On 20 April 2017, the Press Information Bureau (PIB), the Indian government’s official communication department, held an unusual event: an official workshop titled ‘Instagram for Better Government Communication’. Besides PIB officials, it was attended by union ministers Venkaiah Naidu and Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore. The workshop saw the two ministers and bureaucrats learn the nuances of Facebook’s photo-sharing app, Instagram, and its potential as an outreach tool. It was the first such initiative by Instagram in Asia, where John Tass-Parker, its key global politics and government outreach official, participated, among others.
While the event itself did not make headlines, it highlighted something that got Facebook officials excited. That the government itself was looking at its products and services with a great deal of promise, which, if fulfilled, could make Instagram a potent communication tool, especially ahead of the general elections in 2019. According to sources, more such workshops are being planned over the next 12 months.
“Events like these are part of a concerted attempt by Facebook to win over the government. It demonstrates a very clear tactical shift from its Free Basics approach,” says a New Delhi-based technology professional, who knows how the BJP’s (Bharatiya Janata Party) IT cell operates. He doesn’t want to be named because he is not authorised to speak to the media. “These workshops and interactions will only get more common as we get closer to the 2019 elections. Wait and watch.”
What also emboldened Facebook India officials was a reference to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Mark Zuckerberg’s February essay on ‘Building Global Community’. Zuckerberg wrote, “In India, Prime Minister Modi has asked his ministers to share their meetings and information on Facebook so they can hear direct feedback from citizens.” The officials felt that Zuckerberg’s reference was a public acknowledgement of how far Facebook had come in India, and how much further it could go from here.
There’s a certain urgency about Facebook’s approach in India. Its Free Basics initiative was shot down in February 2016 by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, which ruled against the unlimited access to the restricted internet that Facebook was offering. Now, Facebook wants to become THE platform for government officials, both for information dissemination and citizen engagement because it has the critical mass of users and a range of products to offer. And, in the process, leave Twitter behind. Meanwhile, the government has realised that while Twitter keeps a certain type of audience engaged, Facebook is where force multiplication happens. Where its messages could trickle down to the voters.
Therefore, over the last 12 months, Facebook has been growing its policy team in India led by Ankhi Das, its director for public policy in India, South and Central Asia. It has also been more proactive, funding policy research to think-tanks, industry associations, consulting companies, in areas like privacy.