Assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Information Joyojeet Pal discussed the impact of social media and political rebranding on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s global image during an event in the Intercultural Center on Wednesday.
The event, titled “Narendra Modi, Twitter, and the Selfie State” focused on social media and the use of technology in politics, specifically regarding its use as an inspirational force in developing countries.
“What does it mean for a politician to be seen with a computer all the time? Or to be seen taking selfies?” Pal asked. “We are looking at the technology artifact and what that means, specifically in the larger Indian context.”
Pal said social media is an increasingly relevant factor in developing countries, as it grows more popular.
“We were able to come up with at least 38 countries in which both a leading head of government and at least one leading opposition figure has an excess of 100,000 followers,” Pal said.
Pal said even though countries like India, Ghana, Columbia, and Kenya may be relatively poor, if they have a large upper class with strong social media access, social media can be an effective political tool.
“The reason that social media is important in the case of Narendra Modi is that the political actor can choose to use the social media as their primary line of output,” Pal said.
According to Pal, country size, elite affiliation and media logic are important in a politician’s decision to use social media as a tool for discourse.
Pal said social media and technology can be used as a form of publicity that also ends up benefitting the populace.
“Ideas of technology as being intricately tied to development have been prevalent for the past two decades,” Pal said. “One of the best indicators of how closely technology is tied to aspiration in India is the fact that movie stars in movies are often playing computer engineers.”
Pal said Narendra Modi was originally depicted by the media in a negative light, particularly for his role during the Hindu-Muslim riots of 2002. Modi was criticized for failing to stop the riots in a timely manner as Governor of Gujarat, a northern Indian state.
“He was pretty close to what you might think of as a political pariah for many years following the 2002 riots, and this was also how he was seen in the mainstream English-speaking media,” Pal said.
According to Pal, Modi was able to change his reputation through a strategic social media presence that includes a LinkedIn profile, a Facebook, an Instagram, a Pinterest and a YouTube channel where he puts his official radio speeches as well as other videos on topics such as how to live well.
“His fashioning is not just as a political person, but as a guru who will tell you how to use yoga for stress management, for example,” Pal said. “His is an attempt to re-brand not only through strategic speech, but also through strategic imaging.”
Pal said Modi’s social media tactics are multifaceted as he makes his messages ubiquitous, associates himself with celebrities, crafts his messages in first person, and strategically uses “follow-backs” as political means.
“He provides a vision of somebody who is not only driven by technology, but also has command over technology coming through channels other than social media,” Pal said.
Pal’s research shows that Modi’s sarcastic and ironic tweets are re-tweeted the most, a phenomenon shared by 2016 Presidential candidate Donald Trump.
According to the research, Modi also tweets about international relations in the language of the countries he visits.
“He shows a real sensitivity to what the key topics are in that country in the ‘twitter-sphere’ when he goes there,” Pal said.
Pal said Modi has successfully built a social media profile that appeals to a variety of different constituencies, including both those attracted by conventional values and those wowed by fame.
“He is still someone who gets blessings from his aged mother as well as is comfortable posing next to a film star,” Pal said.
Emily Paragamian (SFS ’16), who attended the event, said she appreciated the comparison the talk presented between the poor in developing countries and the use of social media to appeal to the masses.
“I am really interested in the juxtaposition of the ‘selfie-state’ with the 600 million Indians that are off the grid, and I think that social media is a really useful tool but it can also probably be a detriment if there are so many people that can’t see what is going on,” Paragamian said.
Mark Giordano, the director of the science, technology and international affairs program and organizer of the event, said social media is playing an increasingly more important role in politics.
“Technology is such a key part of politics now that understanding how it is used around the world is important for us in the U.S. but also how we understand how the rest of the world is working,” Giordano said.