They say that in today’s day and age, elections are won or lost on social media. And when it comes to the Bharatiya Janata Party, social media is certainly one of their strong suits.
The build-up to the 2021 West Bengal elections have seen the BJP go hammer and tongs to try and win, and consecutively channel all their might into its social media operations to influence narratives. The appointment of Amit Malviya, Kapil Mishra and Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga in Bengal is a witness to the resources that they are putting behind social media.
In this report, we investigate a carefully crafted, tried-and-tested operation that the BJP uses, to create a viral narrative. How do they do it? With the help of toolkits.
A study conducted by data investigator Benjamin Strick gives us a detailed account of how the BJP uses Twitter and Facebook to influence a certain narrative.
So how do they do it?
A google drive link containing a google doc and an image folder is circulated on the WhatsApp groups, Facebook groups and by individual Twitter users. The doc contains sample tweets in English, Bengali and Hindi. The circulated message also mentions a time as to when to post.
Some of the toolkits also contain links through which if you click on them, a tweet is automatically written for you and all you need to do is click ‘Post/Tweet’. All these sample tweets come with a common hashtag.
He also found that these toolkits have been created by MyGov India’s social media team lead. MyGov India is a citizen engagement platform created by the Government of India.
So, at the stipulated time, lakhs of users tweet these sample tweets coupled with the hashtag and voila, you have successfully hijacked a hashtag. When an average user clicks on the hashtag, they will find a forced narrative, supported by thousands of users in a classic copy-paste technique.
A quick copy-paste of any of the text packets on Twitter gives you an indication of the frequency at which a particular text packet has been tweeted.
While Strick’s study analyzed the #AmitShahinBengal hashtag which at one point had 402,600 tweets, The Quint independently ran Strick’s algorithm to study other BJP promoted hashtags like #ModirSatheBangla, #BanglaDidirThekeMuktiChay, #PishiMuktoBanglaChai and #PoribortonInBengal and found the same strategy being implemented in all these cases.
It was also found that in almost all the cases, the tweets had a very high retweet to like ratio.
These text packets are also tweeted by local BJP representatives, high-level BJP leaders like Amit Malviya and Kailash Vijayvargiya and even verified Twitter accounts.
The Users aka BJP’s Unsung Army
Strick’s study further shows that the users who tweet these are largely human-operated pro-BJP tweeting people. Strick says that some of these accounts have specific time periods when tweet activity is very high on their accounts.
"It may be the case that a network of accounts can be operated by human users in a ‘troll farm‘, and that the use of those accounts may exhibit automated tendencies. However these should not be classified as ‘bots’, but rather human-use accounts operating in a coordinated manner to target specific talking points and agendas." - Benjamin Strick, Digital Investigator
These accounts mostly engage in either tweeting the text-packets or retweeting pro-BJP content.
Through API, Strick found that a large number of accounts that he studied either had BJP in their account name or in their description. He assesses that these ‘shelf accounts’ are created for the sole purpose of creating these accounts was to amplify certain content.
While studying the #TMCHataoBanglaBachao and #KrishokSurokhaAbhijan, he found that many of the accounts that he had studied were created between December 2020 and January 2021, around the same time when the aforementioned hashtags were trending.
While Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are all key instruments in BJP’s social media operation, it is WhatsApp that the party is going to be using the most to propagate its messages.
The Social Media Mastermind in Bengal
Tucked away in a flat in North Kolkata sits BJP Bengal’s social media mastermind who was one of the key factors behind BJP’s 2019 Lok Sabha poll success in Bengal. Meet Ujjwal Pareek, the convenor of Bengal BJP’s IT and social media cell.
He was the man who made sure BJP’s messages reached everyone through a wide WhatsApp network, be it PM Modi’s promises, or CM Mamata Banerjee getting agitated at ‘Jai Shree Ram’ chants.
Pareek operates a wide network of at least 70,000 WhatsApp groups in Bengal which he uses to share the party’s messages and toolkits.
Besides WhatsApp, he also uses the Bengal BJP’s Facebook and Twitter accounts for the same, reaching approximately 20 million and four million users respectively. Confident of his skills, he even told the Telegraph that the 2019 Lok Sabha elections were a ‘WhatsApp election’
Disguising Propaganda as News?
A study conducted by The Wire found several ‘dubious’ YouTube channels operating as news channels producing content centred around the Bengal elections. Most of these channels offered their content in Bengali and did not give adequate information about their ownership.
While there can be no direct link established between the suspected channels and the party, an anonymous BJP IT cell member had told The Wire that the party often buys out channels with a large subscriber base for their own benefit. He further added
"“There is a content creation department whose responsibility is to create daily or periodic propaganda content in the form of news.”" -
These include channels like India Rag, Baarta Today, Campaign Calling Media, Bharat News, Bangladesh, Kolkata Prime Time, Times Bengal, Bengal News 24, SOM Extra, Bengal Times, GS Media and 4u Bangla.
The Quint independently verified that while some of the aforementioned channels have either been dormant (India Rag) or do not exist anymore, the others like Campaign Calling Media are very active in putting out news (sometimes unverified) and occasionally propaganda content. Channels like Bharat News have been putting out unverified and fake news on a daily basis.
Similar is the case with certain ‘news’ websites that the organization studied - no background info, rare byline attributions, and some channels like Khabor 24x7 with an inherent bias towards the saffron party often twisting a narrative to favour the BJP. Websites like Sribangla which came into existence in 2020 are also guilty of publishing fake or unverified news on their website.
However, many of these channels and websites garner a significant amount of viewership indicating that despite a lack of credibility, people still consume their content.
The Quint has tried reaching out to the BJP’s IT cell for a comment about the aforementioned findings, but there has not been any response from their side yet.
The Quint has also found out that the TMC uses a similar method to influence narratives online. However, their reach is not as high as the BJP.
(This article is the first of a three-part series exploring the Bharatiya Janata party’s social media operations in Bengal. The second article will aim to investigate how this system leaves room for misinformation to be propagated, and the third will shed light on some of the policies that the operations are violating. Stay tuned!)
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