National elections in India, the world’s largest democracy, are an exercise of epic proportions. The lifeblood of election campaigns is political rallies meant to mobilize the public. Such rallies allow politicians to communicate directly with the public. These outreach efforts involve gathering huge crowds at a large venue to listen to rousing speeches by candidates and other leaders of political parties to either tout their achievements since taking office or criticize the opposition. Whether a party is in power or in the opposition, both promise to come good on various goals if elected. Any campaign manager’s mandate is simple: use rallies to generate media attention, instill confidence in the party cadre, persuade undecided voters, and, if possible, switch the allegiance of those supporting the opposition.
This was the scenario in normal times. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to numerous changes, including how politicians cultivate support among voters. Social distancing restrictions have resulted in mass meetings being replaced by innovative forms of virtual rallies across the world. The 2020 South Korean legislative election is a case study on how election campaigns successfully adapted to the new reality and ran live online events during the pandemic. A country known for loud, large street rallies saw political candidates holding quieter, small virtual rallies instead. With giant screens installed on trucks, candidates reached out to citizens through live telecasts of their speeches. Similarly, in the US, France, and Sri Lanka, political parties have leaned on digital platforms to connect with their constituents. Political parties are using digital platforms like Zoom, Skype, and WhatsApp group calls to conduct internal meetings; and Facebook Live and YouTube Live for reaching wider audiences in real-time.
Do virtual rallies offer any advantages over field rallies?
Virtual rallies offer many advantages, albeit in areas with good internet connectivity. First, the location of the participants—candidates and the public—is not a constraint. From any location, candidates can reach out to large crowds in multiple venues in real-time. Depending on the speaker’s mass appeal, the audience can span an entire city, region, or country. Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter enable organizers to publicize the event and amplify the message quickly.
Second, virtual rallies are cost effective, which can democratize the political process. Virtual rallies offer a relatively cheap way to build and sustain a political campaign. The relatively lower cost of organizing such rallies levels the playing field, particularly for smaller parties with budgetary constraints. In countries with high internet penetration, candidates can reach out to voters without spending on travel, entourage, and election paraphernalia associated with field rallies. All that is needed to hold a virtual rally is a camera, microphone, internet connectivity, and social media presence to publicize the event. At venues in a constituency, one needs a laptop and a giant LED screen or alternatively, a television. Further, with real-time and easy access to voter data and analytics, candidates can get accurate insights into voter attitudes and political beliefs, enabling them to run target advertising. Also, the use of online advertisements is cheaper than even the briefest airtime on TV. Moreover, candidates can see the impact of their virtual speech based on comments and likes received by the event. Field rallies do not offer any of these valuable low-cost features. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Amit Shah’s Bihar virtual rally in June 2020 galvanized party workers in an election cycle during the pandemic. The party claimed that more than 14 lakh viewers watched Shah’s rally on online platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, and Zoom.
Third, virtual rallies preserve the quality of life. Field rallies disturb the community and economic activity in and around the venue. Large field rallies cause traffic jams, create noise pollution, and generate waste. Schools and colleges are often forced to close because of the disruption. In contrast, virtual rallies are attended by small groups in public spaces or from the privacy of individual spaces without disturbing civic life.
Fourth, virtual rallies offer organizers freedom from bureaucratic hurdles and suppression. Organizers do not have to worry about seeking municipal permits to assemble people. The success of this exemption was most recently evident in the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong when government officials banned public meetings in March 2020. Virtual rallies helped demonstrators keep the movement alive during the lockdown and escape violent police crackdowns.
Fifth, virtual rallies enable a more transparent political participation process. The political future of a candidate does not depend on the visuals of a large physical audience. Therefore, organizers do not have to resort to bussing ‘hired’ crowds to the venue or forcing government employees, students, and locals to occupy seats. This independence from fake optics can weaken corruption and the culture of reciprocity of favors in political campaigns.
So why do field rallies still endure?
Despite the many advantages of virtual rallies, the fact is that field rallies have endured for several reasons.
First, well-organized, large field rallies exude a celebratory mood of a mela or a festival. The camaraderie among strangers brought together by political kinship has the potential to build a groundswell of support for the political party and candidate. Even with the most dazzling digital add-ons, a virtual rally lacks the sensory cues of a mass gathering. It cannot generate comparable energy and a sense of solidarity among viewers. Moreover, virtual events limit two-way conversations between the candidate and the public. However emotionally charged and engaging a speech maybe, watching a brilliant orator virtually cannot emulate the persuasive power of an address at a field rally. My personal experience of remote learning for the past 12 months tells me that the twenty-nine tiles on the screen cannot bring alive the magic of what happens within the four walls of a concrete classroom. Even though my classmates and I can see each other, I am unsure whether we are aware of each other. The virtual learning experience tells me that a shared physical space motivates a group. The collective energy has to cascade among people to build momentum. Unfortunately, in a virtual rally, just like in a virtual classroom, the group energy gets dissipated to little effect.
Second, online rallies cannot create the same street impact and ambience as field rallies. Though viewers can watch online rallies anywhere, those not interested can simply choose not to tune in. However, a sizeable field rally cannot be ignored. It is disruptive and affects even non-participants. Well aware of this attribute of a field rally, organizers of a protest in Mumbai in August 2017 drew attention to their cause of reservations in government jobs and college admissions. They flooded the streets with more than a million protestors which brought the city to a halt. The large crowds paralyzed the city’s transportation system. All schools, colleges, and offices were forced to close for the day. Even the most disengaged residents heard the message, loud and clear.
Third, a field rally can have enduring effects beyond creating a short-term buzz. No doubt that the size of the audience at a field rally is symbolic of the speaker’s popularity and power. However, it is the optics created by the density of the audience that largely shapes the candidate’s fate. Field rallies attract press coverage, rouse supporters, and provide a litmus test of the candidate’s winnability in the election. Often, party leaders decide to grant the coveted nomination ticket based on a candidate’s ability to draw large crowds. Such large crowds are missing in virtual rallies. The absence of large crowds and its fallout was most evident in the celebration of the annual Martyrs’ Day in West Bengal last year. Complying with COVID-19 restrictions, the celebration was held virtually with a small live audience. It robbed the state Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, of an opportunity to showcase her political strength. Political observers felt that not holding a field rally was a strategic loss to her party in a critical year before the state elections in 2021. The number of likes online could not match the impact of wide-angle shots of people choking the streets of the state’s capital, Kolkata, as in previous years.
Fourth, field rallies endure when there is a digital divide among people. Take the case of India. With 36% internet penetration and poor connectivity, not everyone, even in the cities, has access to a smartphone or the internet. This digital divide impedes fairness in the democratic exercise of elections in two ways:
First, it creates an information divide among voters. Voters in digitally-connected regions get access to more information about political parties than those living in the digitally-excluded regions. Even within a geographical region, voters with smartphones and internet access are better informed than others. This asymmetric information leads to biased decision-making among voters. Those without access to the internet may be unaware of certain political parties’ agendas, achievements, and promises. In contrast, those with a smartphone or a social media account may be receiving messages continuously from parties. In sum, the digital divide causes lopsided political messaging and can introduce bias in the voter’s decision.
Second, this digital divide creates barriers for smaller regional parties with limited budgets. Reaching constituents in rural areas, small towns, and remote regions requires huge initial outlays to build digital infrastructure. In addition, parties need to acquire LED screens, digital equipment, hologram technology, and smartphones. This qualification gives national parties with larger budgets a significant edge over regional parties with limited resources. It is no surprise that the BJP was most agile in unveiling its virtual campaigns in March 2020 when social distancing restrictions were first imposed in the country. Ahead of the 2020 Bihar elections, the party established 9,500 IT cells or shakti kendras and 72,000 WhatsApp groups to keep voters informed in real-time of the party’s messages, speeches, and initiatives.
Fifth, beyond the digital divide, is the constraint of tech-savviness. Engaging the public in a virtual rally becomes more problematic, especially the elderly. Many are not tech-savvy nor active on social media. They may be politically minded but not technologically aware. Hence, they may not know about Zoom meetups or Facebook Live.
Are there idiosyncrasies associated with virtual rallies?
While virtual rallies have their advantages and disadvantages, they are also associated with some idiosyncrasies. First, virtual rallies provide political parties more opportunities to play dirty politics. For example, they can sabotage an opposition party’s efforts by disconnecting internet services or local cable networks during a virtual rally. If the ruling party is powerful, it may exert influence on social media companies. To please the politicians in power and protect their corporate interest, platforms such as Twitter and Facebook may not delete an incendiary post by the ruling party that violates the company’s own hate-speech rules.
Second, virtual speeches work well for a specific type of personality. In a virtual rally, not every leader can successfully replicate the energy, enthusiasm, and excitement of a live-rousing event. For people like Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, and Mamata Banerjee, who deliver largely unscripted speeches and feed off a live crowd’s energy, the virtual medium may not do justice to their oratorial style. On a PBS show, John Brabender, a Republican political strategist, commented on Trump’s strengths. He remarked, “Trump is a live candidate. He can be entertaining. He can be interesting. And he knows how to steal the news cycle, which is much easier to do with a big rally than it is online.” In his opinion, virtual rallies work well for Joe Biden, given his sedate, controlled, and predictable personality.
Third, virtual rallies can amplify missteps. Biden’s Zoom rally in Tampa, Florida in May 2020 demonstrated how a series of small mistakes can cascade into a full-blown disaster. Technical glitches, asynchronous audio, blank screen, off-screen sound bites, and presenters not being aware that they are on a live event resulted in a steep decline in live viewership and gave fodder to the opposition who turned him into a meme.
Fourth, virtual events require tech-savvy teams. Parties need to hire communications and media experts, data analysts, graphic designers, content creators, and video editors to avoid glitches and provide entertainment to keep viewers’ attention. Political parties reluctant to mimic digital newsrooms of corporate media houses may lag in their public outreach efforts.
Do constitutional authorities have a role?
Beyond political parties, an important stakeholder in the debate between field and virtual rallies is the constitutional authority responsible for holding fair elections. Political campaigning on social media poses new problems for it. It has to distinguish between free speech and the manipulative behavior of leaders. Specifically, fake news, hate messages, and rumors in virtual rallies spread quickly and are difficult to track and stop. It is much easier for authorities to identify and remove incendiary content and false messaging in field campaigns and punish those responsible in a timely manner. Monitoring content in traditional campaigns is easier, be it painting over messages on a wall, tearing offensive physical posters and banners, or banning certain groups. Rectifying wrongful conduct in a virtual event is tricky. Once online, videos and messages take a life of their own. They can spread quickly and manipulate voters’ beliefs and perceptions. Authorities have to digitally identify, track, and remove the false narrative from social media to halt the dissemination of inflammatory messages. The process is complex and slow, as social media provides anonymity to people behind false propaganda. Election officials have catchup to play and will have to introduce new rules to combat these unique set of challenges associated with virtual rallies.
In conclusion, the pros and cons of field and virtual rallies notwithstanding, there is a case to be made for the latter. According to a Centre for Media Studies (CMS) study, the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in India cost approximately Rs 60,000 crore, twice the amount spent on the elections in 2014. If virtual rallies become more common, the country can put the saved money to more productive uses. Based purely on economics, it would appear imprudent to revert to the extravagant field rallies once the threat of COVID-19 recedes. As more people gain access to smartphones and internet connectivity, virtual rallies should become more commonplace. They will enable targeted campaigning. Political rhetoric will give way to voters being informed by distilled information before they cast their vote. However, as elections in various countries have shown, digital media can be hijacked to spin a false narrative that many will follow without questioning. Democracy in the digital age can only thrive if the voter is informed and truth trumps falsehoods.
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This article has been written under the guidance of Prof. Ajit Phadnis, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Management Indore.
The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.