Kathmandu springOn May 13, a day before local elections were held in 34 districts across the country, Health Minister Gagan Thapa was swamped by UML cadres in Kapan, where the irate crowd berated him for breaching the election code of conduct by trying to reach out to Nepali Congress voters.
On May 13, a day before local elections were held in 34 districts across the country, Health Minister Gagan Thapa was swamped by UML cadres in Kapan, where the irate crowd berated him for breaching the election code of conduct by trying to reach out to Nepali Congress voters. Soon after, a short video of the incident quickly made its rounds on social media platforms, sharply dividing opinion. And within a couple of hours, Minister Thapa was compelled to clear the air regarding the accusation. But notably, he chose to do so not through a press release or a staged public statement; instead, he went live via Facebook.
Minister Thapa might be one of Nepal’s most social media-savvy politicians, but his choice of social media as pulpit nonetheless suggests that a new wave of connectivity has finally arrived in Nepali politics. For weeks leading up to the recently-held first phase of local level elections, Nepali social media was abuzz with political chatter. Political parties, especially newcomers BibekSheel Nepali and Sajha Party, extensively used virtual platforms to reach out to and galvanise prospective voters. Memes about metro rails and air quality went viral. And the media, new and old, raced to create content for readers and viewers who are increasingly consuming their information through the internet.
Now, with vote counts slowly trickling in, it appears that all the hullabaloo was not for nothing—‘likes’ and ‘retweets’ have indeed translated into votes. And while this might not quite be Nepal’s own version of a social media-fuelled popular uprising, the die has been cast; Nepali politics is transitioning into the digital age, even if begrudgingly.
According to the Nepal Telecommunications Authority’s latest numbers, there are 14.18 million internet subscribers in the country, or nearly 56 percent of the national population. The report indicates that internet penetration has increased by a whopping 18.22 percent over the year, ending mid-February. What is more, the most growth in web connectivity has come via mobile devices as more and more people are using social media platforms, particularly in the nation’s urban clusters. This growth is even more remarkable, when compared to figures only a few years ago. Internet penetration in 2011, for instance, stood at a mere 8.49 percent.
Data from Social Aves, a social and digital media marketing agency, suggests that 28,743 images, 245,384 Facebook statuses and 76,376 tweets about the election was posted on Election Day. 87,569 people checked into Facebook’s Check-in feature made available on May 14. While hashtags #Nepalvotes, #LocalPolls2017 and #Election2017 trended throughout the day on Twitter and Facebook.
Five day’s into the vote count, the fact that BibekSheel Nepali and Sajha Party have garnered more votes in Kathmandu and Lalitpur (till Friday morning) than the Maoist Centre and Rastriya Prjatantra Party, the second and third big parties in country’s parliament is a testament to the changing political landscape.
“We got our election symbol a week before people were supposed to cast their votes. In the absence of a big network, as compared with traditional forces like Nepali Congress and UML, it was a challenge for us to make sure that people get to know about our symbol within a week,” BibekSheel Nepali Chairman Ujjwal Thapa said. “It was only because of social media that we could reach out to hundreds of thousands of voters within a week.”
BibekSheel Nepali has fielded 21-year-old candidate Ranju Darshana while Sajha Party has chosen a former top-bureaucrat, Kishore Thapa, for the coveted mayoral office of Kathmandu Metropolitan City. Both parties and candidates did not have long political histories. Sajha Party, in fact, was formed just a month before the scheduled polls.
According to Ujjwal Thapa, while the mainstream media did play a role in adding credibility to the party’s candidate and agenda, social media helped them amplify it to ensure that maximum number of people were reached. To that end BibekSheel Nepali established a dedicated team for reaching out to the voters in real and in the virtual world. “Before filing the candidacy for the mayoral position, we conducted a survey to tap into the will and the needs of Kathmandu’s residents. Around, 2,000 families were included in the survey,” Thapa said, adding that the party manifesto was prepared on the basis of this survey. “Had there been no social media, we couldn’t have established or promoted our agenda in the way that we were able to.”
Buzz created on social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, was more than just a promotional tool for parties. It also played a crucial role in motivating young voters to participate. According to Election Commission, around 1.9 million new voters are registered to cast their votes over the two phases of the local election. A majority of them, according to the EC, are young voters eligible to vote for the first time.
Further, experts say that social media posts by public figures and celebrities also spurred the elderly and the differently abled to make sure that they utilised their supreme right as citizens, pulling in those traditionally in the fringes into the electoral process. In fact, by election week, the Election Commission’s various voter education efforts had transmuted into catchy short videos. These videos—particularly one on voting procedures and ballot invalidity—duly went viral on social media as well.
Ravi Singhal, chief executive officer of Social Aves, says that the impact of social media in the local election has been significant. According to Singhal, it was not just newly-established political forces but the likes of Nepali Congress, UML and Maoist Centre as well that made optimum use of social media during the run in. “Spending on promotion via social media by traditional political parties has increased by at least 20 folds, compared to the second Constituent Assembly election in 2013,” Singhal said. “A key observation this year is that political parties have been institutionally involved in social media promotion. In 2013 CA election, the approach seemed to be individual and limited within young leaders.”
While door-to-door political campaign will always have a place in canvassing for votes, the fact that traditional political parties have equally started focusing on virtual communication shows that the impact of social media is increasing by the year. The use of social media, however, isn’t all positive. A number of misleading and sponsored posts were also found funnelling, or worse misleading voters. Likewise, reports of fake accounts being used to troll candidates or parties have also emerged. And, stories published by mouth pieces of political parties, created purely out of vested political interests, went equally viral as well.
“Some of the misleading information was even carried by mainstream media,” Singhal said. According to him, the Election Commission had discussed the matter (regarding misleading posts) with Facebook weeks before the commencement of election and that it helped the government discourage such trends to some extent. In an age when more and more people are consuming their information through the web, “Fake News”—to borrow a Trumpian analogy—is a natural by-product. But how institutions like the EC will be able to filter and curate misleading posts, according to Singhal, will feature even more prominently come the next election cycle. Nepal’s digital divide, Singhal says, might still be markedly pronounced when compared to other democracies around the world, but if these elections are anything to go by, it doesn’t look like that will be the case for very much longer.