The role of social media in influencing public opinion has been intensely debated for some time. Whether it is AamAdmi Party’s victory in December 2013 Delhi election or the landslide for Modi in 2014 General Elections, many have credited social media of being able to effectively influence public opinion. Twitter was used very effectively by both Modi’s social media team and AAP volunteers during both the elections, while the grand old Congress party was visibly clueless. But looking at comparatively lower penetration, many are still skeptical.
But then, that is not the point. Influencing of the public by the institutional users—apolitical party or a business organization—is not something unique to social media. In that sense, it is just another channel—like Television, newspaper, radio, only much cheaper.
But isn’t Internet—like democracy (theoretically, at least)—a two-way process? Isn’t that supposed to be the big deal about the Internet? Yes, brands do influence users but what about the other way around?
That is what is being asked—and even answered confidently by some—in the wake of recent developments.
We are, of course, talking of the Net Neutrality debate. Even as net users were angrily reacting to a March consultation paper on over-the-top (OTT) services brought out by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), Airtel, India‘s largest telco,came out with a program that it called Airtel Zero. Announced on April 6, this program allows marketers to pay a price to Airtel and get preferential treatment as far as access by users are concerned. The plan would make specific consumer applications more accessible by removing data charge for their usage. By the evening of that day, it was clear that one of the early brands to go for this Airtel Plan would be Flipkart, India’s No 1 e-commerce portal and one of the world’s largest VC-funded pre-IPO companies.
That is when all the hell broke loose. The anger directed at TRAI and telcos in general now got channelized against Airtel and Flipkart. While not too many were very surprised about Airtel’s plan, many users were shocked to see Flipkart as a comrade-in-arms with Airtel. And the emotions started pouring in on Twitter.
That’s when we at JuxtSmartMandate started tracking the user’s response on Twitter—with a specific question to answer – What were people discussing about Flipkart in the context of net neutrality?
Using our proprietary text analytics engine, we tapped into the Twitter Streaming API to pick up relevant tweets on the issue and analyzed them on a timeline, mapping them with the developments that were happeningaround the issue—right from the news that Flipkart was joining the Airtel Zero alliance to its CEO defending the decision on Twitter to finally the announcement by the company to withdraw from Airtel Zero.
Applying advanced algorithms for topic classification and parsers for extracting relevant snippets, we were able to visually map the entire Twitter discussion and important hashtags against dates. Also indicated on the visual is the time of major developments such as news and announcements about the issue (Airtel Zero and Flipkart’s joining).
It is clear from the illustration that the negative sentiment about Flipkartstarted soon after the news came in that it was joining the Airtel Zero program, as evident from the blue line with negative hashtags like #boycott, #downvoteappand #uninstallflipkart. However, the voice of surprise (Ettu brute!) and adult-to-adult communication (please take a stand, please rethink)were equally strong initially. With Flipkart CEO Sachin Bansal’s tweet on 8 April justifying Flipkart’s decision to join Airtel Zero, the negative voice overtook. While the more loyal customers actually trended Loyal but Boycotting after his tweet, the negative hashtags started dominating. The negative sentiment rose fairly steeply all the way till 14 April, till Flipkart announced withdrawing from the Airtel Zero alliance.
The announcement led to the news itself (Flipkart backs off, Flipkart statement RT) as well as the celebratory voices (social media wins) beginning to trend. But what topped all of that is compliments to the company (bravo!). This could be because Flipkart clearly reiterated its support to net neutrality and this time around, backed its words with action! That was convincing.
This reversal of decision by Flipkart is being interpreted by many as a definite proof of social media voice now impacting brand decisions. While it is a milestone development, it is it is important to put it in right perspective, instead of generalizing it.
For one, Flipkart is an online business. So, Internet users are its core audience. Within that, it targets certain socio-economic class, that was at the forefront in this protest. Net neutrality is an issue that is close to their heart. It was too much of a risk for Flipkart to anger this group. On the other hand, for many other brands they are just one of the many segments; for political parties, it is a very small segment. So, the imperative for them to listen to this voice may not be as crucial as that for Flipkart.
Two, if executed, it would have given Flipkart a small advantage; unlike telcos for whom it is a survival question. For the top e-commerce company, with strong competition from Amazon, this small edge was probably not seen to be worth the money, in comparison to the loss of goodwill.
Three—and this is extremely important—unlike political parties and telcos (in this case Airtel), the response of users to Flipkart’s decision initially was that of surprise and disappointment, not anger. A good number of users used polite, rational language—not the usual lingo of social media in India—to request it to reconsider the decision. It would have seen very arrogant to completely ignore that voice. It shows that it has a certain “responsible” image among its customers. The little advantage from Airtel Zero was probably seen as too little as compared to loss of that image. The decision has restored that image. That’s a huge PR plus. It is evident from the number of pats that it got on its back. More than celebration of social media, it is approval of Flipkart that ruled Twitter post the decision.
Now, imagine that happening with a typical BJP-AAP war on social media. Something like this—a BJP government being forced to change its decision because of uproar in social media. What would have happened post-the decision? Boisterous victory cries accompanied by more abuse. Right?
For the time being, however, this seems to vindicate the stand of social media backers that for those organizations and brands for whom this section—the typical net users in India—has a major interest, social media can be a very effective medium to influence their decisions. That’s an excellent beginning.
Manas Ranjan Kar is Practice Lead and Shyamanuja Das is Head of Business Research at JuxtSmartMandate, a company that aids in data driven decision-making.
Disclaimer: Flipkart is neither a client nor Juxt Smart Mandate has any business relation with them.