New Delhi: As India prepares itself to cast the first round of votes for Lok Sabha elections, social media platforms and tech companies have also caught on the poll fever with many coming out and urging youth to cast their vote in the country`s biggest battle for the ballot.
Be it Google`s `pledge to vote` campaign, Facebook`s online political debates, Vebbler`s `the Ungli campaign` or telecom operator MTS` election tracker, firms are trying to woo voters ahead of this year`s General Election.
More that 814 million voters, including over 23 million in the age group of 18-19 years, will exercise their franchise in the world`s largest democracy that will go to polls in nine phases, starting on Wednesday and ending on May 12.
India has the third largest Internet users base globally of more than 238 million users with a majority comprising of youth. This includes well over a 100 million active on various social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
No wonder, social media platforms, technology firms, e-commerce portals and telecom operators are using this opportunity to connect with users.
Tech giant Google has revamped its election hub to include features like Pledge to Vote campaign, a `Google score` tool for politicians, search trends infographics, YouTube election playlists and Hangout details for users.
Likewise, social networking giant Facebook has also launched an election tracker and has started a Facebook Talks series, which saw political leaders like Aam Aadmi Party founder Arvind Kejriwal and RJD chief Lalu Parsad Yadav answering questions of Facebook users.
India`s homegrown personalised social media platform Vebbler has started `the Ungli Campaign` aimed at engaging youth on conversations related to various topics surrounding the upcoming election and encouraging them to vote.
According to a study by IRIS Knowledge Foundation and Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), there are 160 high impact constituencies in India out of the total 543, which are likely to be influenced by social media during the general elections.
Another IT products start-up firm FakeOff, which offers an app to identify fake profiles on Facebook, has launched a service to help users identify fake likes.
The software by the Israel-based firm assumes importance as the Election Commission of India has directed major social networking sites to ensure that contents displayed by them during the electoral process are not "unlawful or malicious or violative of the model code of conduct".
Similarly, a Hyderabad-based start-up has started Smartur (www.Smartur.Com) for schools students, which uses a four-stage infotainment process -- Fun Election Contest, Fun Facts, Fun PM Test and Children`s Manifesto - to generate interest among children. While the majority of the users of social media are concentrated in urban areas, the elections have also helped them expand their reach to the rural areas too.
Before the elections, the use of social media was generally restricted to the national political parties, but as the General Elections gained momentum, even regional parties joined the social media bandwagon.
In a recent interview, Raheel Khursheed, head of news, Politics and Government, Twitter India, said the electoral landscape of social media has changed forever in India.
"Twitter has now become an integral part of Indian elections," Khursheed told a news agency.
The sheer size is a major challenge for them, concedes Harbarth.
"It is just exciting to see, how much social media is being used in the election," she said. In addition to the volume and size, Twitter officials said the nine-phased elections are another major challenge.
"Twitter gives you a front row seat to the Lok Sabha #Election2014 in India and is the #1 place to go to stay informed about the latest elections developments."
"This election is turning out to be the country?s first Twitter election -- candidates, journalists and citizens have been using the Twitter platform extensively to discover elections content, converse with others in real time, and express their views," Adams said.
On the other hand, Google provided platforms to politicians to reach out to their supporters through hangouts.
Google also created a Google Elections Hub for elections-related news and information created to help 800 million Indian voters stay informed and updated about the elections. The site also includes features such as elections related News Videos, Search Trends, G+ Hangout Series, and an interactive Pledge to Vote campaign.
"We want to make sure Indian voters have quick access to information to help them make informed decisions on election day. This is part of our commitment to bring essential information to Indians as they head to the polls in this historic election," Rajan Anandan, VP, India Country Manager, told a news agency in an e-mail interview.
"Google created its first elections tools seven years ago when our engineers noticed a huge increase in search traffic around the election period in the United States," Samantha Smith from Google said.
"Today over 20 countries including Malaysia, Thailand, and now, India, have elections pages that aid voters during election periods.”
"Google aims to encourage people to be more participative and engage with candidates. It also allows voters to have a deeper understanding of politics and governance through engagement with the candidates," Smith added.
Several American media outlets have described the 16th general elections as the first social media elections.
"Social media has become the new election battleground for India`s nationwide parliamentary elections," a CNN news report said.
Both officials from these social media outlets and experts are unable to predict this time the influence it would have on the election results. However, the Internet and Mobile Association of India estimates that a well-executed social media campaign can swing 3-4 percent of votes.
In 2009, the popular vote of the BJP was 78 million and that of the Congress was 119 million. In 2014, the total numbers of Indians on these social media outlets are matching these figures.