Ever since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections when social media made its debut in electioneering in India, Lokniti-CSDS has been asking questions on the use of various SM platforms in all its election surveys. They have enabled us not only to analyse SM’s influence on voting preferences, but also to track the growth of SM platforms, the regularity of their use and the users’ profile. As SM companies face intense pressure from the government to comply with its new IT rules or face consequences, it may be useful to highlight some of these survey findings to provide a sense of the reach of SM platforms and what’s at stake for them, their users and the government.
Use and growth, 2014-19
In its 2019 National Election Study, Lokniti asked voting-age citizens about the frequency with which they used five SM platforms — Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram and YouTube. WhatsApp, which launched in 2009 and has taken the government to court recently complaining that the new digital rules violate its privacy protections, emerged the most popular with 34% using it (regular and rare users combined) (Table 1).
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Next was Facebook, in existence in India since 2006, which is used by 32%, followed closely by YouTube that started in 2005, at 31%. Instagram, which arrived on the scene in 2010, was used by 15% adults, and Twitter, operating since 2006, was the least popular with 12% users. It’s difficult to say why Twitter has been a low performer, but a possible reason could be its more textual, less visual nature. It is to be seen how much its latest audio chat room feature helps it grow.
Interestingly, Twitter also lagged behind others in terms of the propensity of its users to use it daily. Whereas 85% of WhatsApp users, 81% YouTube users, 72% Facebook users and 60% Instagram users said they used them on an everyday basis, among Twitter users the figure was way lower at 42%.
As far as growth goes, most platforms for which longitudinal data is available can be seen to have registered impressive increases between 2014 and 2018, but subsequently experienced a slowing down. Facebook and Twitter usage, for instance, climbed from 9% and 2% in 2014 to 20% and 5% in 2017 and further to 32% and 14% in May 2018. However, between 2018 and May 2019, Facebook use remained the same according to our data, and Twitter usage saw a marginal decline. WhatsApp exhibited a similar trend between 2018 and 2019, with no great growth.
So has this slowdown persisted since 2019 or have the platforms once again seen a good increase in use? While we have no recent national-level data to look into this, data from our surveys in five states that went to polls in the last six months — Bihar, Assam, West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu — offer strong clues. These states taken together are quite representative of the national trend since they threw up very similar numbers of SM use in 2019 as the rest of India (Table 1).
On analysing the five-state dataset, we notice a strong revival in SM growth across platforms. In the last two years, WhatsApp use increased from 31% in the five states to 41% now, YouTube from 28 to 38, Facebook from 31 to 37, Instagram from 13 to 21, and Twitter from 12 to 17%. Notably, YouTube seems to have displaced Facebook in terms of usage. We also find that Twitter is used more regularly by its users now, and that many more adults use all five platforms now (14%) than 2019 (9%). Also, the proportion of those not using any platform has declined from 65% to 55%.
Finally, it is noticed that the user base of all SM platforms has a very similar social profile. Their usage is far greater among men than women and among those who are college educated, young, upper caste and from relatively wealthier backgrounds (Table 2).
This similarity may largely be a function of smartphone ownership that, as pointed out in a previous article of this series by Manjesh Rana, is also higher precisely among these categories. Any clampdown of SM platforms by the government in the future therefore is likely to affect these relatively privileged social groups the most, although one must add that our data suggests that SM usage has also risen fairly significantly since 2019 among marginalised communities — Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims, indicating a gradual ‘democraticisation’ of the SM space.