Vijay Mukhi: Why politicians are a failure on Twitter

07 Aug,2013

By Vijay Mukhi


For all of us, the image of a politician in our minds is someone who with a simple wink and nod can bring a mighty city like Mumbai to a grinding halt. Someone who can also get a million people on the ground running at a moment’s notice. Politicians are men (or women) of the masses, their claim to power is because they have a connect with the people that no one else has, they represent the voice of the teeming millions. Journalists, and not columnists like yours truly, also think that they know the pulse of people.


On Twitter, the Indian political class as whole  get an F- on Twitter because they have failed to connect with the cyber citizen using a tweet. So for now at least, no political party from India can ever think of organising a massive e-morcha on Twitter because they simply lack an understanding of what makes the Twitter tick. I expected them to have the same connect with the cyber world as they have in the physical world, but I am really disappointed as they have miles and miles to go.


Before I get the wrong end of the stick of their followers (the editor thinks I am making a habit of this), let me as always use real numbers to substantiate what I have just said. There is no rule on Twitter that says that you have to follow someone to read his/her tweets, but Twitter makes it easier for you to see all the tweets of your followers on one page. Following someone on Twitter does not mean that you like or hate them. All that it means is that you would want to read that person’s tweet. I am sure a large number of Mr Modi’s followers are from the Congress camp and vice-versa. Finally, following someone needs a maximum of three mouse clicks and you can unfollow anyone you want with equal ease.


Then, pray, can someone explain to me why would Mr Modi be Number 20 on my list of people I follow with only 2 million followers and Mr Tharoor a close Number 21 with 1.8 million? The Number 1 on my list is the Dalai Lama with 7.3 million followers followed by Amitabh Bachchan with 5.8 million and Shah Rukh Khan at 4.55 million very closely followed by his new long lost friend Salman Khan at 4.22 million. If you compare politicians from the US then President Barrack Obama has over 34 million followers and Justin Bieber 42 million. This means that if we compare like with like, then even Mr Bachchan is a pygmy on Twitter when it comes to Justin Bieber.


If you look at the larger context of Internet penetration, India has about 120+ million internet-enabled netizens and the US has around 180 million. Some day I would like to write a column on how these numbers have no scientific basis, that column would indeed raise a lot of debate. Not everyone in India with an internet connection would use English as their first language and the social web is largely English even though regional languages are a viable option.


The only valid conclusions that we can draw is that Twitter users are a very small minority of our Internet population, not even 10 percent of our netizens use Twitter. The day Messrs Modi or Tharoor cross 10 million followers, then we would crown them kings of Twitter but not of the social web which is a very different animal. The only reason why Twitter is seen to be a gamechanger for politicians is that each and every print or television journalist professional follows them on Twitter (more than any other social media property including the mighty Facebook). The day Twitter stops being followed  by the media, its influence on politicians would also drop. These Twitter cyber wars are more the creation of the media than a fact. Conclusion: Mr Bachchan, the three Khans and His Holiness should should be giving lectures to the politicians on how to increase their followers count on Twitter and not people like me who have not crossed 300 followers yet. You learn from people who have been there and done that.


It’s important to understand that unless you have followers, Twitter makes it very difficult for people to read your tweet.


The second metric we use is the number of times you are mentioned in Tweets. This is a metric that has more potholes than you could find on Mumbai roads. Take the case of Mr Modi. Do we count tweets that have his Twitter handle? But most times people would not use his Twitter handle, but use Modi or Narendra and the context says it all. The surname Modi is very common in India and do we search for tweets that also use his other nick NaMo. Finally, he is also know by some as the hashtag Feku. This is why getting an accurate count of the number of tweets that mention Mr Modi can always be argued till the cows come home. I have taken a decision, which you will disagree, I only count tweets that mention Mr Modi by his Twitter handle.


With that explanation under our belt, in July Mr Modi comes 3rd with 78,000 mentions, Digvijay Singh  8th with 42,000 and Mr Tharoor 9th with 41,000. Not bad, three politicians in the Top 10 and three more in the Top 20. Would we not reconsider that may be we were wrong in failing the politicians? The only problem with mentions is that there is no way of figuring out whether the tweets were positive or negative.


As Mr Bachchan once said English is a funny language and Twitter is even funnier. The reason being that we have 140 characters max to write out our tweet and of these we use stop words like ‘a’, and ‘etc’ that do not add any meaning to the tweet, we also take up valuable space by using Twitter handle names, urls etc in our Tweet making any sentiment analysis of a tweet extremely difficult from a machine’s point of view.


Guess we need to have another column on why it is difficult to figure out whether a tweet is positive or negative is because the English we speak is not the same as that the US or UK speaks. However, if you believe in the maxim that all news is good news, and a nasty tweet is also a good thing, then your numbers would be different from mine.


Let’s look at the third metric, which to my view is the most important of your popularity on Twitter on an ongoing basis. That is how many tweets of yours get retweeted. The best way to show that you like a tweet akin to a thumbs up is to retweet a tweet so that your followers also get access to a tweet. Thus the more your tweets get retweeted, the more you are getting your message across. In July, Mr Modi comes in at Number 7 with 78,000 retweets and he has Subramanian Swamy’s company at Number 15 and Kiran Bedi’s at Number 17. This you would agree is a bad showing compared to Mr SRK who is Number 1 at 170,000 retweets and Rahul Bose and Mahesh Bhupathi who just cross the 100,000 mark. This only means that the SRK fan base actually took the trouble of retweeting his tweets, whereas for whatever reason the politicians’ followers do not like to retweet their tweets. One reason could be that politicians’ followers do not know that they must retweet a tweet to show appreciation or that the tweets themselves do not convey something that enthuses these followers to retweet. Some day we would write another column on what tweets are popular in India and how should politicians tweet so that their tweets get retweeted. Conclusion: When it comes to creating tweets that can be retweeted, politicians have a lot to learn from our film stars.


The last metric is simple output, how many times you tweet. This is not a very accurate counter as quality should always take preference over quantity. If politicians tweet a lot, all that it means is that they or the team that they have hired to tweet for them (this is a very big majority of politicians who would fall in this category) are active. Here Barkha Dutt takes pole position at about 40+ tweets per day and Mr Swamy comes in as the most active politician tweeter at a lowly 20 tweets a day at Number 12,  very closely followed by Ms Bedi at Number 13. We all know that politicians love speaking but it appears they or their teams do not enjoy tweeting very much.


How do we explain this dismal showing of our politicians on Twitter? I conducted a small experiment. I send out 10 direct tweets to the political class, giving them the good news about their tryst with Twitter. The unwritten law is that you normally respond to a direct message on Twitter with a direct message, especially if it is good news. I do not know Barkha Dutt from Adams, but when I sent her a message on the same lines, she responded within 30 minutes. That’s one more person the politicians can learn from. Clearly, barring a few exceptions, politicians do not tweet themselves and do not spend time understanding the dynamics of Twitter. I have rarely seen a politician use a laptop forget about using a tablet or smartphone. Thus they are people who take what their ‘masters’ say in the physical world and simply tweet it. This model cannot work.


My conclusion is that we will only see our political class take the top 5 positions out of 10, the day they start spending time on Twitter themselves and thus internalize the medium and platform.


Next time we will rank the Indian Politician on Facebook because what works on Facebook does not work on Twitter which will not work on YouTube which will not work on e-mail and so on. The social web is not one homogenous mass where the same rules apply.


A lots of people commented on what I wrote in my last column. Please understand that I am not a soothsayer. I am only interested in starting a discussion and debate how technology can help change the way our elections will be won and lost. All the data that I have used is available at I know no one who has the answer and I am looking into a mirror while I write this. I am happy to clarify doubts or any of the points I make. And, yes, I represent or have leanings towards no political party or movement.


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