Elections 2009: The Digital Connection

I had two journalists call me on Wednesday wanting to talk about the role of the Internet and mobile in the Elections. Here is a summary of the points I made:

  • Internet reaches about 50 million of 700 million (7%) voters; so overall impact is small. Question is how much influence does this group have and that is not clear.  Unlike in marketing products where the audience is top of the pyramid and therefore highly desirable, in a democracy, every vote counts the same – and there are no prizes for coming second in a constituency!
  • The mobile (and especially SMS) can be a game-changer in this election. SMS can reach upto half the voting population (about 375 million of 700 million), and messages can direct and non-targeted. Also, many interactive services (find your polling both, who are the crminals contesting in your constituency) will increases the appeal and use of SMS in the election.
  • One thing which I am seeing increasing use of is email. Chain mails have started giving viewpoints different from what we are seeing on the traditional mass media.
  • Social media (Facebook, Orkut) can amplify reach, but these are still early days, and their impact will be limited.
  • Thus, email and SMS forwarding, along with the social networking sites, can help spread messages fast, but their impact will be mostly restricted to urban constituencies.
  • The big impact will hopefully be in an increase in voting percentages in urban areas, given all the awareness campaigns that have been taking place.
  • So, equating India 2009 to US 2008 in terms of the impact of digital media on elections is incorrect — India is probably more similar to US 2000 or US 2004. These are early days, and therefore the goal should be try out lots of experiments. Then see what works, and build on that for the state elections that will keep happening and the next general elections.
  • Overall, this is a good start – and with the 2-way tools that we now have at our disposal (email, SMS, blogs, websites) we have started on an irrevesible to citizen involvement and engagement in governance, which is what democracy is all about.