On September 20 last year, when Chinese President Xi Jinping was visiting India, a little-known wing of the Information & Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry picked up a flood of “negative sentiments” online about Chinese incursions in the Ladakh region. Within hours, the External Affairs Ministry had moved to douse the fire with a conciliatory statement.
Five months later, officials at the Prime Minister’s Office received a report from the same wing saying “29 per cent of social media” had lined up against BJP leader Sadhvi Prachi’s statement that “ghar wapsi” won’t stop till 15 crore Indians reconvert to Hinduism. Within a week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, appearing at a church function, couldn’t have been clearer when he said that everyone had the “inalienable right” to choose any religion.
To officials in the I&B Ministry, these are just two of the many instances when inputs provided by its New Media Wing, the online eyes and ears of this government, have, at least, partially shaped such interventions at the highest level.
Indeed, as the NDA government completes one year, one of the most significant breaks from the past is the unprecedented scale of this monitoring — and how it’s ostensibly being used both as a 24×7 feedback mechanism and an “advance warning system”.
The New Media wing is not a creation of this government — it existed earlier, too – but since July 1, 2014, over a month after Modi was sworn in as India’s 14th PM, the scope of its work has expanded dramatically.
From that day until March 27, 2015, it has trawled around 40 million websites, 600-plus TV channels, and submitted 1,395 reports to the PMO. That works out to at least five reports a day, according to official data examined by The Indian Express.
Not surprising given that Modi himself is an enthusiastic Twitter user with 7,743 tweets and 12.2 million followers as of Monday. Besides, the PMOIndia handle, with 5.99 million followers, has posted 4,702 tweets.
The brief this New Media Wing has is simple: Alert the government to what people are thinking about it — from “ghar wapsi”, the Chinese incursion and the Delhi elections to the flap over HRD Minister Smriti Irani’s educational qualifications.
Sources said a typical day at this I&B wing begins at 8 am, when staffers quickly analyse terabytes of social media content to identify the top three “India-relevant issues” trending on various sites, including microblogs such as Twitter.
A hard copy of the “social media trending report” is then dispatched to the top bureaucrats, once in the morning and again at around 6 pm.
A senior I&B Ministry official, who did not wish to be named but is closely involved with this process, told The Indian Express: “Our job is to provide the social media analysis to the Cabinet Secretariat and the PMO. We stop at that. It is for them to act or not act upon it.”
And so, about 200 content auditors, employed on contract by Broadcast Engineering Consultants India Ltd (BECIL), monitor those 600 channels round the clock in three shifts daily. At the same time, at Soochna Bhawan in New Delhi, around 20 professionals placed by Hyderabad-based Object One Information Systems Ltd — identified by BECIL through a tendering process – prepare the social media analytics.
Their reports take various forms (see box) and are submitted to the PM’s Principal Secretary and Additional Principal Secretary, the National Security Advisor, and at least six other top bureaucrats.
The I&B Ministry believes that social media trends reflect public sentiment and officials say its reports are noticed and acted upon by the “appropriate authority”. And while they insist that their job ends with preparing and sending these reports, some recipients of this information claim that for them, this is just the beginning.
Tomorrow: How ministries, IB tap New Media Wing inputs