Forward posts: The journey political posts make before they reach millionshttps://indianexpress.com/elections/forward-posts-lok-sabha-elections-twitter-facebook-whatsapp-social-media-congress-bjp-5630131/

Forward posts: The journey political posts make before they reach millions

As India heads into an election where social media is setting the agenda like never before, political parties are banking on a burgeoning army of party volunteers to spread the word. The Sunday Express on the journey that political posts, shares and tweets make before they reach millions of phones

Social media made its big splash in Indian electoral politics during the last general elections, but much has changed since then. (Illustration by CR Sasikumar)

VIKRAM Sethi starts at 7 am and finishes at 1 am. Browsing and posting, browsing and posting even as he drives his car across Noida, burning through his free daily Jio quota of 1.5 GB at every red light and every traffic jam. As one of the 36 Assembly-level social media coordinators in Uttar Pradesh for the Seva Dal, a grassroots organisation of the Congress, he scours through 700-odd Congress-leaning Facebook pages and more than 250 official and unofficial WhatsApp groups. “Content can come from anywhere. I pick it up from everywhere,” says Sethi, who runs a small-time catering business in Noida.

If Indian elections are a contest of narratives, much of it shaped on social media, people like Sethi — part of a burgeoning army of volunteers of the BJP, Congress, Left and even regional parties such as the Samajwadi Party, BSP and Aam Aadmi Party — are its footsoldiers. They copy, paste, forward, like, tweet, even troll, with unflinching loyalty to the party line.

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Today, Sethi comes across a video of Rahul Gandhi in Ahmedabad on the personal Facebook page of a Congress Rajasthan IT Cell member. “Copy kiya. Paste maara.” One to Sethi’s personal Facebook page and one to the page ‘Congress PARTY with RG’.

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He goes to Twitter to copy and paste the posts of journalists “jo dil ki baat newspaper mein nahin lekin Twitter mein bata sakte hain (who can’t say what they want to in newspapers but put it out on Twitter)”. But Facebook groups remain his favourite, especially ‘24 Akbar Road’, a closed group with 14,000 members that Sethi is convinced Rahul Gandhi “himself looks at”.

Every three minutes, he checks how many people viewed the Facebook videos he posted. And every minute, he gets a WhatsApp notification. He now gets one for ‘State Coordinators’, a WhatsApp group of which he is a member. It’s a Twitter trend alert: “Trend alert: #GujaratWithGandhi. 10 am”. Sethi says he gets at least one trend alert a day.

Next, he scrolls down a long list of unread WhatsApp messages. “My son tells me, ‘Papa, you get so many messages. It’s so noisy’.”

On his phone is a hotchpotch of groups, some official, many unofficial, some personal: ‘UP_406_CPRGTeam’, the group specific to his Gautam Buddha Nagar seat; ‘Meerut Zone_WithRG’ with 33 members; ‘#Rahul_Gandhi_PM 2019’, with 132 organisation members. He isn’t sure who added him to the unofficial group ‘RAGA ke babbar sher’.

Seven years ago, Sethi began posting about the Congress party on his own volition. Four years ago, he was appointed social media coordinator. “Catering business band hone ke baad yehi raha mera motive (With business down, this remains my motive).”

***

Social media made its big splash in Indian electoral politics during the last general elections, but much has changed since then. It’s now a complex maze of networks that has at its nerve endings booth-level volunteers, who are instructed to both generate content and circulate the material they get from “above” to personal contacts and those in their neighbourhoods.

That circulation is largely driven by WhatsApp, a 10-year-old company that reached 500 million users worldwide by the time of the last general elections, but significantly picked up pace in India in 2016. Now, 200 million people use WhatsApp every month in India.

The growth of these platforms has mirrored the growth of the medium. According to the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), since the last general election, the Internet base in the country has more than doubled to almost half a billion users. In fact, the number of urban Internet users today (about 300 million) surpasses the total number of users in 2014 (about 200 million).

This means that now, political messaging over the Internet has the potential to reach roughly half the population directly.

While acknowledging its increasing role in politics, strategists are quick to caution that social media mastery is not a surefire ticket to winning seats. “The way political campaigning on social media is regulated will be of critical importance in the upcoming elections. However, as of 2018, less than 40 per cent of India’s population was connected to the Internet, and there was disparity here too, with only 30 per cent of them being women,” says Smitha Krishna Prasad, Associate Director, Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University, Delhi.

To be sure, seven out of every 10 Indians live in rural areas where Internet penetration is roughly 15 per cent, according to the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI).

Still, money has flowed in that direction. According to Facebook’s advertisement portal, Indians spent almost Rs 10 crore between February 24 and March 9 this year on political advertisements on the platform.

While the structure of content dissemination on WhatsApp and other social media platforms often follows a top-down flow for both the main national parties, the BJP and the Congress, the amorphous nature of the medium often blurs the lines between ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ channels.

BJP leader Amit Malviya (Source: Twitter/amitmalviya)

The BJP’s IT cell head Amit Malviya says “roughly 1.2 million” social media volunteers are now registered with the party, and that this structure allows the party to be “in sync” with its voters.

The Congress’s communications spokesperson put the party numbers at roughly 30,000 social media office-bearers and 8 lakh social media volunteers. The central team has grown from 40 in 2014 to 150 now, and along with the expansion to the booth level, the party has added social media appointees to their foreign outlets as well, the spokesperson told The Sunday Express.

The BJP and Congress have somewhat similar organisational structures to get political content down to booth-level groups and from there to countless personal and other groups.

Congress, Divya Spandana, Narendra Modi, tweet controversy, ram vilas paswan, jdu, rlspa, Sardar Vallabhai Patel, sushma swaraj decision, akhilesh yadav, p chidambaram, shashi tharoor, indian politics, political allies, grand alliance, indian express
Congress party Social media incharge Divya Spandana (Ramya) at a party press conference in New Delhi. (Express Photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

The central teams, run by Malviya and the Congress’s social media head Divya Spandana, send content and strategy to WhatsApp groups with state social media heads, who then pass it along to groups with constituency-level coordinators or conveners. The message thus travels on till it reaches the districts and then, the booths.

Take, for example, Western UP, the first region to head to the polls in less than a month from now. This is one of the six kshetras or regions in the state for the BJP, each with its own convener and two co-conveners, who communicate in a WhatsApp group called ‘UP SM Distribution’.

Every two hours, the BJP’s Western UP social media convener, Harsh Chaturvedi, receives content from Malviya’s WhatsApp number or from state social media head Sanjay Rai. A day ago, for instance, Chaturvedi got a video of Rahul Gandhi saying “Masood Azhar Ji”, which he promptly sent to his state convener Sanjay Rai. “Why is a prime ministerial aspirant addressing a terrorist with so much respect? At the same time, he says ‘Modi aata hai, jaata hai’,” says Chaturvedi.

Chaturvedi’s team includes co-conveners Manish Bajpayee and Rajiv Tiwari and 18 other members, mostly professionals working for telecom and software companies. These 18 members are assigned specific platforms and constituencies in the region. For instance, one of them is the administrator of ‘BJP IT CELL Lok Sabha 2019’, a WhatsApp group for Ghaziabad with 194 members.

Chaturvedi says there are 2,500 social media office bearers (all those above the level of the booth worker) and 2,600 WhatsApp groups in the region.

At the lowest level, the region has “2,600 sectors”, with five members in each who are told to be on as many personal WhatsApp groups as possible in their area and spread party content. Chaturvedi estimates that this leads to about a lakh and a half WhatsApp groups from this region being “connected in some way to the top”.

The Congress’s UP social media head, Prashanth Singh, describes a similar structure, with 403 social media coordinators — one for each of the Assembly seats — and 3,000 booth-level workers. With the state-level team included, that makes it about 4,000 social media office-bearers in the state for the party.

“The party is now banking on booth-level workers. We share the content with them and it gets passed on to the public,” says Singh.

It’s not just about distributing the content coming from the central teams; as a bottom-up approach, parties are also “viralising” content that they get from booth-level workers.

Some weeks ago, Chaturvedi received a WhatsApp video of Congress UP chief Raj Babbar wiping down a table at a dhaba for Rahul, Priyanka Gandhi and Jyotiraditya Scindia, who were visiting the family of a CRPF constable killed in the Pulwama attack.

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“We were fortunate to get that video from one of the booth workers,” Chaturvedi says. “This is what we call ‘social’. It was good material. So we made it viral.”

***

The top-down and bottom-up social media communication of political parties relies on WhatsApp so much that any alteration to the platform has its ripple effects.

After the company faced the heat last summer for a spate of lynchings linked to WhatsApp rumours, the IT Ministry repeatedly called upon the company to check the mass circulation of unverified messages. The platform then put a cap on the number of forwards at a time. A month later, several social media party office-bearers told The Sunday Express, they had started making organisational changes to adapt, including roping in more booth-level workers and purchasing multiple phones or international SIMs.

But not everyone was happy. After the 2018 Assembly elections, Vaibhav Walia, who is in charge of the Indian Youth Congress’s social media unit, said the WhatsApp forward limit had “demolished” the infrastructure of his team’s social media strategy: “We expect (WhatsApp) to be fair. You didn’t have this (forward limit) in the last general elections and when Modi was winning the states. Now, you want to curb our independence when the wind is blowing in the other direction.”

More recently, Twitter has been caught in a political wrangle after a parliamentary committee summoned the Twitter CEO for alleged bias against right-wing voices and views.

The Election Commission has also tried to adapt to the new medium. In January, the EC constituted a 14-member committee to study the impact of social and new media and recommend modifications accordingly to the model code of conduct. On March, the commission issued its first takedown notice, asking Facebook to remove two political posters with Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman’s photograph, shared by BJP leader and Delhi MLA Om Prakash Sharma.

WhatsApp, however, hopes these changes have had the desired effect. “We strongly believe that private messaging is fundamental to safety and we are pleased that the recent changes we have made to limit viral content and educate users is having an impact,” says Abhijit Bose, head of WhatsApp in India.

***

For one to three hours every day, Naval Bhati, 26, sifts through four official WhatsApp groups of the BJP and forwards the content to his personal groups.

In between his work of supplying milk to his Ghaziabad neighborhood, Bhati shows off how “khabar (news)” comes into groups. In a group called ‘Ward 96 Anil Swami’, referring to the sector-level coordinator he reports to, he plays a video titled, ‘Aathanki hamle ke baad do PM ka farak dekiye (See the difference between how two PMs reacted after a terror attack)’, comparing Manmohan Singh’s response after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks with Modi’s after Pulwama.

He has forwarded the video to roughly 450 people, including to groups like “Prep B”, a parents’ group at his son’s school. The video was “a hit” in ‘Ashok Shakha’, a 40-member WhatsApp group of his “RSS friends” who encouraged him to join the BJP seven years ago. He says they discussed the video during their weekly Sunday sunrise meeting at the park behind his home.

Bhati, who joined the shakha when he was 15 years old, adds, “Earlier, people would say Modi was spending more time abroad than in his own country, but now we realise he wasn’t touring those nations. He was bringing them to our side.”

Bhati joined the social media bandwagon around the last general elections. In 2013, he joined Facebook on his Nokia phone. But it was only in 2015, when he saw his friends beginning to use WhatsApp, that he bought a bigger Samsung phone to be able to access the app. After he learnt the ropes from his friends, he joined ‘Ward 96 Anil Swami’ and started forwarding party-related content.

Nowadays, as he delivers milk to his neighbours in C-block of his ward, he asks them where their vote will go. And then, even before they can answer, says, “They don’t even say BJP; only mention Modi.”

Bhati is sure these face-to-face interactions and the daily WhatsApp messages have brought Ward 96 around to the BJP’s side.

Kya hum apne desh ke liye data bhi kharch nahin kar sakte hain (The least we can do is spend data for our country),” he says.

#How to trend on Twitter

It used to be once a day, maybe more. But now social media volunteers and office-bearers of both the BJP and the Congress say the Twitter ‘trend alert’ push has significantly picked pace, leading to a daily flood of such alerts in their internal WhatsApp groups.

These alerts — calling all members to tweet specific hashtags at specific times — are a bid to monopolise the list of 10 “trending topics” that Twitter puts out. These alerts, they say, are the first step to setting the agenda for that day’s primetime television.

Not a day goes by where a leading party member’s rally or speech is not on Twitter trends.

Though Twitter has for some years now been a tool for politicians around the world, in India, with the BJP no longer enjoying the kind of domination it had of the platform in 2014, political parties are trying new strategies to be seen and felt in this space.

Sample this.

February 21, 11.10 am, the Congress IT Cell sends a message to a 37-member WhatsApp group for the party’s social media heads. “#ModiFailsNationalSecurity Right NOW.” By noon, the tweets jumped from 5,000 per hour to 7,000 per hour.

It’s a similar strategy in BJP WhatsApp groups.

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February 24, 5 pm. Modi has completed his dip in the Ganga and washed the feet of safai karamcharis. The photos are ready.

WhatsApp groups associated with the party are abuzz. “#ModiInKumbh. Now. PM Modi takes holy dip at Triveni, Prayag, does Puja Aarti and washes feet of safai karamcharis, takes their blessing and honours them.”

Accounts such as BJP Live, BJP Uttar Pradesh and BJP Delhi were already tweeting about Modi’s visit, but starting 5 pm, they all begin tweeting this new hashtag multiple times for the next few hours.

Around 5 pm, the traffic for #ModiInKumbh jumps from 37 to 2,566, a data analysis using Twitter’s API shows. BJP head of social media Amit Malviya, BJP MPs, and finally Modi’s handle join in.

By 6 pm, the hashtag is trending nationwide and by 7 pm, three hours since the WhatsApp blast, the hashtag peaks at 3,779 tweets in an hour.

BJP district social media heads say that trend alerts planned in advance are often circulated through a Google Docs link, with sample tweets and researched points.

“Earlier it was easy to trend. There was only the BJP and when we started, our trends used to come up easily. Now,

you need a lot of support to be able to trend. You need to tell all your people that we need this hashtag,” said a BJP social media leader. He added that at times, these trend alerts and Google Docs originate outside of the Central IT cell, with lower-level IT cells continuously pushing to get their topics across.

Twitter, however, claims it’s no longer that easy to “game the trending topics list”. “For example, we removed, from the algorithm that calculates the trending topic, any tweet that is automated,” says Colin Crowell, head of global public policy at Twitter.

Despite their aggressive push on Twitter, both the BJP and the Congress agree that Twitter’s trending topics only reach small, elite groups.

“The common voter is not on Twitter; only the influencers are there. And the media. If something is trending, it catches the media’s eye and they think this is the topic of the day. That’s the mindset,” says a Congress social media member.

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BJP Western UP social media convener Harsh Chaturvedi admits that most people in his region are not aware of Twitter, but “it is a trend-setter”. He and his 20-member team in Ghaziabad check Twitter “to see what journalists are reporting”. He has told all his social media workers to turn on Twitter notifications for Amit Shah and Narendra Modi.