Media exposure and voter behaviour
A recent research by Lokniti-CSDS hypothesizes that voters with higher exposure to media were more likely to vote for the BJP
Does media exposure today feed into voter behaviour tomorrow? As we emerge from another Narendra Modi-centred television blitz over the last fortnight, and head into another set of elections, it might be pertinent to look at recent research from Lokniti-CSDS (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies). The research explores the link between media exposure and voting behaviour based on election studies done by the centre since 1996. (mintne.ws/1v1XhYl) The primary purpose of the research was to see if there was a correlation between media usage and voter behaviour in the 2014 elections. It covers five elections and provides a basis in data for all the pop theorizing that the chattering classes have been doing this year about the Bharatiya Janata Party’s victory and the media’s role in it. How do the researchers Rahul Verma and Shreyas Sardesai determine the effect of media on voting behaviour? They use data from CSDS election studies to measure the association between a respondent’s reported media exposure and his or her political views. They used two logistic regression models, controlling for socio-demographic factors. If you don’t buy their methodology, you cannot accept their findings. To begin with, they demonstrate that this correlation between voting for the BJP and media exposure pre-dates the 2014 election. The last two decades have seen the Indian electorate exposed to more media than ever before, and they hypothesize that voters with higher exposure to media were more likely to vote for the BJP. This trend became visible from 1996 though it did not hold in 2009. While in the 1996 elections, 28.8% of the actual votes went to the Congress and 23.8% to the BJP, the percentage of people with high media exposure who voted for the BJP was 31% compared with 24% for the Congress. In 1999, the gap widened to the BJP’s advantage; in 2004, it closed with both parties getting the same percentage of the vote of those with high media exposure, 24%. In 2009, those with all categories of media exposure, low, medium, high, voted much more for the Congress. Could this be because, as the authors say, media is significant but only one of the variables that influence voting? And then, of course, in 2014, the trend crystalized dramatically in favour of the BJP with 39% of those with high media exposure voting for the party as compared with 15% for the Congress. Those with medium and low exposure too voted substantially more for the BJP. You could put it down to the amount of news Modi was making personally, because the study quantifies it. With the events he attended, the rallies he addressed and the way his campaign used the Internet and mobile telephony, he actually connected with one in four voters in this country, believe it or not. What do the researchers consider high media exposure? Regular TV news consumption (daily or sometimes) or regular reading of newspapers. Medium and low exposure are classified as rarely reading newspapers or viewing TV, and never reading or viewing, respectively. Their definition is not very precise. They measure media penetration using a variety of sources to estimate that the percentage of voters who watch TV news daily went up from 19% in 1996 to 46% in 2014. Radio news listening declined, but daily newspaper readership almost doubled. The number of people who never read newspapers has come down by one-third. The study makes three positive correlations. One is between high media exposure and support for economic liberalization. The second is between the number of those with exposure to opinion polls and those who voted for the BJP. The third is interesting: respondents with high media exposure were four times more likely to say that Gujarat was the best performing state compared with those with low or medium media exposure. The researchers conclude that Gujarat seems to have tilted the balance in favour of the BJP. Clearly, media obsession with the Gujarat model paid off for Modi. The researchers also conclude that those who watch news in Hindi are more likely to have voted for the BJP than those who watched English or regional news, but that the effect of social media and the Web on the election outcome would not have been significant because of their relatively lower reach. If media exposure helps a party win elections, Modi is again on a roll for the upcoming polls, fresh from being portrayed as having stormed America, and now hitting the stump again to ram the opposition. But if he is to bring both governance and social change, Modi’s media exposure cannot let up. As Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote in a column in The Indian Express, if Modi believes that the central element of a theory of social change is to communicate all the time, his regime will have to be in perpetual communication overdrive, which is what is happening now. The Prime Minister is in our face, pushing every kind of drive—make in india, clean up india, prune its laws, rein in babus. And because television is now hooked on its daily PM fix, it will let itself be co-opted, till something changes.
(Sevanti Ninan is a media critic, author and editor of the media watch website thehoot.org. She examines the larger issues related to the media in a fortnightly column.)