Twitter is not only the ‘people’s voice’. It is also a forum for orchestrated propaganda. Kunal Majumder tracks the BJP-Congress online duel
|New battlelines Digvijaya Singh (left) and Sushma Swaraj are active tweeplesPhotos: Shailendra Pandey|
ON 27 August, as the Congress and the BJP battled it out in Parliament and later through news conferences, the story on Twitter was a bit different. Congress supporters, who had been at the receiving end of the ‘Coalgate’ issue so far, finally started hitting back. Adopting a strategy they had so far been accusing right-wingers of, they launched into an all-out attack on anyone who supported the BJP. Every tweet was hashtagged with #RIPBJP. At the end of the day, #RIPBJP was trending, making it the most successful Congress campaign against the BJP — a first on Twitter.
“The social media battle against the BJP has just begun,” says a Congress supporter associated with the new project. “In the days to come, you will see our volunteers in a more combative mode.” However, he says it will not “replicate the negative campaign of the right-wing”.
The Congress’ social media strategy is spearheaded by its tech-savvy General Secretary Digvijaya Singh. On Twitter for nearly nine months, Singh has been readying to take on the BJP on its own turf and influence the ‘voice of people’. Though serious doubt remains about how much of this voice is real and how much is a result of political propaganda.
#Emergency2012 and #GOIBlocks started trending, with various BJP supporters turning their display pictures to black
The push for the Congress to take the battle online comes from the recent ‘banning’ of Twitter handles of BJP sympathiser and senior journalist Kanchan Gupta. While the government insists that the handles were blocked due to security issues, Gupta claimed political martyrdom and launched a tirade against the Congress for imposing a second Emergency. Hashtags like #Emergency2012 and #GOIBlocks started trending, with BJP supporters turning their display pictures to black. “The fact remains none of the blockings were politically motivated,” says Pranesh Prakash, programme manager with Centre for Internet and Society. Prakash instead points to the UPA’s earlier request to IT companies like Google and Facebook to pull down certain pages, which displayed morphed photos and cartoons of Congress “functionaries” as clear example of politically motivated intervention.
Though no explanation was forthcoming from the government as to why specific handles were blocked temporarily through ISPs (Twitter has still not blocked them), the PMO issued a statement saying it has requested Twitter to take “appropriate action against six persons impersonating the PMO”. Certain handles like @PM0India (with a ‘zero’) were often accused of impersonating the actual @PMOIndia. But that’s another story.
The day Gupta’s handle was ‘blocked’, former bureaucrat B Raman wrote a blog that gave an interesting insight into why the government might have targeted Gupta. Raman describes a meeting that took place in Ahmedabad in 2008 — just before the 2009 General Elections — attended by senior BJP leaders and sympathisers, including Gupta. Raman says the general feeling among BJP participants was that mainstream media was not giving enough opportunities to the BJP and other right-wing activists to air their views. Therefore, “it was suggested by some participants that the BJP could get over this handicap by making good use of the online media”. Raman goes on to point that supporters of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and other right-wingers have since then used online media superbly with help of IT-savvy Hindutva supporters.
What Raman wrote in his blog is confirmed by the BJP’s IT Cell Convener, Arvind Gupta. The BJP was not only the first political party in India to have a website in 1999, its social media network has been way ahead of any other political group in the country. From posting updates to engaging users, it has a well-oiled social media machinery in place. Arvind calls this the “listen, engage and inform” model. This includes Internet TV, YouTube and messenger chats. In fact, the next big thing on the party’s social media agenda is the interaction with Narendra Modi on Google+ Hangout.
BUT IT is not political agenda that has left Digvijaya Singh singed. Speaking to TEHELKA, Singh points to abusive — and at times, factually incorrect — tweets posted by right-wing supporters. In many cases, the mere mention of anything against Modi or Baba Ramdev would have scores of right-wing supporters bombarding Twitter timelines with counter-criticism, and often, abuses. “Anything that incites hate is a problem,” he says.
Though what can be called ‘hate’ is a very subjective matter, Arvind Gupta feels social media reflects the mood of the young population. “People call themselves Internet Hindus. We, as a party, have nothing to do with this. People are so passionate about Modi that they take up his case (against anyone who posts anti-Modi tweets),” says Gupta. He also points towards a similar trend when it comes to people tweeting against Team Anna.
Many right-wing Twitter users are accused of posting sponsored tweets against specific people who they believe are anti-BJP. This accusation has not been proven so far, though many users claim to have tracked interaction between rightwing Twitter users on coordinated attacks on users with liberal or pro-Congress ideologies. “There is a belief — and let me tell you that it is wrong — that we hire people,” says Gupta. So can the high number of right-wing users be put down to an ideological stance alone? Gupta says it’s got to do with understanding politics better. “Our volunteers are generally more educated and understand the the Congress’ wrong policies. That category also forms a major part of the ecosystem in this new media,” he says.
Within minutes of talking to this correspondent, Gupta posts a new hashtag on Twitter — #MotaMaal — taking a cue from Sushma Swaraj’s accusation of corruption against the Congress in the coal scam. The next day, Twitter became all about #MotaMaal versus #RIPBJP. Handles like @BJP0fficials and @PMAdvani have been created to counter the right wing. Clearly, Congress supporters are hitting back even at the risk of adding to the cacophony of an already-chaotic medium.
Kunal Majumder is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka.