how quickly political narratives can be set and propagated’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The nature of information dissemination is changing rapidly and India is not immune to these sweeping changes. Traditional analyses of information consumption, which focus on the medium, often overlook the profound shifts in human psychology, driven by the rise of social media. This shift has led to instant gratification becoming the norm, impacting political narratives, with the potential to alter election outcomes. In India, growing social media use in the vernacular languages, combined with a largely unregulated digital space and a highly competitive, polarised political environment, necessitates vigilance to manage disruptive misinformation.

‘Going viral’ as objective

Recent studies such as “Accelerating Dynamics of Collective Attention” which was published in Nature, highlight a dramatic decline in human attention spans — from 2.5 minutes two decades ago to just 45 seconds today. This decline is mirrored in the popularity of concise social media content, i.e., short videos of less than a minute and ‘articles’ that span less than 200 characters. Short and snappy content is easier to produce. The focus is on the potential of the content to go viral rather than the content itself. Such content, which is much easier to produce and designed for ‘viral spread’ rather than depth, enables previously obscure figures to become influential by catering to short attention spans. Social media algorithms exacerbate this by promoting viral content, which often drowns out more substantial, factual narratives. Thus, it is entirely possible that factually unsound content travels around the world several times faster before rebuttals can even be thought of.

This new reality is not lost on political parties. The potential for this new paradigm to significantly reduce the asymmetry in social media power among political outfits is immense. In India, it is assumed that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has a much higher and more effective social media presence than the Congress. In fact, many analysts on both sides of the political spectrum attribute the BJP’s political dominance since 2014 to a significant first mover advantage. While the Congress relied on rallies and long-winding speeches, the BJP switched to new age media, dominating Facebook, Twitter (now X) and WhatsApp. It is only since the 2019 general election that the Congress has invested significantly in social media. Analysis of follower counts and engagement statistics across platforms prove that the BJP still has the edge. But there is significant churn underway.

An inversion of roles

Viral political content is a strong indicator of how quickly political narratives can be set and propagated. As an example, a recent video by vlogger Dhruv Rathee, titled “Is India Becoming a Dictatorship”, went viral, becoming a topic of discussion on several forums. This is significantly larger than any video posted by the political Opposition. An analysis of the video reveals that the information presented is not new — these are commonly traded political accusations often treated as par for the course in political debates. But the content was designed to go viral — different parts of the 30-minute video can be easily edited into simple one-minute sections and tailored to appeal to shortening attention spans.

Such context free splicing of content did happen — arguments were shortened, facts were pushed aside and context was ignored. Hundreds of ‘shorts’ spawned from the main video resulting in a narrative firestorm that BJP sympathisers struggled to keep up with. This article is an illustration of how algorithms and low attention spans allow specific types of content to organically propagate at an astounding rate.

The political Opposition was quick to latch on and the video remained in popular consciousness for well over two weeks. For the first time in many months the BJP seemed to be on the back foot. What is unique about this case is that the narrative was set by an apparently independent content creator and then amplified by political parties. This is a marked inversion from earlier when politicians delivered the talking points and other agents took on the role of amplification. This ‘inversion’ of roles is becoming more apparent in the social media strategies of the Opposition – a marked reliance on supposedly independent social media influencers to generate ‘viral’ content followed by an amplification powered by political leaders.

Analysis is more difficult now

This ‘inversion’ of roles is bound to have a significant impact. The checks and balances in the media, which have already eroded significantly, will continue on their path to irrelevance. Democratisation of content creation and algorithms that seek to capitalise on shrinking attention spans has resulted in a truly level playing field, where large pockets for social media spends matter less than having content that is tailored to gratify instantly. This makes analysis of the political headwinds more difficult. Merely analysing election time utterances is no longer sufficient. Conventional messaging is now under-girded by social media where narratives are generated on a whim, influencing millions in their wake. The party that can bring a semblance of control over this tumult will reap the benefits and it is not clear who is winning this battle for attention.

Ashwin Ravi is a practising data scientist who tracks social and demographic trends

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