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How the BJP Used Social Media to Secure Modi’s Second Win

Modi is the second most followed politician on Twitter after US President Donald Trump. In 2017, Narenda Modi had declared that the 2019 election would be fought on the smartphone.

DESPARDES — It was a stunning repeat of Bharatiya Janata Party’s 2014 performance. Led by incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the BJP party decisively won a second term with full majority in the 2019 Indian general election. This time, Modi’s electoral campaign took place not only on the streets of rural India but on social media platforms also– almost half a billion Indians have access to the internet in India, which is around 40 percent of the population.

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This ecosystem however remains unregulated by the Election Commission and a happy hunting ground for political parties.


None of the strategies they use are new though. These are all traditional campaign strategies. What has changed however is that technology allows these activities to be carried out on a much bigger scale and with bullet speed, surpassing traditional media influences time-wise.


Last year, Om Prakash Rawat, then the chief election officer of India, said that technological interventions that are able to sway elections, such as targeting tailored messages to groups based on demographics and political leanings on social media, are the “biggest challenge” for the electoral process. Earlier, in 2017, Modi declared that the 2019 election would be fought on the smartphone– he was right.


HuffPost India investigation revealed how the Association of Billion Minds (ABM), BJP’s in-house political consulting firm established by Amit Shah, party president and now Union Home Minister, ran sophisticated misinformation campaigns to spread fake news and false claims on social media and WhatsApp.


In last month’s election, observers say the internet was instrumental in at least two vital aspects of the campaign: setting the narrative, and misinformation.

While grassroots political party operatives — those who are in direct contact with voters — mobilize support on the ground, digital-savvy loyalists fight to set the agenda for “their side” on social media platforms.


Another survey shows nearly half of Indians (Pakistanis and Turkish also) say social media increased foreign interference in politics.


For this, most political parties have dedicated teams to manage technology operations. But they are no match for Modi’s BJP. Building on its large pool of organized ground forces, the party created hierarchical structures for information dissemination, just as in UP.

This tight network of groups also operate on WhatsApp — the dominant social media platform in India.


In April, Facebook took down over 700 pages and accounts for “coordinated inauthentic behavior” that were run by supporters of both the BJP and the Congress.


None of the strategies they use are new though. These are all traditional campaign strategies. What has changed however is that technology allows these activities to be carried out on a much bigger scale and with bullet speed, surpassing traditional media influences time-wise.

On Twitter, an army of online warriors takes part in the narrative-setting game. Even though Twitter usage is largely restricted to the country’s elites, journalists and influencers hang out on the micro-blogging platform, meaning the sentiment smoothly seeps into the wider information ecosystem.

How important is social media to politicians? Modi happens to be the second most followed politician on Twitter after US President Donald Trump, and his strategy is unique among Indian leaders. The Indian prime minister generously follows hundreds of “laypersons,” ordinary die-hard supporters of Modi and his party, who put in all the efforts to promote his party’s work, argue against any criticism, bash the opposition and downplay (read: discredit) critical reporting by the media. A “follow” from the leader they worship provides supporters with the push to do more, a nudge to fight for a cause.


“The India Eye,” one of the pro-BJP pages taken down by Facebook that circulated pro-BJP fake news messages, is a promoted account on the built-in Twitter-like social network of the Narendra Modi app, a personal mobile application of the Indian prime minister. The app has millions of users and its usage is promoted by state policies and suffers from the same misinformation problem that Facebook is being held accountable for. But, as the case of “The India Eye” demonstrates, Modi’s app operates outside any regulatory purview.


Rahul Gandhi, Modi’s rival and president of the Indian National Congress, joined Twitter only in 2015. While his tweets get traction — in fact, on average, he gets retweeted more than Modi — Gandhi does not engage with party supporters.

The BJP party also actively works to ensure that Twitter trends show support for Modi and the party– BJP dominates the political social media on Twitter. Also, the BJP,  circulates Google Docs with sample tweets among its supporters to get pro-BJP hashtags trending on Twitter.

Messaging and Misinformation

Every month, 200 million people in India use WhatsApp. Then there are other platforms, including Facebook and ShareChat, a Twitter-like regional language social network, with millions of users and sprawling political activity. According to a survey by technology-centered non-governmental organization Digital Empowerment Foundation, almost half of Indians never believe the information they receive on WhatsApp. What was even more revealing was that just under one percent used WhatsApp for political discussion. Another survey shows nearly half of Indians (Pakistanis and Turkish also) say social media increased foreign interference in politics.

What the 2019 campaign also revealed is that it’s not just rogue party supporters or mindless sharing of political posts that lead to the fake news crisis. Political parties are in the game of generating obviously false content, flooding social media with that content to mislead people and exploiting the platform. Misinformation is politically sponsored.

This raises a dilemma. The months-long campaign in world’s largest democracy has clearly demonstrated the challenges countries face in the years to come. The legitimate demands to allow the government to regulate technology platforms for moderating content and policing bad behavior of bad actors faces a challenge: what should be done when political parties — who eventually form the government — are themselves the bad actors?

The original article appeared in CIGI