YouTube and Reels Could Decide India’s Elections

Major political parties in India are courting social media influencers to reach rural voters, paying for reach and dodging tough questions.
Illustration of a politicians at campaign events a green rectangle and an orange rectangle
Photo-illustration: WIRED Staff; Getty Images

Sharvan Patel’s Instagram account is a window into daily life in the vast deserts of western India: children fighting calves for camel milk, a grandmother drying pickles on top of a mud house, or a farmer eating under the only tree in a barren land. Patel’s passion for wildlife conservation has attracted more than 318,000 followers to his account, where he tells the story of the intricate binding of the Indigenous cultures with the ecosystem in the Thar desert. Sometimes, he also tells people who to vote for in upcoming elections.

In one of Patel’s posts from August, which has been played over 4.7 million times, dozens of women, from young to old, line up to get a smartphone under a government scheme. “Today, this mother has gotten a smartphone,” a woman says, pointing toward a frail woman. “She had never thought that Ashok Gehlot would give her the smartphone that her son could never get her.”

Gehlot is the chief minister of Rajasthan, standing for reelection in the state in late November. Patel is one of dozens of influencers hired by marketing firms working for the Congress Party and its main rival, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, as politicians look to use the vast reach of social media personalities. In October, Patel’s Instagram reached 30 million people. “My posts reach everyone from a government official to a laborer in half an hour,” he says. He charges nearly $100 per post. “It is not only advertising; that’s something politicians can do themselves. We create content that makes people believe that something nice is actually happening. It doesn't look like we are promoting a political party—the post only shows a good, positive picture.”

From fluffy interviews on YouTube podcasts with millions of subscribers to subliminal attacks on Instagram Reels, the political parties in India are betting big on influencers to swing voting patterns, manage crises, and help them secure power as the world’s largest democracy gears up for state elections this month, and a national election in 2024. It’s a strategy that makes sense—622 million Indians are online, and with the cost of internet access falling, people from India’s harder-to-reach hinterlands are coming online fast. Two-thirds of the population lives in these areas, giving them enormous power to sway the results of national elections. And while the symbiotic relationship between political campaigns and influencers has allowed politicians to reach the electorate in new ways, and to influence how they vote, it’s also helped them to dodge media scrutiny during public engagement and to challenge the integrity of elections in India.

“Influencers are helping political parties skirt the laws [in the run-up to elections],” says Ravi Iyer, managing director of the USC Marshall School's Neely Center. “They work together to alter the information ecosystem. And there is no way you can figure out who is being paid by whom to say what.”

India’s influencer industry is booming. The Indian population is the biggest market for Meta-owned Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook—which have 229 million, 535 million, and 315 million users, respectively—and for Google-owned YouTube, which has 462 million users. On the back of these enormous numbers, the influencer market is predicted to grow to more than $300 million by 2025.

Political parties are becoming major clients. In the last few months, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has held more than two dozen influencer meetups across the country. Ministers of the BJP government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have appeared on podcast shows, eschewing harder interviews with established news channels. Anurag Thakur, the information and broadcasting minister, told the parliament that the government has picked four private agencies to work with social media influencers for content on government schemes.

Opposition parties have mobilized too. In a first, Rajasthan, ruled by the opposition Congress Party, gave government advertisements in September this year to internet influencers, ranging in price from $120 to $6,000. As he walked across India to build support for his run against Modi in next year’s elections, Rahul Gandhi, the Congress Party’s leader, gave interviews to selected YouTubers, including local creators in the places he visited, eschewing major established news channels—which are widely seen as favoring the Modi government.

For politicians, the value of these influencers is in their subliminal power—their “authenticity and the level of trust they garner with people,” according to Madhura Ranade, vice president of branded content at Dentsu Creative India, a marketing firm. The campaigns have especially focused on the nano- and micro-influencers, based in the hinterlands, for mass mobilization, messaging, and, more importantly, crisis management. “They can help to shape the narrative or become an immediate remedy in case of a PR challenge,” Ranade says. “There will be a lot of subliminal presence of these influencers on your feed as elections near.”

In May this year, during the Karnataka state election, in southern India, Dilip Cherian, a renowned political advisdr and image guru, claims to have helped mastermind a stealth campaign for a politician in the state—who he declined to name because of confidentiality agreements he had made with the candidate.

Wearing an off-white kurta-pajama, Cherian stirs sugar into his tea as he mumbles from across the table that, rather than working for a party, the team managed a private campaign for one of the biggest politicians in the state. “The aim was to build the individual’s profile, not of the party,” he says. Three months prior to the official campaign, the team scouted micro-influencers—including local theater artists and chefs—who had no apparent political leaning. “We chose appropriate influencers, and we had to make sure that they had something to say that’s charming enough to change the perception. We did not want to overdo it [to avoid making it too obvious].”

The budget for influencers in the campaign did not top 10 percent of the marketing. “Rather than attacking any politician, we focused on our personality building,” Cherian added. An internal survey placed the client behind by a significant margin in the “perception battle” among young voters. “By the end of the elections, our client was leading by 18 percent.”

To Cherian’s surprise, the campaign won 24 out of the 26 contested seats. “We managed a swing of 6 to 10 percent among the young voters.”

Micro-influencers could be important players in the politics of rural regions, where many people have been moving toward news and media consumption on smartphones. Winning rural voters is key to winning elections in India, and influencer culture has spread widely in remote regions. “Anyone who has a smartphone is getting [the influencers’] content, either as subscribers or forwards,” says Joyojeet Pal, an associate professor at the University of Michigan. “Nano- and micro-influencers are people you rely on. This person speaks your dialect, refers to local metaphors, and you trust them. There is a high chance you bump into them in your town.”

For the influencers themselves, working with campaigns can be lucrative and can give them a boost in credibility.

In Raipur, the capital of the central Indian state of Chattisgarh, Shailesh Lilhari is booked solid for the next month, with offers coming in from most of the political parties up for election in the state. Lilhari has built a following of 67,000 on Instagram with his slice-of-life videos. He charges political campaigns $180 per post. “I’m earning good money from this.” Lilhari says. “You are also respected when you are seen with [the political leaders].”

Lilhari says that when the Congress Party in Raipur reached out to ask him to collaborate with its candidate, Vikas Upadhyay, the influencer sat with the campaign team and brainstormed the idea: a morning jog with Upadhayay in tracksuit, leading up to a cricket match in a local ground, then a gym session.

“I don’t post advertisements. I create content that doesn’t look like promotions,” the 21-year-old influencer said, referring to the video that has been played over 400,000 times. “If I endorse a politician, I’ll be badly abused on social media. Campaigns work with me because I can wrap a political promotion in the lifestyle content.”

Lilhari believes that his endorsed, stealth political videos can be a significant factor in the upcoming elections. A majority of his Instagram’s reach is among the 16-24 age group. “My viewers will remember the name of the candidate I spent my day with—and it will stay in the memories of the first-time voters, who are young and not very knowledgeable.”

Influencers aren’t only useful for promotion—they can help candidates head off bad press. In late October, Deepti Maheswari, the 36-year-old BJP candidate from Rajsamand, in Rajasthan (who is an influencer in her own right), was caught up in a controversy after party workers stormed into her office to protest her selection for the ticket. Maheshwari is from the nearby city of Udaipur; party workers wanted a local candidate. But Bharat Chouhan, Maheswari’s 31-year-old social media manager, says he was able to head off the crisis by preparing “an army of nearly 1,000 nano-influencers to dilute the narrative against the BJP on social media.”

“The protest videos were all over social media, but my team went to every post and spammed it with ‘Ayegi toh BJP hi!’ [Only BJP will win the election],” he says. WIRED verified that this and similar statements appear under many posts about the protests.

While these political collaborations can be lucrative, they are a delicate balancing act for influencers. An overt endorsement can lead to an online backlash from followers. Hamraj Singh, who managed the BJP’s campaigns in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh in November 2022, told WIRED that at least two influencers had taken down posts following the backlash. “We convinced an Instagram handle with 50,000 followers to post our content,” he says, “but it fell on our face and was removed by the influencer.”

“The politicians, like access to the prime minister’s office, bring higher credibility to the influencers,” says Ranade, the VP at Dentsu India. “If done well, the subliminal use of influencers can be done very economically and effectively. But they are also ‘canceled’ for having a steep political opinion,” she says. “It is a delicate deal for influencers. It is an offer they cannot refuse, but it comes with a cost.”

These deals can also be a legal tightrope for influencers to walk. Beginning in August this year, the Advertising Standards Council of India demands that influencers disclose if a post was an endorsement or an advertisement. None of the influencers interviewed by WIRED included any such disclosure.

The next year’s national election is largely seen as a contest for “the idea of India” as a country, which has steadily fallen in indices of democratic freedom under Modi’s Hindu-nationalist regime. Modi’s party rode to power in 2014 by weaponizing social media platforms. The 2024 elections are likely to be a continuation of that, with widespread misinformation and hate speech that may threaten the integrity of the democratic process. The influencer space is a new battleground—one which needs careful oversight.

But, says Pal, the associate professor, the people most able to deal with the problem are the ones who profit the most from it. “It is also not in the interest of the ruling government [to address the concerns], because they are better mobilized in this ecosystem,” he says. “It is a very dangerous situation, and we are unfortunately destined to see a lot of this happening in upcoming elections.”