Inside Facebook’s bid to become the Indian government’s default town square

Since the Free Basics failure, Facebook is going all out to woo the government, political parties and lawmakers, even launching voter registration reminders last week, in 13 languages. How serious a role is it going to play in the 2019 elections?


On 20 April 2017, the Press Information Bureau (PIB), the Indian government’s official communication department, held an unusual event: an official workshop titled ‘Instagram for Better Government Communication’. Besides PIB officials, it was attended by union ministers Venkaiah Naidu and Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore. The workshop saw the two ministers and bureaucrats learn the nuances of Facebook’s photo-sharing app, Instagram, and its potential as an outreach tool. It was the first such initiative by Instagram in Asia, where John Tass-Parker, its key global politics and government outreach official, participated, among others.

While the event itself did not make headlines, it highlighted something that got Facebook officials excited. That the government itself was looking at its products and services with a great deal of promise, which, if fulfilled, could make Instagram a potent communication tool, especially ahead of the general elections in 2019. According to sources, more such workshops are being planned over the next 12 months.

“Events like these are part of a concerted attempt by Facebook to win over the government. It demonstrates a very clear tactical shift from its Free Basics approach,” says a New Delhi-based technology professional, who knows how the BJP’s (Bharatiya Janata Party) IT cell operates. He doesn’t want to be named because he is not authorised to speak to the media. “These workshops and interactions will only get more common as we get closer to the 2019 elections. Wait and watch.”

What also emboldened Facebook India officials was a reference to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Mark Zuckerberg’s February essay on ‘Building Global Community’. Zuckerberg wrote, “In India, Prime Minister Modi has asked his ministers to share their meetings and information on Facebook so they can hear direct feedback from citizens.” The officials felt that Zuckerberg’s reference was a public acknowledgement of how far Facebook had come in India, and how much further it could go from here.

There’s a certain urgency about Facebook’s approach in India. Its Free Basics initiative was shot down in February 2016 by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, which ruled against the unlimited access to the restricted internet that Facebook was offering. Now, Facebook wants to become THE platform for government officials, both for information dissemination and citizen engagement because it has the critical mass of users and a range of products to offer. And, in the process, leave Twitter behind. Meanwhile, the government has realised that while Twitter keeps a certain type of audience engaged, Facebook is where force multiplication happens. Where its messages could trickle down to the voters.

Therefore, over the last 12 months, Facebook has been growing its policy team in India led by Ankhi Das, its director for public policy in India, South and Central Asia. It has also been more proactive, funding policy research to think-tanks, industry associations, consulting companies, in areas like privacy. Essentially, Facebook has realised the importance of starting early—a departure from its approach in 2014, which was largely last-minute.

We have the people…

Being early means getting the politically inclined to use Facebook products even before they’re elected to power. At the candidate stage. “What Facebook does well is work closely with the local unit of the political parties, as we observed in the recent Uttar Pradesh (UP) elections, to create and verify candidate pages even before they become MLAs,” says the technology professional quoted earlier in the story. The BJP, sources say, currently has nearly 50% of its 312 elected representatives from UP on Facebook.

“In the political process, Facebook’s goal is to make it easier for people to get the information they need to vote and have a voice. During the state elections in 2017, 35 million people in India had over 300 million interactions and over 5000+ Facebook live videos were executed by key leaders, candidates, political parties and media partners,” writes Das in an emailed response to The Ken.

The social media giant is clearly pitching it right. To understand Facebook’s pitch, it’s important to consider some facts. India, today, is categorically, the largest market for Facebook outside of the United States. A June 2017 eMarketer study said that India has the largest share of Facebook users (32.6%) in Asia-Pacific while forecasting that 182.9 million users are expected to log into Facebook at least once during 2017. This amounts to 69.9% of all social network users and 42.6% of the internet users in the country. This, remember, is just Facebook. WhatsApp, also from the Facebook stable, recently clocked over 200 million active users in India, making it the dominant market for the messenger app. Instagram’s active user base in India, while in its nascency, is around 31 million, as reported by The Ken in March. Facebook virtually dominates India’s social communication space. Four of its apps—WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Facebook and Facebook Lite—are among the top 10 most used apps in India, as per the Mary Meeker 2017 Internet Trends report.

Facebook has been among the significant beneficiaries of Reliance Jio’s entry in July 2016 and its domino effect on data rates. It acknowledged this trend to its investors during both its Q4 2016 and Q1 2017 results. It added nearly 30 million Indian users since 2016.

One of those new users, was Paresh Kumar, a parking assistant in South Delhi’s Defence Colony market. Every day, he spends close to three or four hours on the platform he joined in November last year. “Facebook gives me everything. I chat, watch videos, read news, keep tabs on what is happening within my state (Bihar) and what the central government is up to. I follow most of the big ministers,” he says.

“Facebook’s post-Jio growth seems to have come largely from first-time smartphone users,” says a Gurugram-based digital marketing professional, who requested not to be named because he is not authorised to speak to the media. “What Jio and its trigger-effect also did was change the nature of content consumption. All of a sudden, watching videos on Facebook over 4G became a primary use case, which might come in handy not just for brands, but lawmakers too.”

…And therefore, your potential voters

Facebook’s bid to become the default platform for the government comes at a time when its rival, Twitter, is struggling in India with several shortcomings. For a start, a stagnant user base, with no more than 25-30 million users in India, according to industry sources. The eMarketer study quoted earlier says that only 10 million Indians are expected to use Twitter in 2017, a fraction of Facebook’s user base in India.

Twitter also suffers from a perception problem, as one populated largely by journalists and “influencers”—i.e., people who have amassed a large number of followers over the years owing to their opinions or ideological bias. And it is expensive from a marketing standpoint, with products like promoted hashtags costing a client upwards of Rs 6 lakh. While Twitter is an important channel for the government and all political parties to set the mainstream agenda, its utility remains restricted to feeding an echo-chamber and triggering reactions. With Facebook, the government sees measurable, real-time reach with the aam aadmi (common man).

It’s not surprising then that 46 out of 51 ministries, along with its ministers in charge—both Cabinet and Minister of State—has an active Facebook page, which they are asked to update. After every speech, meeting, announcement, visit, rally or any other official or parliamentary activity. Ministers are encouraged to write detailed blog posts, to be posted as a ‘Note’ on Facebook. The same holds for India’s 61 diplomatic missions abroad. All of them have an active Facebook page, with regular updates about events within the embassy. “There’s a big push under Digital India for all ministries, agencies and ministers of the government to have a voice on Facebook and other platforms to share activities, report cards and take feedback,” Das adds.

Screenshots of the pages maintained by Indian embassies on Facebook

Every press conference organised by a ministry or even the PIB is simulcasted on Facebook Live. The thinking here is that Facebook with a potential user base of 180+ million has a wider reach than any television news channel. Every minister, from time to time, has been asked to do a Live session, ranging between half an hour to an hour to update people about his ministry’s policies. On its part, Facebook has made its other tools, like ‘Q&A’, available to the government.

Screenshot of a Facebook Q&A session featuring union minister Maneka Gandhi

In some instances, the government has been careful with its messaging, especially on Facebook. “If you noticed, PM Modi’s speech the other day about gau bhakti was not posted on Facebook, while it was being live-tweeted on Twitter. Why? Because they understand the audience Facebook represents: the voters,” says Gaurav Pandhi, a member of the opposition Indian National Congress’ social media cell.

The BJP has, so far, managed to onboard 325 out of its 340 members of Parliament (MPs) on Facebook. The party also sends a rigorous weekly report card for each of its MPs, along with rankings of top-performing MPs in social media engagements. In the next six months to a year, sources say, it plans to rope in the rest.

“What we’ve observed so far is that on Facebook, engagement is 10X more than what it is on Twitter. At the individual MP or MLA level, Facebook gives us ample interactivity—not just likes or comments, but actionables,” says Arvind Gupta, head of the BJP’s IT Cell. “The feedback loop is more and more active at that level. The moment someone notices an actionable feedback, it can be taken offline. Most of the feedback is dealt with directly from the MP/MLA’s office, hence helping in a faster response.”

The importance of being early

The United States (US) experience with grassroots political engagement gives Facebook a head start in India. And it serves two purposes. One, it gets a trove of data. It can narrowcast users who follow a local official from that constituency using demographic indicators like age, gender, political ideology and economic strata (based on other preferences or ‘Likes’). Unless the said figure is a popular actor or a musician or a minister, only users from that particular constituency are likely to follow him/her to keep track of their activities and achievements.

Two, it helps advertisers (or politicians) target their campaigns more effectively. So in the next election cycle, if a rival party wants to capture the seat, it could well resort to targeted advertising on Facebook, where the ad is very likely to show up on the user’s page.

What Facebook understands is that as more and more people join its platform, even the last-mile governance, the gram panchayats, will eventually join the online party. It’d mean a vast swathe of the population is open to organising themselves on platforms like Facebook. The end result: local issues get discussed more often, giving rise to more local content.

The Facebook page of Jalmana, a gram panchayat in Haryana

Since the start of the year, Facebook has been trying to play a more proactive role in politics in the US, launching tools and features that help people reach government representatives. These include “Town Hall”, which allows users to “easily locate, follow and contact their local, state and federal government representatives,” according to a report in TechCrunch. Apparently, Facebook has also integrated a feature to send reminders for local elections in the US “to encourage users to vote in state, county, and municipal elections”.

In June, Facebook said it was rolling out three more features for its US users: constituent badges, constituent insights and district targeting. It also launched a version of its election reminder feature in India last month, in partnership with the Election Commission of India. Except, in this case, the campaign was a three-day voter registration reminder between 1-4 July. In 13 Indian languages.

Facebook says, it is “creating new ways to make civic participation a daily habit.” According to Das, “Most of us don’t know who our representatives are, especially at the local level and the work they do is the most consequential to our daily lives. Facebook makes it easy for people to find, follow and contact that elected representatives.”

Facebook’s government relations strategy has seen a shift over the last year—from policy influencing to product adoption. It must be seen as a long-term investment, arising out of its setback. If it ever considers rolling out something similar, it would have a ready base of legislators and policymakers by its side. “Its hope is that with these politicians being on the platform, they would be more open and willing to its future initiatives, than how it went about,” says the digital marketer quoted earlier in the story.

2019: India’s first Facebook election?

If all of this comes together in two years as India heads to the general elections, Facebook could have a significant role to play. Maybe not to the extent it influenced the US presidential election last year, but certainly as a tool for campaigning. WhatsApp has already emerged as the default channel for information dissemination for all parties. Facebook, with tools like Q&A and Facebook Live, could be a handful. “In these platforms, politicians see a time-saver or even a money saver,” says the digital marketer. “What is stopping a candidate from sitting at home and recording three speeches in three different languages and targeting them specifically?”

Or for that matter, by age, with different messaging. For instance, women empowerment targeted only towards women, GST or taxation towards traders or sports and employment policies towards youth. “The possibilities are endless,” he adds.

Political parties, in general, believe that Facebook is now the default public square. “Facebook is an important force multiplier. It is where the best content goes viral. That is one thing we can’t deny, and that is why for us, it’s always Facebook first, Twitter next,” says Pandhi.