This post has been updated.
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) long-vaunted digital campaign tactics seem to be faltering on Twitter.
Several signs may be pointing to India’s ruling party’s waning influence on the platform. Rahul Gandhi, president of the Indian National Congress, the main national opposition party, often receives more retweets than Narendra Modi on Twitter now, despite having less than a fifth of the prime minister’s followers. Recent months have seen a drop in Twitter engagement from supporters, and a corresponding decrease in the number of pro-BJP topics that have trended on the microblogging platform, according to people who have closely worked with the party’s social media team. A recent report showed that lately, many political polls on Twitter—even those conducted by right-wing users—are yielding unfavourable results for India’s ruling party.
If these weren’t enough, the BJP faced a major embarrassment yesterday (Feb. 13), when a report exposed the functioning of its social media team (“IT cell”). This exposé even manipulated senior party functionaries’ and ministers’ Twitter accounts into posting messages fiercely critical of the prime minister—something unthinkable for the party.
In a Twitter thread, Pratik Sinha, co-founder of the fact-checking website AltNews, posted a video of himself making small edits to a Google document of pre-written tweets, flipping their meaning completely. The document, shared by the IT cell with BJP affiliates and which Sinha broke into, was meant to provide easily tweet-able content to fuel a pro-Modi hashtag trend.
The results were humiliating for the BJP.
Sinha’s Twitter thread showed screenshots of tweets by politicians and others who seem to have blithely copy-pasted from the document without noticing that the edited tweets.
For instance, one among several such tweets by Pon Radhakrishnan, union minister of state for finance and shipping, said that “working for the middle class is low on the agenda” for Modi. The official handle of the BJP in the state of Assam tweeted that the government “has not made inclusive development as the focal point of its functioning.”
Not surprisingly, Sinha’s thread went viral. While many who had sent out the manipulated tweets rushed to delete them, the damage was already done.
All this has come against the backdrop of the party’s raging protests against Twitter for its alleged bias against the right wing. Many BJP officials claim their content is being unduly censored and “downranked” on the platform in an alleged attempt to influence India’s upcoming general election.
These developments have together created a perfect Twitter-verse storm for the BJP.
Until about a year ago, the BJP’s preeminence in Indian political Twitter was considered simply unassailable.
The Congress’s Gandhi did not even join the platform until 2015, a year after his party suffered a humiliating electoral defeat at the BJP’s hands, thanks in part to the latter’s overwhelming social media presence. Over the years, the Hindu nationalist outfit has relentlessly worked on its messaging on Twitter, Facebook, and even WhatsApp, strategically timing its posts and deftly managing their spread.
A key tool it has used for this is a Google document called “Trend Alert,” which Sinha got access to. Trend Alert is used to coordinate and fuel hashtag trends on Twitter. “What happens is that someone in the IT cell will create one document, which has the hashtag and, say, 15 or 20 tweets on the issue,” Shivam Shankar Singh, a former member of the BJP’s data analytics team, told Quartz. “And they forward it out into different WhatsApp groups and into different Facebook groups, and to some ministers and big social media accounts that can get it trending. And then people usually just copy/paste the tweets and tweet it out.”
The IT cell also uses Trend Alerts to mobilise supporters online in different ways, Singh said, including by linking them to political Twitter polls and telling them which way to vote.
In recent months, though, nothing seems to be going right for the party.
Singh, who quit the party last year over the use of propaganda, believes the “presence of BJP on Twitter has declined a lot” in the past year or so. A reason for this, he said, is “because a lot of the neutral supporters don’t really tweet stuff out anymore”—even from the Trend Alert documents.
While many trending topics on Twitter around this time are anti-BJP, Singh said, around 2016 and 2017, “you wouldn’t see any anti-BJP hashtag trending.”
A Quint report published yesterday indicates Trend Alerts may not be helping with online polls either.
“The retweeting of canned messages by various key accounts is something researchers and journalists have long been aware of, and the audacity of how this was being done is underlined by how widely known some of these Google docs were,” said Joyojeet Pal, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, who has studied Indian politicians on Twitter. “At some point, to run a campaign that looks authentic, the cut-paste approach is too rife with the risk that something like this will happen.”
13 reasons why
Why has the BJP been rendered relatively less effective, even if temporarily, on Twitter?
For one, “other parties have strengthened their social media presence,” Singh said. But the main reason, he added, is the waning fervour among the party’s own supporters.
Ministers, however, “usually still tweet out the content that’s sent out to them,” he added.
“This entire issue of manufacturing trends and hashtags has been the BJP IT cell’s forte for a long time now,” said Jency Jacob, managing editor of the fact-checking portal BOOM. “What I think has happened now is that people have managed to see through it. So now when anyone sees a message like that, they are able to make out that it’s not a natural phenomenon.”
Because of this, Jacob thinks the BJP has stopped using blatant copy-paste tactics. “But they’re doing it in isolated pockets, and that’s where Pratik (Sinha) caught them,” he said.
Another reason may have to do with the party’s use of automation.
Twitter prohibits bots in many cases, especially when they’re used to spam. The microblogging platform recently ramped up enforcement of these rules. It reportedly removed 100,000 of Modi’s followers and 9,000 of Rahul Gandhi’s in a crackdown in November. The platform is being “much more aggressive on coordinated behavior/gaming,” said CEO Jack Dorsey, in an interview held over Twitter yesterday.
This crackdown could be another reason for the BJP’s loss of steam. After all, pre-written tweets on Trend Alert docs were often tweeted out by IT cell employees “who control around 50 to 100 different Twitter accounts” each, according to Singh, who said that these were often bot accounts. Singh isn’t the first to speak of the BJP’s use of bots; it’s been widely reported for years now.
When reached for comment, a Twitter spokesperson said, “Improving the collective health of the public conversation is our number one priority as a company. Platform manipulation, including spam and other attempts to undermine the public conversation, is a clear violation of the Twitter Rules. We take the fight against this type of behavior seriously, and are now removing 214 percent more accounts year-over-year for violating our our platform manipulation policies.”
Amit Malviya, the head of the BJP IT cell, did not respond to a questionnaire. This piece will be updated as and when he responds.
“Heading into a general election, the BJP faces a dilemma. Its IT cell has developed a reputation for peddling fake news and intimidating critics,” said Sadanand Dhume, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “This may have worked when the BJP was the dominant force online, but risks backfiring badly now that people on social media can contrast it with other parties’ subtler strategies.”
Read Quartz’s coverage of the 2019 Indian general election here.