BJP's Twitter fiasco raises serious questions on social media ethics
As the party was embarrassed on the micro-blogging site, we look at an excerpt from Shivam Shankar Singh's new book on data mining and digital manipulation.
Are people becoming digital sheep? Or more like robots?
Pratik Sinha, founder of fact-checking website Alt News, broke the internet on February 13 with a demonstration on Twitter.
He showed the world how the BJP’s social media machinery worked more like a bot than actual people with real opinions.
Sinha tweeted a video depicting someone hacking into the party’s Google doc, which decides the template for social media posts that everyone – workers, leaders, and even ministers – pushes out from their own handles.
how do you get a union minister to tweet what you want? well, you go and edit the trending document made by bjp it cell, and then you control what they tweet. thread.— pratik sinha (@free_thinker) february 13, 2019
here's the video of this morning when their trending document got automagically updated :-)
And, sure enough, many people tweeted things like “modi govt has not made inclusive development as the focal point (sic)”, including a Union Minister.
While digital natives enjoyed a good laugh at the BJP’s expense, Sinha pointed out that it really should not be a laughing matter. The fact that scores of people, including leaders, did not even bother to read the opinions that they were supposedly endorsing should be a red flag.
The question of echo chambers in social media has been around for a while now, especially since the exposé on how data from Facebook was used to influence the 2016 US presidental elections.
But many still wondered as to how far this was true for India.
Shivam Shankar Singh, a 25-year-old who headed data analytics and campaigns for the BJP during the Manipur and Tripura legislative assembly elections, had already flagged how data and social media were being used to influence and manipulate voters.
He quit working for the BJP in June 2018 and wrote a viral blog post about exactly why he could no longer work with the party.
Singh, in his new book, How to win an Indian election, has provided us the answer as to why and how this parody played out on Twitter.
An excerpt for his book will give us more clarity.
“Even though most parties have become active on social media and many of the larger ones have hired companies to handle data analytics or have built their own analytics teams, the first Indian party to realise the importance and impact that these technologies would have on elections was the BJP. It developed an extensive social media presence before the 2014 elections, with Modi taking personal interest in how the platforms were used. The party spent several crores on data collection drives and on social media advertising. Specific initiatives like the ‘missed call campaign’, through which the people could join the BJP by simply placing a missed call, were undertaken to collect phone numbers. Several Facebook groups were created to support the party’s campaign, including pages run by supporters who weren’t officially connected to the party. Both the official and unofficial pages spent crores on Facebook advertising to ensure posts reached the intended audience. Several people took to Twitter and Facebook to support the Modi campaign in 2013-14 of their own volition, creating a massive social media machinery that had a substantial impact in framing the narrative for the 2014 Indian general elections.
An aura of negativity was created against the Congress with an effective combination of on-ground and online campaigns. To an outside observer, only the consequences were visible. The Congress was cornered in the 2G, Coalgate, and Commonwealth Games (CWG) scams, and allegations of corruption made against Robert Vadra, Sonia Gandhi and P Chidambaram, which translated into hatred for the Congress party and the Gandhi family. The result of branding Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as a weak leader who didn’t speak up for the interests of India was also evident and phrases like ‘policy paralysis’ became part of people’s everyday conversations. It was also only when I started working in politics that I realised that such a narrative rarely forms organically. It takes great effort and constant repetition for an idea to grip the minds of many people.”
Social media platforms like Facebook are now recalibrating their algorithms to encourage personal posts rather than those from third parties or bots. Even WhatsApp has severely limited how many times people can forward messages. This has to led to a rethink of social media strategies in the digital ecosystem by digital publications, influencers, and political actors.
Will this lessen the influence of social media on electioneering? Only time will tell.
How To Win An Indian Election (Penguin Random House India) is out now.