THE BLOG

Likes, Retweets And Followers -- Politics In The Age Of Social Media

Milind Deora is a Member of Parliament and the Minister for Communications, IT and Shipping, Government of India. With help from Praveen Chakravarty, ex-CEO of an investment bank, Eisenhower Fellow and a public policy enthusiast.

NEW DELHI -- In 1967, the American psychologist Stanley Milgram published his path-breaking research findings on social networks and social order. This was famously dubbed the "small world" experiment and its findings were immortalized as what we popularly know as the theory of "six degrees of separation" of mankind.

Less than 50 years later, the six degrees has been compressed to almost one degree of separation between two humans, thanks to Email, Internet, Google and now Facebook, Twitter and Linked In. While email technology made the concept of geography redundant, today's social media technologies of Facebook, Twitter etc. have rendered traditional social order irrelevant. With this disruption of social order as we know it, the most profound impact of social media has been on politics as a profession and electoral politics in particular.

I was elected as a Member of Parliament in May, 2009 for a 5 year term from the constituency of South Mumbai in the city of Mumbai, India. Most of us politicians did not carry a smart phone then and were barely aware of Facebook and certainly unaware of Twitter. The conventional thinking then was that of the average 1.5 million voters in each electoral constituency in India, a large percentage just about possessed a mobile phone, let alone access the internet and hence politicians were merely a manifestation of this reality.

Estimates suggest that in 2009, there were just 2 million users of Facebook in all of India and an insignificant number on Twitter. As India gears up for elections in May 2014, there will now be roughly 110 million Facebook users and 15 million Twitter users. I carry a smart phone now, post regularly on Facebook and have sent more than 2500 tweets to nearly 120,000 followers in 3 years! Social media has fantastically broken down communication barriers in a politician - citizen relationship. Social media has allowed citizens to organize themselves easier, faster and better. This has fostered a tremendous ability for politicians and citizens to have "personal" conversations with each other. And with thousands of people, almost simultaneously.

The traditional form of addressing large rallies of people by political leaders on political issues is now fast being replaced by a 140 character, one-one communication medium. Social media has empowered millions of people with the ability to raise issues and has even nurtured a sense of intimacy between themselves and their political representative. This has made the profession of politics more "personal", improved accountability of elected politicians dramatically and has overall raised the bar to a much higher level.

However, this social media technological revolution has also sparked off a perverse race to be heard, be followed, to be the first etc. Decibel levels have increased, but alas, so have the noise levels. It runs the risk of fostering a rock-star political culture focused on individuals.

Numbers of Twitter followers, Facebook likes and YouTube views are being naively used as proxies for popularity and approval ratings. It threatens to cultivate an unfettered, noisy and sometimes meaningless discourse culture with "famous" personalities pontificating on everything, so as to be seen as "speaking out". A 140 character communication medium available to all is a wonderful tool to raise issues but it leaves little room for a healthy debate and for drawing meaningful solutions.

A 140 character communication medium available to all is a wonderful tool to raise issues but it leaves little room for a healthy debate and for drawing meaningful solutions.

I worry about this ominous change in our society, if style will trump substance, if noises will drown out real signals, if vicious one-liners will replace genuine debate. Important issues of poverty alleviation, state of the economy, public policy choices etc. are capsuled down with rhetoric, wit and spin to make a point.

Showmanship and pretense seem to win over depth and quality of content in today's frenzied social media era. Legislators over the world that I talk to, tell me the same thing -- social media is powerful but can also encourage and reward a shallow posturing culture in society.
How do we harness the power of social media for a more engaging and productive debate that focuses on real issues in depth? How do we co-opt "old technology" -- institutions that have lasted several centuries like Parliaments, Senates to seamlessly integrate with the new world dictated by social media? How best can politicians and lawmakers ensure that the clamor for immediate solutions not lead to knee-jerk policy making?

These are difficult but important questions that need to be deliberated and answered in the interest of societies adapting suitably to a fast changing social order. To paraphrase the renowned political scientist Samuel Huntington, the primary objective of politics is to ensure social order and innovations that can threaten this disorder need an equal balancing force through innovation in the political process.