We live in a time where social media has become a very big part of our lives. It’s a great source of information, and apparently it can impact election results as well. There is certainly a tendency, however, to begin to confuse social media with the real world – and this is particularly worrying when looking at networks such as Twitter. There you have a handful of journalists, influencers, and media outlets who are tied into their various “filter bubbles” aka “echo chambers,” who may end up with a skewed view of what the world looks like.
This is particularly an issue to consider in India, where Twitter – while a great tool with many uses – is still barely present when looking at absolute numbers. When you look at how many people in India actually use various social networks, it becomes increasingly clear that we need to look beyond the virtual world, if we want to know what is really going on in the country.
By the numbers
For 2016, according to Statista, Twitter India’s user base is 23.2 million people. In March, the number of mobile Internet subscribers passed the 342.6 million mark. India’s population exceeds 1.2 billion, according to the 2011 census, and more recent estimates put it at 1.3 billion. Twitter is not something that most Indian internet users visit, and the vast majority of Indians are still not online.
Looking at these numbers, some things become immediately apparent. First of all, although Twitter now has a large user base in India, it only represents a small fraction of the internet-using population in India. When something is trending on Twitter, it only means that it has the potential to reach less than 7% of Indian internet users. Still, if trending on Twitter means reaching one in ten people on the internet in India, that’s pretty good, right? Except of course, that’s not what it means. Trends don’t just look at how many people are talking about a topic – they measure growth in popularity, not total interest, so only a fraction of Twitter users need to be talking about a topic to start trending.” tender” in the first place. So that’s not even 7% of India’s online users, but a fraction of that.
You’ll see many sites reporting stories with the title: “India was talking about…”, which boils down to a handful of tweets from popular accounts. What this actually means is – “my social media circle was talking about…”, not what Twitter users in India were talking about – who are only a fraction of the total number of internet users. in India, who in turn are about one-quarter of the population of India. So the next time you’re convinced a trend is sweeping the nation, share the idea with a Facebook-only friend and see what they have to say. You might be surprised.
The fact is, probably the most powerful social network that can be leveraged today to quickly spread news – true or fake – quickly around India is WhatsApp. With over 160 million active users in India (Facebook has a similar number), it accounts for one in two people connected to mobile internet. Tech and news savvy people can spend a lot of time on Twitter and hear the same opinion bouncing around among the people they follow, but that’s a far cry from what most people in the country, even those online, think. .
Internet users do not represent the major part of India
Listening to a fraction of the small number of people who are online in India, however, can paint an incomplete picture. One news that has caused quite a stir is that the Narendra Modi app launched by the Prime Minister is dominating downloads on the App Store and Google Play. PM Modi asked people to share their views on demonetization through the app, and 5 lakh (0.5 million) users gave their feedback in the first 24 hours – overwhelmingly positive reviews in fact.
Again, this becomes a poll that ignores what the vast majority of the country is saying. The number of respondents is tiny, but with careful selection it should be possible to generate good data from a sample of this size. Unfortunately, this notion disappears since everyone who participated in the survey was self-selected, represents the small fraction of the country that owns smartphones and has internet connections, and was already using the Narendra Modi app, so it is quite possible that are strongly motivated to show their support. Many users who tried to sign up in the app after the survey was announced had problems signing up due to high demand, so it’s likely that those who were already on the app had an easier time collecting their votes.
That leaves aside any concerns about the questions posed by the poll, which some say were biased to present the result they did. We would say that whether or not you agree with the questions, the other issues we mentioned above are a bigger factor, which makes any answer – right or wrong – irrelevant.
It’s not just a filter bubble
It’s tempting to say we live in a filter bubble – where journalists listen to each other online on Twitter, and Facebook and WhatsApp messages can shape the nation. Many of us have probably muted WhatsApp groups of family members who continue to share unverified and propagandistic news. Some of us gladly share such news instead. There is a real filter bubble, and technology companies are working on this problem.
That’s fine, but only look at one side of the equation. WhatsApp makes it easy to forward a link, but it’s the people who share those links. They’re not interested in checking them out – many will happily tell you that they read the headline and thought it was worth sharing.
Just as Twitter is not the internet, and the internet is not India, filter bubbles can only explain how extreme the dialogue has become, especially around political topics. If we really want to do something about these issues, we need to stop making online spaces our shells and, at the very least, bring them up in our offline discussions as well.