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Mainstream, VOL LV No 33 New Delhi August 5, 2017

Reverse Agenda-setting: Politics in the Time of Facebook

Saturday 5 August 2017

by Pradeep Nair and Sandeep Sharma

In the wake of the social media, the political-public sphere is broadening. The scope of feedback from the public directly to their representatives has set a new phase in public opinion and policy formations. Social media platforms have arguably enabled the public to set the agenda for their representatives by pressing like button on their facebook updates, sharing and commenting on these updates. Communication scholars and political scientists have termed this phenomenon as ‘reverse agenda-setting’. This commentary attempts to explore and analyse how the politicians and policy-makers are managing their social media platforms, especially facebook, and what importance they attach to the feedback which they receive in the form of likes, share and comments.

Social Media and Agenda Setting

The media’s agenda-setting effect on the public is the most celebrated of the theories in communication studies. It explains the correlation between media and public opinion and advocates that mass media has a significant impact on shaping the agenda for political campaigns by making people aware of important political issues. But the proliferation and expansion of the social media has challenged the role of conventional mass media in setting the public agenda by coming out with a new approach that it is no longer the media but the public which propose issues on the agenda and reversely that agenda is accepted by the conventional media as public agenda. This approach is popularly accepted as reverse agenda-setting which urges that the opinion of people, disseminated through various social media platforms, influences news converges and sets the media agenda. This is one of the reasons which has attracted politicians all over the world to explore the benefit of the social media by increasing their understanding of its usage.

Through the use of the social media networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, millions can share information, spread news of their lives and distribute news stories from all over the world. Information on internet further allows for a constant conversation of news to occur 24x7, constantly updating with opinions and commentaries. With millions joining the conversation from all over the world, social media sites, especially Facebook, is an effective way for politicians to reach their constituents. After the 2014 general elections, the Indian politicians have started using the social media to engage and empower the people of their constituencies. They have started realising that engaging people through social media can help them to showcase their work (development work) which may be further transformed into actual votes. In a country like India, where professional fund raising for political cause is still not very much in practice, the social media like Facebook and Twitter offers a cost-effective alternative to conventional mainstream media like television, radio and print, to communicate campaign messages to the constituents.

The Usage Pattern

While interviewing with some of the politicians in Himachal Pradesh who are active on Facebook and other social media platforms, we observed that the interaction of the politicians with people is mainly categorised into three forms—text, pictures and videos. Graphics and animations are less used by the surveyed politicians as it requires a technical understanding and a support from the bandwidth to send them quickly. Videos are the most preferred one as they can be easily compressed if they are large in size. Most of the videos shared by the politicians whom we interviewed are related to public speeches and press conferences. The pictures are more diverse in nature which includes profile pictures of the politicians, pictures with other politicians, pictures of banners, meetings, public gatherings, newspaper cuttings, events of religious importance etc. The texts, besides complementing pictures and videos, are mostly used in a routine manner giving those a monotonous appearance. The supporting staff of the politicians who look after the management of the social media confirmed that most of the comments are praising in nature which makes the comment boxes monotonous.

Further, many of the politicians surveyed for the study do not have a specific team devoted to manage their facebook pages like in Europe and the United States. In most cases, the private secretaries of the politicians had been given these additional responsibilities of looking after the social media interactions of the politicians. The politicians hardly get time to hover through their facebook pages although the secretaries of the politicians well inform them about the status of their facebook page and also gave suggestions to develop some strategies to manage the pages. Since most of the updates coming from the public end are monotonous in nature, there is no such diversity which may create an enthusiasm among the politician to immediately respond or reach on public comments. The reason given was that the politicians, who are Ministers or holding some other public posts, have no time to go through each and every message.

How Social Media makes a Difference

For a politician what difference does it make when he/she chooses to interact with the people over Facebook? The politicians surveyed for this study answered that with a Facebook account one can have a personal chat with every individual who is enlisted as a friend, a follower and even with those who are outsiders. One can like, share, comment on his/her friends’ and followers’ updates with more personal touch. It is an informal way to connect with the people. In political communication ‘personal’ and ‘informal’ elements are more influential than ‘public’ and ‘formal’ ways of communication. While interacting on facebook, the users are aware of the fact that they are responsible for every update and response. If used in a right perspective, it could be an influential medium to connect to the young populace of one’s constituency.

The myth that old people are serious and committed voters is now over. Even though young people mostly avoid direct contacts with the politicians, they can be easily contacted through the social media. Thus, the social media is a key linkage between the people and policy-makers. It provides a free exchange of ideas, information and opinions which keeps one engaged in the political discourse. Even if mainstream media decides not to talk about certain issues (agenda-cutting), people have a scope to receive information through social media platforms.

After a brief examination of the comments received on the facebook pages analysed by the author(s), it was found that most of the comments are positive and decent in nature and are received well. Hardly one per cent of the comments are objectionable or derogatory in nature. The respondents of the study, except one or two instances, never blocked any person on their facebook pages and normally preferred to chat with the critics in their personal inbox to persuade them to change their negative attitude. On the issues of the authenticity or fake profiles on social networking websites, the respondents of the study said that they came across such situations several times when people asked them to produce their credentials. People used to inbox them and ask to prove their identity as politicians by taking the names of prominent people of that area who can endorse them further. Personal mobile numbers are also asked by people to verify the authenticity of the facebook account.

In political communication, importance of public opinion is beyond doubt. Thus, it is necessary for a politician, who is active on the social media, to keep a constant eye on people’s behaviour by categorising them as selective, regular and neutral. Sometime people, who are affiliated with other political parties and ideologies, also like to interact on public issues in the form of likes, comments and shares. People respond because they wish to be part of a political discourse.

Further, every communication medium has its weakness and strength. The strength and weakness can be evaluated by keeping in view the specific applications of a medium to a particular field. In political discourse, which medium should be considered as most suitable for a politician is a big question which requires more elaborate scientific investigation. Adding an iota to this exploration we have found in our study that the social media certainly have some added advantages over traditional media when it comes to the field of politics.

The medium has an edge over others due to some of its distinct characteristics—flexibility, immediacy, convenience, personal and inter-active in comparison with conventional media. The medium has the potential to save politicians from becoming victim and scapegoat of the media agenda and propaganda. On social media platforms, a politician can tell his/her story without any curtailment. One can give a personal touch to every update with language and pictures of his/her choice.

Thus, familiarity with the new media literacy is essential for both the politicians and public to survive in an internet-mediated political democracy which will further help the conventional societies to become informed societies.


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Pradeep Nair, Ph.D, is an Associate Professor and Dean, School of Journalism, Mass Communication and New Media, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala. E-mail: nairdevcom[at]

Sandeep Sharma is a Research Scholar, Department of Mass Communication and Electronic Media, School of Journalism, Mass Communication and New Media, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala.

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