If there is something different in the electoral approaches of political parties in the 2023 National Assembly (NA) elections, it is the very negligible and almost unknown anonymous pages and accounts on social media platforms, especially Facebook (FB), where people used to resort to character assassination, revealing skeletons in the cupboards and others, in a move to deride their rival contestants and other members of the rival political party. There were incidents in the past where very sensitive videos were also posted, using such mediums. However, the 2023 elections have seen a shift, with such practices almost negligent in the air, which used to hit not just the intended targets but all associated with the target (s).
“I remember the emergence of the notorious Bhutanomics page in the 2013 elections and other individual accounts like ‘Pelden Drukpa’ etc even in the 2018 elections. Like you pointed out, we haven’t seen such pages or individual accounts on FB this election,” Tandin Wangchuk, a political observer based in Thimphu said.
According to Wangchuk, Bhutanese are aware of fake news and the reason people and supporters of political parties resort to such means. “In some cases, there is a boomerang effect, and the one a political party is trying to paint as a dirty character wins the sympathy of the voters,” he said, adding this could be the reason why such “ghost propaganda masters” are lying low this time.
Wangchuk further added that the fact that such accounts can be traced back could be another reason. “It is good such things are not happening. It is very unhealthy.”
Sonam, an upcoming freelance consultant said that though politicians and parties are not resorting to the means mentioned above, “similar games are played.” “Though not at a level as those that used to greet us almost every day – breaking news about party presidents, candidates, and others on social media -, there are several WeChat, Whatapp and Telegram groups, where similar incidents are happening.” According to Sonam, FB has been replaced by such groups. “Using FB requires a dedicated person and sometimes teams to run such election campaigns. But the above ones can be done by candidates or supporters themselves.” Sonam further cited that compared to FB and the anonymous users, where only English is the medium of disseminating messages, the other modes of communication enjoy diversity in languages that can be used. Additionally, the number of smartphone users in Bhutan has increased by volumes in the last couple of years.
“Apart from the disadvantage related to anonymity, people have been told that technology can create anything. Voters now think that whatever comes on FB for example is not true and that images and even words can be created and uploaded,” Sonam said, adding that a political party has just recently said so.
Meanwhile, Wangchuk mentioned that the use of anonymity depends on what a political party does. “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Thus, it can be construed that 2023 is not seeing much of it because political parties did not resort to the use of such means. If one party does, the other also has to and that was one of the reasons for the rise in such pages and accounts in the former elections.” Wangchuk added that it was obvious that such pages and accounts would not be used before the primary elections. “If you look at the trends of the past, before the primary round itself, such accounts begin to surface, which we did not see happen this time. While only political parties will know why they have not resorted to such means this time, I would say that the main reason is ‘caution’ and fear that doing so would misfire and damage the parties themselves.”
This has also been taken very positively by candidates of political parties and party supporters. “It is a sign that the people and political parties have matured. When I say people, I mean both those who indulge in such propaganda and the general voters,” a candidate from Bhutan Tendrel Party (BTP) said. According to him, the past elections saw not just character assassination of politicians, but also those of family members. “There were cases when family members of candidates and supporters were dragged in, those who had nothing to do with politics and party affairs. You could imagine the mental effect it would have had, especially on the children of those whose pictures appeared in social media, branded as goons and wrongdoers,” he said. “As mentioned by others, I also believe that political parties have understood that the voters are more mature and such acts would not benefit them. From the onset BTP decided not to venture into such acts, even if other political parties do,” he added.
A supporter of Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) remembered how one of his family members became the victim of such political propaganda. “The immensity of the mental trauma that we had to undergo cannot be expressed. It was an act of the lowest common denominator and I am glad to see that such things are not happening this time,” he said.
Dechen Choden from Thimphu