Thursday, February 10, 2011

Twitter as a political tool

The recent revolution in Tunisia gave followers of the internet yet another cause to cheer. Twitter was supposed to have played a major part in the revolution which ousted the country's ruler. Whether that was good or bad is a different matter altogether which only time will tell.

People are asking, will Twitter have the same effect in India? Are we ready for a Twitter revolution? The answer to that is a clear no - with low levels of internet penetration, barriers to English and lower levels of mobile internet penetration. However, it is growing up as a political tool more than anything else.

For a while Twitter was thought to be useful only for celebrities to tweet their breakfasts and holiday destinations. But over the past few years, it has gained currency as the go to place for the latest happenings. This is obvious because anybody with a mobile internet connection and a Twitter account at the spot of any happening (terror attacks like Mumbai 26/11 where many of those trapped in the mayhem were active on Twitter) can report far better than any news channel. That being said, its importance has just begun to be seen and will not go down anytime soon.

The big idea about Twitter is that one can follow anybody who is on it - be it journalists or news tycoons or celebrities or sportspersons. The advantage is that you get to read them, unfiltered and in real time. That, for a fan is as good as it gets. And if the Big B replies to your tweets, your day is made. For politicians this is an important medium - they get to connect with their constituencies, bounce ideas and more importantly get a dipstick feel of what people think about them. And being what they are - busy people - it is easy to create news out of Twitter. So, it is smart to follow someone who is a newsmaker. Yet another reason why it is here to stay. And its the best bet for lazy journalism as well, follow, a celeb on twitter, quote them and create your own news...

But in India, it is the BJP politicians who have been quick on the draw in the twitter battle. Overall the English language media (with a few honorable exceptions) has an anti-BJP bias. Twitter is an excellent way for the BJP to bypass traditional media outlets and reach their constituency directly. And whats better - it is interactive, unlike a boisterous television host. Thus twitter gives them great reach within their constituency - and many of them being media savvy exchange thoughts with their followers on Twitter.

Congress has been relatively slower to catch up on Twitter - except for Shashi Tharoor who is a favourite of many. It can be argued that they don't need it what with channels competing to report Rahul Gandhi's breakfast each day. But after him, there are barely anybody - Abhishek Singhvi is one who is on it. And NC has Omar Abdullah on it.

Narendra Modi is on twitter - he has always been internet savvy. Yeddyurappa is a new entrant. Varun Gandhi was on twitter, but he seems to have disappeared. The latest one to join the Twitter bandwagon was Sushma Swaraj - she practically live tweeted her arrest in Jammu while her many followers on Twitter relayed it further. She was an instant heroine - a leader in the middle of the Tiranga yatra arrested fighting for a cause she believed in.

Twitter is a great tool - it forces our politicians to reach out, communicate and be answerable while enjoying celebrity status, but these are early days yet. As time goes, politicians will be expected to be active on Twitter and engage real time with people. It would of course be a mistake to assume tweeters to be great politicians, but very soon the reverse will be true with tweeter politicians getting first mover advantage.

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