India’s 2014 general election was said to be a ‘Facebook election. The 2019 election was called the ‘WhatsApp election’. The 2024 election will be known as the YouTube election.
Walk into an ATM anywhere in India, and the security guard won’t even look at you. He’s busy watching YouTube on his phone. These days he’s likely to be wearing headphones or even cheap earbuds. But when he’s not, you are just as likely to hear news or political speeches as movies or popular music.
In villages, headphones are less popular. People often sit around one phone, just listening, since not everyone can sit together and watch a small screen. It is reminiscent of the old radio culture, except there are now a billion channels to choose from.
This revolution has been growing since India got 4G data in 2016. It has become so big that it has become part of daily life even in the poorest parts of the country, such as rural Bihar. India has just rolled out 5G, and by 2024 it should be everywhere.
YouTube channels, whether they target a pan-India audience or just half a district, have become more influential than the mainstream media. TV news content is still thriving — through YouTube. But form changes the content. What worked for TV for decades does not necessarily work for YouTube.
YouTube news reporters and presenters have become street celebrities, and we are not talking about the big, obvious ones like Lallantop. No wonder Rahul Gandhi, as part of his Bharat Jodo Yatra, mostly gives YouTubers interviews, ignoring the mainstream media.
A social revolution
The revolution is not limited to politics, of course. A friend in Bihar tells me the district and town-level cricket tournaments in his state are broadcast live by local YouTubers and are watched by 15-16 thousand people at a time.
News and politics are, thus, only one vertical on YouTube. Just as those cricket broadcasts will likely produce local stars — that amazing batting will be recorded on video forever — it will produce new politics and politicians.
A news channel, even if focused on one state, tends to cover top-level news. The few big news items dominate, starting with what the prime minister said today. Local YouTube channels cover the news bottom up. By virtue of being small, fragmented and often heavily localised, they cover the local like nobody else can. And, all politics, they say, is local.
The media micro-baron
Earlier, only out-of-work journalists used to start YouTube channels. Now it is becoming an act of choice. The medium’s power and reach make it impossible for the enterprising not to have their platform on YouTube. The economics matters: YouTube and Facebook give you some share of their ad revenues. It’s often a pittance, but with millions of views, it can become enough to sustain a small team. With low costs and lower salaries in a place like Bihar, YouTubers are opening offices and hiring their stringers in villages. Yesterday’s local stringer has become today’s media micro-baron.
The media micro-baron wields huge local influence, and thus the politician needs to co-opt him. This is often not difficult because we live in such a polarised time that YouTubers, not unlike our news channels, usually wear their politics on their sleeves. But many in small towns are willing to be co-opted financially by an influential local leader, and some are more keen to be ‘freelance’, that is, selling their channel space by the second.
Such is the competition among local YouTubers that a political activist in Patna tells me there will soon be shoot-outs between them, like gang warfare. He’s only half joking.
Recently an influential Delhi newspaper front-paged a story about a casteist remark by a judge in Bihar. This local story became important enough only because it was taken up by local YouTubers and drew obvious outrage that made it grow bigger. In the old days, it would have been picked up through local Hindi newspapers — if they had reported it.
Voice of the people
This new-found centrality of YouTube to our political discourse makes YouTube and YouTubers critical in elections. For the last few years, we have seen how millions of people watch a certain kind of election reporting on YouTube. This is reporting where the reporter talks only to voters and voters of all kinds and gets a million different quotes.
Mainstream TV news, by contrast, focuses more on the big rallies, the big speeches and the big interviews. The hallowed anchor goes around with a decked-up election bus talking mainly to politicians — the anchor may just as well have sat in the studio.
A senior TV journalist-turned-star YouTuber, Ajit Anjum, tells me that TV news loves to do ‘shows’. An audience is invited to sit around a pre-designated place. Often this meant that the show could be hijacked by local elites if not a politician’s supporters. These days, top politicians do town hall-style interviews explicitly demanding that only their supporters sit in the audience.
When YouTubers like Anjum go around talking to voters unfiltered, it has the power of authenticity that TV can never match. I have seen people interested in politics change their perception of the Indian voter after seeing such YouTube election reporting. People feel such reporting gives them a real sense of the ground, which the studio anchor can never do.
YouTube is the new teashop
Ordinary people often express their political views in simple language that is more persuasive than a whole speech by a politician. In the 2022 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, Anjum found a poor voter saying that he would vote for the BJP as he has eaten Modi’s salt — referring to the Hindi proverb that equates salt with loyalty. This was the impact of free rations in the UP election. Anjum tells me that no one less than Prime Minister Narendra Modi mentioned this line in his speech.
These candid vox pop interviews of the voter are particularly powerful because the Indian voter likes to determine who everybody else votes for and then votes for the same winning candidate. The propaganda war before any election is precisely to create this sense of the universal ‘hawa’, the direction of the wind. Political candidates send workers masquerading as travellers to influence the ‘hawa’ in the teashops. Today they have to worry about YouTubers.
YouTube is where India’s 2024 general election will be fought.