Delhi: The 2019 Lok Sabha elections are on track to be the costliest general election by advertising spends--spending by political parties is projected to surge 73% above the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Amid a wave of ‘mediatisation’ of Indian politics, the media’s ability to set political agendas has expanded, and elections have been transformed into an image contest between prominent personalities.

As media and politics grow ever more intertwined, a question arises: in what way does media exposure impact voting behaviours and opinions? The spike in circulation of unverifiable information--or fake news--has been a major cause for concern during the current elections. However, there are several initiatives pushing for change. The Election Commission of India recently launched an app to encourage voter mobilisation. Fact-checking websites such as Alt News and IndiaSpend’s attempt to debunk misinformation. Similarly, other platforms such as Jaano India and Mumbai Votes aim to equip citizens with relevant information on government policies and candidates’ performance.

However, the effectiveness of these programmes, and the impact of various media on voter behaviour in India, have not been rigorously analysed. An analysis of randomised evaluations conducted across the world allows some insights into the role of the media in improving the quality of political participation. It shows that it is indeed possible to deliver information through the media in a way that positively impacts citizen engagement in the democratic process, and that the magnitude and duration of impact varies by content type and delivery mechanism.

Increasing political knowledge through print media

Increasing access to political information through the mass media may enable citizens to monitor incumbents’ behaviour, and use this information in voting decisions.

In 2005-2006, leading up to state-wide elections for governor in the state of Virginia in the United States, researchers affiliated with the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) studied how free subscriptions to a newspaper with either liberal or conservative leanings affected voters’ political knowledge and opinions.

They found that receiving either paper had no effect on voters’ political knowledge and stated attitudes towards news events in general. However, regardless of the political slant of the newspapers, they resulted in an overall 7.2-percentage-point increase in the likelihood of voting for the Democratic (liberal-leaning) candidate. The effects were similar for both liberal and conservative newspapers. This was amid a prevailing negative climate towards the Republican (conservative) President of the US at the time.

The fact that receiving either paper led to more support for the Democratic candidate suggests that media slant mattered less in this case than exposure to media, and hence, information.

Influencing vote-choice through election ad campaigns

Another major source of learning about political candidates is through politicians’ advertising on TV.

During the early stages of the 2006 campaign for governor in Texas in the United States, researchers studied the impact of political ads on public opinion. Among other things, this study examined differences in randomly assigned launch dates and volume of TV advertisements, focusing on the incumbent’s campaign.

The maximum volume of TV ads led to an improvement of the incumbent’s standing by 5 percentage points, the results showed. However, the effects did not extend beyond one week from the end of the advertising campaign. The findings indicate that TV ads have strong but short-lived effects on voting preferences.

Impact of candidate debates on voting behaviour

In places where mass media penetration is low, information campaigns at the local level can be useful. Publicly screened candidate debates are one way to provide information about candidates’ policy positions, qualifications and personalities.

In a 2012 study in Sierra Leone, researchers measured the impact of exposure to publicly screened political debates between parliamentary candidates on voters’ political knowledge and decisions. The debates were organised in randomly selected constituencies, and included a ‘get to know you’ session, debate on policy positions and spending priorities, and general discussion on issues of youth employment, gender equality and healthcare. They were then screened in polling centres, between one and five weeks before the election, reaching an estimated 19,000 people.

Exposure to debates improved voters’ political knowledge and the alignment between voters’ reported policy positions and those of the candidates they voted for. Candidates also conducted more visits and spent more on campaigning in constituencies where debates were screened. Even after the election, MPs who participated in debates invested more in their constituencies and visited them more regularly.

These results suggest that publicly screened political debates can increase voters’ political knowledge, and may encourage politicians to engage and invest more in their constituencies. The shift in politicians’ behaviour also suggests that the increase in voter knowledge through exposure to debates may have enhanced accountability.

Lessons for Indian democracy

In the absence of readily accessible information on candidates’ platforms and track records, voters may resort to giving undue weightage to politicians’ gender, class or caste in voting decisions.

However, the continued expansion of media access--print, TV, online and others--brings with it new opportunities to inform the Indian electorate and improve civic engagement and the democratic process.

Studying how new media can improve the quality of political participation can offer vital lessons by helping identify content types and delivery mechanisms that effectively improve voter turnout, candidate responsiveness and electoral accountability.

(Priyadarshini is a policy and communications associate at J-PAL South Asia; Sabarwal is associate director of policy and training at J-PAL South Asia and director of the CLEAR South Asia Centre.)

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