WhatsApp does not have hands

By Sarayu Natarajan,
December 10th, 2018

Publication : Blog
Themes : Civic ParticipationDemocratic rightsEmerging Tech

WhatsApp does not have hands

Political brokers in the time of social media

Pallavan, a political worker in Bangalore, spoke to me about how he goes about his everyday work. During one interaction, he showed me several videos for over 30 minutes – of leaking pipes, broken pavements, missing drain covers, and defunct hand pumps. My interest was in understanding the interaction of housing and electoral politics, but I could not but ask Pallavan about how technology was influencing his job.

We live in a social media era – digital technologies have enabled access to vast amounts of information. The widespread penetration of mobile phones with video cameras and cheap data has meant that the incremental costs of information creation, replication, and dissemination are tiny. This, coupled with social media applications and platforms designed to enhance engagement, has created vibrant communities that reside online, and perhaps interact more frequently than do offline ones.

Pallavan’s job of intermediating between poor citizens and the state in this digital era is both more easy and more complex. For sure, communicating with the MLA and evidencing the problems he sees is easier. He takes videos and sends them on WhatsApp to the MLA’s assistant and to the local utilities. His “boys”, young men in his employ who hang around in the area under the pretext of social service, also take videos when they see a problem and send them across immediately. Disgruntled housewives send him pictures of drain water mixing with drinking water and harangue him on a local area WhatsApp group to address the problem.

This kind of ease of communication makes discussing local problems in a timely fashion very easy. Pallavan is appraised within minutes of a local event, galvanizing him to act. Pallavan can also take credit quickly – he often sends videos of himself standing triumphantly next to a water truck or a repaired drain on the local WhatsApp group. Organizing local action, such as a protest visit to the MLA’s house, is also easier – the man with the mini-van is contacted and timings are coordinated, all within hours via a social media platform. The availability of multi-lingual keyboards and voice notes makes this all the more easier.

But, timeliness is not urgency, Pallavan argues. When there is a leaky drain, you can’t send the smell on WhatsApp, nor does WhatsApp have hands to fix it. Pictures and videos fulfill the requirement of timely information transmission but do not convey the urgency of the problem. Nor can visuals prioritise problems or find solutions. Consequently, there is information dissemination on WhatsApp groups very quickly but the solutions are still located in the political economy of local service provision – they are linked to who has more votes and who stands to benefit financially – and the limitations of a resource-constrained bureaucracy.

It is also hard to filter out members and information. Pictures and videos from neighboring areas make their way to Pallavan. The visual similarity and close-up pictures of drains make it hard to tell where they are from, and Pallavan has the additional job of filtering. And, he adds, every problem becomes his problem and people look to him to fix things.

Beyond the everyday work in poor communities, brokers like Pallavan are a central figure in understanding electoral politics in India. Their work in programme implementation, as well as distribution of benefits, is instrumental in the electoral process. Their electoral role intersects with the digital era we are in. The Parliamentary elections of 2014 were, in India, the first instance of elections where information dissemination amongst communities and voters happened at lightning pace, alongside traditional political information dissemination channels – like campaign speeches, radio and TV ads, and door-to-door campaigns. This is only increasing.

Outside the realm of raging debates about privacy, security, and data in the wake of the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, personal use of social media is quietly shaping electoral practices and campaigns on the ground. The intersection of a digital world with election campaigns on the ground raises a set of unique concerns. The shift towards shorter news cycles and the links of profitability to TRPs have transformed every moment into a political moment, making it relevant to politicise potentially mundane or niche events. The expansion of the boundaries of newsworthy events have diluted the notion of what is local.

This emergent dynamic has meant that political parties, and through them ground level party workers like Pallavan encounter the digital intimately in their electoral campaigns, alongside the everyday. The impact on elections and campaigns resides alongside the ethical and legal issues relating to private entities and political parties using individualized data for electoral or corporate profit.

User-generated individualized data enables political parties to target their ministrations to whoever algorithms perceive as amenable voters – the lowered costs of transmission and the abundance of data have made micro-targeting less costly. Political parties have used Pallavan and his likes to do similar work on the production of personal data for years. Pallavan’s involvement in several local issues, his relevance in “helping out with police problems”, and his network of informants (“boys”) have given him deep personal knowledge of the local context. There in increasing evidence of the difficulties, brokers face in accurately identifying partisan identities, and macro data sets with predictive information about people’s political inclination and their geographic dispersal are very relevant.

But the information revolution has not meant just information of voters in the hands of political parties, but also the availability of information to voters. Services such as WhatsApp/Telegram, and Facebook have made enormous amounts of information available instantly and endlessly to anyone with access to the application. Voters receive amounts vast information in the form of jokes, videos, and satirical and ironic memes.

Political campaigns on the ground have to contend with two big shifts because of this information’s availability to voters. First, geography does not matter. All issues are relevant, everywhere, as geographic boundaries and physical constraints do not limit access to information. In the era of social media, Uttar Pradesh’s (non)-development record is relevant in the Karnataka elections. Second, there is a shift in the directionality of broker-voter interactions in the electoral context. When Pallavan encounters a voter, she has already accessed large quantities of politically relevant information. Unlike in the past when Pallavan led the narrative in this dyad, he now has to respond to questions about issues.

These raise questions about what the future of democratic politics looks like – what free and fair elections mean, how political parties are to comprehend social cleavages, and what liberal democracies will look like. Digital strategies are dynamic and are not zero-sum. All parties across the spectrum will need digital strategies as they are relevant and significant. WhatsApp may not have the hands to fix problems, but its long arm can certainly convey political messages.