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The 2024 Indian Elections: The Strategic Use of Journalism, Social Media, and Internet Governance in a Modi-centric Election

Published on
18 Apr 2024
Written by
Ralph Schroeder, Neeraj Shetye and Maknoon Wani
As the world’s most populated country and largest democracy hold its 2024 elections, we consider the role of digital technologies in the election campaign.
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Title: The 2024 Indian Elections: The Strategic Use of Journalism, Social Media, and Internet Governance in a Modi-centric Election

Authors: Ralph Schroeder, Neeraj Shetye, Maknoon Wani

Related: Licinia Güttel, Victoria Nash (Editors)

From 19 April to 01 June, India, the world’s most populated country and largest democracy will hold its elections in seven phases across its states, with results being announced on 04 June. With over 960 million people eligible to vote, this will be the largest election the world has ever witnessed, making it important to examine the role of digital technologies during the election campaign (BBC News, 2024). India’s parliamentary democracy is considered partly free, characterised by fair and free elections and the existence of political rights, but negatively affected by shortcomings in the protection of civil liberties and a lack of internet freedom (Freedom House, 2023).

India is among the democracies with the highest voter participation rates where voting is not compulsory. But unusually for democracies, women and those from rural (often poorer) areas are over- rather than underrepresented (Sayeda 2024). The Election Commission of India (ECI) is a constitutional body and has been widely regarded as a trusted institution in India, ensuring that all elections take place fairly. In recent years, however, this independence has been dented by the BJP through changes in the nomination process of the chief election commissioner (but unlike in authoritarian states, there is little suggestion that the electoral process itself will be so unfair as to swing the election decisively).

The 2024 elections can be described as centred around the current prime minister Narendra Modi. At the national level, there have been two alliance ‘blocs’, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the Bharatiya Janata (Indian people’s party) party (BJP), and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), conventionally seen as right and left. But this divide hides a patchwork of coalitions at the state level. Campaign finance has favoured the BJP, and this advantage was set to improve with laws pushed by the BJP allowing electoral bonds that would get around existing rules preventing the funding of parties. But this manoeuvre and mechanism was rejected by the Supreme Court in a rare defeat of Modi’s government.

Since last year, there has been an attempt to forge a broader alliance against the BJP – the Indian National Development Inclusive Alliance (INDIA), but this has not been notably successful so far with much bickering among the parties. Despite the diversity of parties that compete at the state level, the national election can be seen as a referendum on Modi personally, as seen previously in the 2014 and 2019 national elections. However, the BJP was initially reluctant to have Modi as its party’s candidate for prime minister in 2014: he was seen as too strident and too much of an unknown quantity by the party elite. But Modi took to Twitter to appeal to supporters directly, tweets which were then widely covered in national news outlets. The Indian elections thus take place in a context in which fair elections exist but press and online freedom – important parts of the public sphere – are targeted by the ruling party. These challenges will be outlined focusing on social media, journalism, and Internet regulations.

Social Media and the Indian Elections

Disinformation on social media played an important, though not decisive, role in the previous two elections (Das and Schroeder 2020; see also Sardesai 2020). 2014 is sometimes dubbed the ‘Twitter election’ and 2019 the ‘WhatsApp’ election. 2024, with YouTube among the main outlets that Indians use for news (Reuters 2023, though note this surveyed mainly an English-speaking urban population) may come to be known as the ‘YouTube election’. Still, as in Indonesia, conventional TV news is still the main source for following the election for most Indians, though radio, newspapers and large in-person rallies also play a strong role.

The key feature that has stood out in the last two elections and likely again this year is the overwhelming advantage of the BJP with its electoral voter mobilisation machinery. Its ‘booth level’ (the lowest level of voting) organisation for getting supporters to turn out to vote is far superior to that of other parties. Likewise with its media and especially social media campaigning. The reasons why other parties have not matched this is unclear: other parties are divided, and they have simply not responded to the challenge of developing strong digital and offline campaign organisations. The strength of the BJP partly stems from its alliances with other parties at the state level, but its main advantages, again, are campaign organisation and voter turnout efforts (Mehta 2023; Sharma 2020). The BJP has built up a machinery to connect with supporters and potential voters, including party volunteers calling individual voters to remind them of the BJP’s achievements and benefits that the party will bring to groups if elected.

On social media, election campaigning has moved beyond Twitter and Facebook and WhatsApp to now also include YouTube and other channels as sources of news (Reuters 2023; CSDS 2019, 2022; Neyazi and Schroeder 2021). TikTok has been banned from India by Modi due to a highly visible spat with China over a conflict over the border between the two countries (Mishra, Pan and Schroeder 2022), but other short-form video outlets have taken its place.

The Worrying State of Indian Journalism

India’s ranking in the  World Press Freedom Index has consistently deteriorated over the past few years, touching a record low of 161 out of 180 countries in 2023, falling 11 positions compared to 2022 (Reporters Without Borders, 2022). One of the main issues leading to the downgrade is the concentrated ownership of Indian media  where businesses such as Reliance Industries, which is close to the Prime Minister, has been able to buy more than 70 media outlets in the country. This has significantly affected Indian journalism: As Antara Dev Sen observes, “An independent journalist is the bedrock of responsible media as opposed to embedded journalists, enlisted by dominant political, ideological or business interests” (Sen 2015).

However, journalists who report critically on the government have been subjected to violence, including legal harassment in the form of cases of sedition filed against them for critical coverage (Free Speech Collective, 2023). As the Frontline reported, “even as corporatisation of media is a global phenomenon, in India, it seems to have happened at the expense of journalism of integrity” (Bhakto, 2023).

The BJP, as mentioned before, has been particularly aggressive in its outreach towards voters. Due to the skew in media ownership, the primary source of information for those who rely on sources such as newspapers and TV has been partly muzzled. Modi is also the first Prime Minister to routinely reject press conferences. He has not held a press conference since he was elected in 2014, (he did organise a press conference in 2019 but did not take questions) (Reuters, 2019).

Traditional media in India have largely been silent on the Prime minister’s approach towards the press, but critical voices have found a space in a number of alternative digital media outlets with smaller reach. The growth of outlets  like the Wire, Scroll, Newslaundry, Mooknayak, News Minute and Article 14 after the 2014 election have added an important set of alternatives to existing traditional news media. Most of these outlets are available only in digital format – with articles and videos also posted on platforms such as YouTube and Instagram. Most of these are recognised as more independent in their reporting and  they are also independently funded through diverse grants and NGOs). However, there are also examples of such alternative digital outlets aligning with the BJP’s Hindutva ideology. Outlets such as Swarajya and OpIndia are examples that regularly support the BJP government and provide more extreme versions of its positions. These outlets also attack traditional media: OpIndia, for example, supports the BJP but also denounces ‘mainstream media’ for their “liberal bias” (Chadha & Bhat, 2022).

Another analysis of how the mainstream media has been complicit in furthering state propaganda and perpetuating divisive, communal rhetoric in India comes from the Polis Project. Its report argues that the mainstream media has become a political instrument for the ruling party – “a powerful machinery to propagate its majoritarian agenda for electoral gains at the cost of the country’s marginalised communities, critics and dissenters” (George and Inamdar, 2021). The media thus play a role in the normalisation of Hindutva violence, growing attacks against minorities, caste violence, and violence against citizen protesters.

The Indian government has enthusiastically controlled online information through iterative legislation for the last three years. The 2024 general elections are the first nationwide elections since the contentious Information Technology Rules, 2021  (hereinafter IT Rules) were notified by the Modi government. The IT Rules, issued under the decades-old Information Technology Act (2000), implemented a multi-tier regulatory approach to social media intermediaries, digital news, and OTT streaming services (Information Technology Rules, 2021). In January 2023, the IT Rules were used to ban a BBC documentary that was critical of Modi’s handling of the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat (Reuters, 2023). The Indian government’s ability to influence content moderation decisions in the absence of independent judicial oversight will potentially have a significant impact on online discourse during the election. On the other hand, India has yet to implement a data law that was enacted last year (Kar, 2024). This legislative gap will aggravate the abuse of citizens’ personal data by political parties and lead to the non-consensual use of public data.

The IT Rules were challenged in various Indian courts for violating citizen rights. The Indian government has had mixed success in defending and upholding far-reaching initiatives to regulate online information. For instance, its recent attempts to establish a government-run Fact Check Unit (Sanzgiri, 2024) and an advisory to compel manufacturers to seek permission before introducing an AI model (The Hindu Bureau, 2024) signal its strong-armed approach towards controlling the internet.

Concurrently, with the absence of data laws, the incumbent BJP will be at a significant advantage in leveraging government databases to micro-target voters. With more than 400 million WhatsApp users (Singh, 2019), the 2024 election will see a greater use of micro-targeting than the 2019 ‘WhatsApp’ election. The Indian government also has access to a vast database of phone numbers owing to its digital public infrastructure for welfare delivery. Starting March 15, millions of WhatsApp users in India received a message from a government-run account seeking feedback on the Modi government’s welfare schemes. The account sent letters signed by Modi along with voice notes recorded by him (Viksit Bharat Messages, 2024).

This campaign raised concerns about the possible misuse of government databases to reach out to voters before elections without obtaining users’ consent. Although the Election Commission of India directed the government to stop sending these messages (Maitra, 2024), India’s political parties also have access to off-the-shelf personal databases sold by private data brokers (Joshi, 2024). Given the extreme linguistic, caste, and religious diversity of Indian voters, micro-targeting will be an efficient (although questionable) strategy to deliver election messaging throughout the month-long polling. However, the incumbent BJP’s ability to use the IT Rules to censor online content, its access to public data and its propensity to use it for canvassing puts the opposition at a significant disadvantage.

India’s Elections between Digital and Institutional Challenges

Within the broader context of the election year, the Indian example demonstrates the challenges to democracy and pluralism in a context in which fair elections exist but press and online freedom – important parts of the public sphere – are targeted by the ruling party.  During the Indian elections, both digital and traditional media will play a role as WhatsApp and YouTube are prominent parts of news consumption (Reuters Institute, 2023). Hence, the micro-targeting of voters, attempts to weaken institutions, and the imbalanced ownership of media are concerns during this election campaigns.


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