Opinion Polls, Advertisements, Paid News: Seeking to Manipulate and Distort Voters’ Behaviour

Even as the country prepares to go into the fifth phase of Lok Sabha polls, a fresh ‘opinion poll’ has been released, giving the NDA a clear majority. There are several disturbing questions that can be raised about the impact of such ‘opinion polls’ on voting behaviour.

In the first place, the EC has placed a clear restriction on exit polls. But when an opinion poll claims to reflect the opinions of voters in constituencies that have already voted, isn’t the opinion poll a thinly veiled ‘exit poll’? Isn’t it all too likely that voters will perceive such opinion polls as virtual ‘exit polls’?

If an opinion poll shows a particular party or coalition close to achieving a majority, is it not bound to bolster the campaign of that party/coalition to ‘vote to form a stable government rather than hung parliament’? Insidiously, the opinion polls being publicised during elections, are supplementing the BJP-NDA’s aggressive campaign to vote for a stable government led by Modi.

Not long before the elections, the BJP – and most media organisations – had vociferously condemned any talk of restricting opinion polls, as an attack on freedom of expression. Then, too, we had pointed out that opinion polls are not simply mirrors reflecting opinions, they are tools that seek to shape, influence, and organise political opinions. Opinion polls claiming to ‘objectively’ and ‘scientifically’ popular will are very different from editorials, or comments by TV anchors or ‘experts,’ since the latter are self-avowedly subjective. Laypersons or media outfits should be free to express opinions projecting poll outcomes and to persuade others to accept these opinions – but these subjective opinions are likely to affect voters very differently from the ‘objective’ polls presented authoritatively by media houses and various other bodies. Voters can easily assess and process the predictions of the local ‘expert’ at the tea stall or street corner or even the poll ‘pundit’ on the TV news; but lay voters are far more likely to accept at face value, the conclusions of an ‘opinion poll’ that claims to be the opinion of the people, supposedly gathered through scientific methods.     

And finally, the opinion polls are highly dubious given their corporate provenance. As it is, newspapers and channels are full of ‘paid news’ – essentially advertisements that are masquerading as ‘news’. Opinion polls generally do not make public their raw data and their methodology; even if they were to do so, laypersons would lack the expertise to assess them. In the case of the latest opinion poll by NDTV, for instance, it emerges that there are possible linkages between Hansa Research, the organisation that has conducted the poll, and APCO, the PR firm that runs Modi’s PR campaign. Both are American firms, and the Director of strategic communication and public affairs for APCO Worldwide in India was formerly CEO with Hansa Public Relations. This raises serious questions about the credibility of the opinion poll, and the possibility of the poll being inflated or manipulated to suit Modi’s PR efforts. 

The EC has erred grievously in failing to ban opinion polls during the election period. Even now, corrective measures should be applied and the EC should acknowledge the potential distorting and manipulative effect of opinion polls, and ban them during the election period.

Another cause for concern is the huge, full page advertisements for Narendra Modi that appeared as the covering sleeve of all newspapers on 10th April, the day polls were held in seats in Jharkhand, Bihar and other states. The EC forbids campaigning 48 hours before polls, in order to shield voters from any undue influence immediately before they vote. How is it, then, that huge advertisements for Modi are allowed to reach every voter’s home through the morning newspaper, on the very day of polling?

It is disturbing that in some booths of the Jamua assembly segment of the Koderma LS, dalits were attacked and prevented from casting their vote on 10th April by feudal elements. The Election Commission that has ordered repoll in some booths, has yet to order repoll in booths where this anti-dalit violence has occurred. In Ara LS in Bihar, the EC has declared Agiaon and Tarari Assembly segments as extremist-affected, thereby reducing the voting hours till 4 pm instead of 6 pm. Agiaon and Tarari have no history of being ‘extremist-affected’ for the past 25 years; why have they been declared such now, when the MLAs from Agiaon and Tarari are Shivesh Kumar from the BJP and Sunil Pandey from the JD(U) respectively? The fact is that the only incidents of pre-poll violence in these areas have been the murder of CPI(ML)’s Charpokhri block secretary Budhram Paswan, and popular young teacher Akbar Khan, by feudal-communal criminals. Moreover, the recent acquittals of all the convicts in the Bathani Tola and Laxmanpur Bathe massacres committed by the Ranveer Sena, and the resulting release of these convicts, has created fear and terror among the poor from the oppressed castes in these Assembly segments. In these circumstances, why are these Assembly segments being declared ‘extremist affected’? Restricting voting hours will discriminate against poor labouring voters, who are extremely busy during the ongoing harvest season and are also under threat from feudal-communal terror.

Opinion polls, polling-day advertisements, and paid news are all blatant attempts to manipulate voters and vitiate and distort the democratic process. The Election Commission needs to take stronger measures to end all such manipulation, and to protect the rights of voters from dalit, minority, adivasi and other oppressed sections.