The influencers driving India’s big election

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In the lead-up to this year’s Indian election, Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended an event in Delhi alongside social media personalities like BeerBiceps and Curly Tales. This awards show celebrated the influence of top social media stars in India, highlighting their potential impact on reaching young, disinterested, and disillusioned voters. While some see social media as democratizing media, allowing anyone to share their views, others warn of threats and the potential for truth to be compromised for financial gain.

A decade ago, the term “influencer” was rare, but now it’s a profession. People, including teenagers, can earn significant income from social media. At the lower end, influencers may charge around 2,000 rupees ($24) per day, while top influencers can earn up to 500,000 rupees for a single post. Some influencers have been offered large sums by political parties and election management firms to sway public opinion.

Vinay Deshpande, co-founder of Rajneethi, a political management consultant firm, explains how influencers have helped political candidates. By leveraging the power of social media, influencers can shape public perception and influence voters’ opinions. However, this can lead to a lack of critical thinking among the audience.

Despite the potential for manipulation, many people, like 25-year-old Preethi Aggarwal, turn to social media influencers to understand complex political issues. Influencers provide context and perspective, making news more accessible and engaging. However, there’s concern about whose perspective is being presented and whether influencers maintain editorial independence.

YouTuber Samdish Bhatia reveals that politicians have offered him large sums to interview them, but they often want to control the narrative. Some influencers have declined these offers to maintain editorial control. However, longer-form interviews, designed to humanize politicians, can still be manipulated to serve political agendas.

Joyojeet Pal, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, highlights the potential biases in political content on social media. His research suggests a decline in critical content about the incumbent government, while pro-government content has increased. This trend could undermine democracy by stifling dissenting voices.

Opposition influencers face challenges, including fear of government reprisals and online harassment. Some operate under pseudonyms to protect their identities. Despite these risks, opposition parties recognize the value of influencers in reaching voters, particularly as mainstream media faces allegations of bias.

Influencers like Akash Banerjee believe they have a responsibility to inform the public and hold the government accountable. Through their platforms, they aim to spark conversations and empower citizens to make informed decisions at the ballot box. Despite the challenges and risks, influencers continue to play a significant role in shaping political discourse in India.

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