Our latest blog post, by Gillian Bolsover of the University of Leeds, provides an initial analysis of the biggest players in online discourse on Twitter in the leadup to the Indian General Election, which began on 11 April. Beginning with an overview of the election and the role of social media in the 2014 and 2019 Indian General Elections, the post then provides an analysis of the 25 most retweeted users within trending topics in India as well as an analysis of the content of these users’ most retweeted posts.
Last week elections began in the world’s largest democracy, India, with approximately 900 million registered voters (more than 1/8 of the world’s population). Due to the scale of the endeavour, elections are spread across seven dates between 11 April and 19 May. Ninety-one of India’s 543 constituencies (16%) voted on 11 April, 97 voted on 18 April, and 115 will vote on 23 April.
The two main parties are the Bharatiya Janata Party headed by current Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Indian National Congress headed by Rahul Gandhi. The Indian National Congress (INC) has historically been the dominant party in India since its independence and has a commitment to secularism. India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (1947 – 1964) was a member of the INC. His daughter Indira Gandhi also served as prime minister for the INC as did Indira’s son Rajiv Gandhi. The current INC President Rahul Gandhi is the son of Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi. Sonia took over the leadership of the INC after her husband’s death, serving as its head for 19 years, and remains active in politics. Critics of the INC, attack the dominance of the members of this single family in Indian politics.
The main competitor is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP is a right-wing party associated with Hindu nationalism. Hindu’s make up approximately 80% of the Indian populace. Under leader Narendra Modi, the BJP won a majority in the 2014 elections, winning 51% of the seats based on 31% of the votes.
India has a large number of other political parties and both the BJP and INC head alliances: the National Democratic Alliance and the United Progressive Alliance, respectively. Various other parties and alliances have strongholds in particular regions, such as the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Kerala. Candidates from parties associated neither with the National Democratic Alliance nor the United Progressive Alliance are projected to win about 20% of the seats.
The 2014 Indian General Election
The 2014 Indian General Election was arguably the first in which the Internet played a significant role, with Narendra Modi effectively harnessing social media and mobile technology as part of his campaign. A report by the IRIS Knowledge Foundation and IAMAI on ‘Social Media and Lok Sabha Elections’ identified 160 constituencies in the 2014 elections which at least 10% of the population were Facebook users and, thus, in which social media was seen as potentially having a high impact.
Post-election analysis casts some doubt on the importance of social media when it was reported that 70 percent of the winners in these high-impact seats had little or no social media presence and that having a stronger social media campaign did not appear to correlate with a candidate’s likelihood of winning the seat. However, this analysis relied only on a simple metric of the sum of the candidate’s Twitter and Facebook followers, rather than the influence or content of their online activities. A different study that counted the number of likes a party or its leader received on their Facebook page found a strong positive correlation between Facebook likes and eventual vote share.
Since the 2014 election, social media has grown enormously in importance in India. The number of Twitter users has doubled from 15 million in 2014 to 30 million in 2019, and the number of Facebook users has tripled from around 100 million in 2014 to more than 300 million in 2019. The Facebook-owned private messaging platform WhatsApp also has high penetration with estimates of more than 300 million active users. Many commentators believe social media will play a big role in political campaigning and shaping opinions in the 2019 elections.
Social Media in the 2019 Elections
Since becoming Prime Minister in 2014, Narendra Modi has rapidly increased the presence of Indian political leaders on social media, and in particular Twitter. Although its role may have been relatively limited in the 2014 election, social media is widely seen as being likely to shape the current election, with more and more political campaigning moving online. Social media is noted as potentially playing an even more important role for political campaigns in India due to the size and diversity of the subcontinent, containing many areas that would be difficult to reach in on the ground campaigning.
The BJP is seen by commentators as far ahead of the curve in its use of social media in political campaigning. For instance, one New York Times report found that WhatsApp was being used by BJP campaigners at a grassroots level to track and influence voters: “Mr. Bhat, a B.J.P. youth leader, said he used WhatsApp to stay in constant touch with the 60 voters he was assigned to track for the party. He sent them critiques of the state government, dark warnings about Hindus being murdered by Muslims — including a debunked B.J.P. claim that 23 activists were killed by jihadists — and jokes ridiculing Congress leaders.”
There have been numerous concerns about misinformation in the 2019 election, particularly following from the 2017 and 2018 mob killings based on misinformation about alleged child kidnappings that was spread on Whatsapp and the regional-language social networking platform ShareChat; in total, more than 40 people were killed. In particular, misinformation seems to be being used to increase religious tensions in an already fraught race, with the BJP running on a platform of Hindu nationalism. One investigation into misinformation on ShareChat found that information consistently aimed to “polarise the electorate along the Hindu-Muslim divide.” One reported case was of a violent argument supposedly between a Hindu and a Muslim widely distributed on WhatsApp but that was later found to have been recorded in a studio. In several instances, BJP leaders have been caught distributing fake information or doctored photos, such as when India’s home minister, Rajnath Singh, apparently cited a fake Twitter account to support accusations that a Pakistan-based terrorist organisation participated in student protests at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
However, despite India’s status as the world’s largest democracy and second largest population of Internet users, it has been understudied compared to US and European contexts, with academic work on social media in the 2014 election being relatively limited. For this reason, this research project aims to shed light on how online discourse is shaping the 2019 election.
In the lead-up to the opening of the polls, I collected data on the topics that were trending in all 22 locations Indian locations for which trends are collated: the cities of Ahmedabad, Amritsar, Bangalore, Bhopal, Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Indore, Jaipur, Kanpur, Kolkata, Lucknow, Mumbai, Nagpur, Patna, Pune, Rajkot, Ranchi, Srinagar, Surat and Thane, and for the entire country. A list of all the trending topics in each of these 22 locations and the most recent 200 posts made in each of these topics was collected every ten minutes, in the weeks leading up to the election. The following data is drawn from the four-week period between Sunday 3 March and Saturday 30 March (inclusive). This data thus represents a snapshot of all online discourse during this period of time leading up to the elections. (Given the time necessary to process such a large dataset, the data collection period analysed in this post only covers the period up to 30 March. However, data continues to be collected and further analyses will be written of the period directly before and during the vote.)
The choice was made to focus on Twitter as this provides the best representation of public discourse regarding the election. Although both Facebook and WhatsApp have much larger user populations within India, these platforms are private and, thus, not accessible to researchers. There is also reason to believe that Twitter plays a greater role in political campaigning and opinion formation due to its public nature. Although Facebook had more than six times as many users as Twitter in India during the 2014 general elections, a research study that compared the Facebook and Twitter accounts of five out of the six national political parties found that Twitter was used much more frequently: across their period of analysis, the 67 days between the announcement of the elections and the end of polling, the five political parties made 13,408 Twitter posts and only 2,297 Facebook posts. This suggests that despite having fewer users, Twitter is a better platform to investigate online political discourse in the 2019 Indian General Election.
The Biggest Voices in Online Discourse
In this initial analysis of online discourse, I chose to focus on the biggest voices in trending topics within India. In order to do this, I considered the 25 most retweeted users across all of the trending topics in the dataset, which includes both political and non-political trends. The dominance of political posters is notable here; of the top 25 posters, five were political parties or candidates; six were news organisations, journalists, partisan news and opinion producers; and eight were individual ‘influencers’, all of whom were supporters of Modi and the BJP. The remaining six accounts were not associated with political information: six were about cricket and one was a celebrity who rarely posts about political topics.
The Top 25 Most Retweeted Users Among All Trending Topics in India, 3 to 30 March
|User Handle||Description||Number of Times Retweeted|
|@ANI||Asian News International – a large Indian News agency||146,944|
|Most retweeted status: Former DRDO Chief Dr VK Saraswat on #MissionShakti: We made presentations to National Security Adviser&National Security Council, when such discussions were held, they were heard by all concerned, unfortunately, we didn’t get positive response (from UPA) , so we didn’t go ahead.
[Retweeted 3,388 times in the dataset]
|@narendramodi||Narendra Modi – Prime Minister of India, running for re-election as head of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)||108,930|
|Most retweeted status: Shri Manohar Parrikar was an unparalleled leader. A true patriot and exceptional administrator, he was admired by all. His impeccable service to the nation will be remembered by generations. Deeply saddened by his demise. Condolences to his family and sup
[Retweeted 8,117 times in the dataset]
|@INCIndia||Indian National Congress – one of the two main political parties in India, alongside the BJP; historically, India’s dominant party since independence||104,310|
|Most retweeted status: Former PM Dr. Manmohan Singh, UPA Chairperson Smt. Sonia Gandhi, Congress President @RahulGandhi & senior Congress leaders visit the Gandhi Ashram in Sabarmati. #GandhiMarchesOn
[Retweeted 1,444 times in the dataset]
|@BJP4India||Bharatiya Janata Party – right-wing political party associated with Hindu nationalist politics, currently heads coalitions in both Indian houses of parliament||103,684|
|Most retweeted status: Congress led UPA Surgical Strike : Don’t do it Air Strike: Don’t do it A-SAT Missile: Don’t do it Modi Sarkar Surgical Strike: Go For It Air Strike: Go For It A-SAT Missile: Go For It Modi Hai To Mumkin Hai. #MissionShakti
[Retweeted 3,534 times in the dataset]
|@RahulGandhi||Rahul Gandhi – running against Narendra Modi for Prime Minister at the head of the Indian National Congress; Gandhi comes from the politically prominent Nehru-Gandhi family||53,074|
|Most retweeted status: Weak Modi is scared of Xi. Not a word comes out of his mouth when China acts against India. NoMo’s China Diplomacy: 1. Swing with Xi in Gujarat 2. Hug Xi in Delhi 3. Bow to Xi in China
[Retweeted 5,916 times in the dataset]
|@SirJadeja||An account parodying the cricketer Ravindra Jadeja||47,647|
Most retweeted status: Who is National Embarrassment?🤔 RT- Swara Bhasker Fav- Rtd. Major General GD Bakshi
[Retweeted 3,270 times in the dataset]
|@AskAnshul||Anshul Saxena – a nationalist social media personality, who has previously asked his followers to help launch social media attacks on “liberals” who posted material criticising India or the Indian army following the Pulwama attack in Kashmir on 14 February 2019||43,352|
|Most retweeted status:
[Retweeted 4,750 times in the dataset]
|@rishibagree||Rishi Bagree’s profile describes them an “an ordinary Tax paying citizen” – his posts are highly critical of the INC and support Modi||40,996|
|Most retweeted status: If Modi & BP is responsible for every Hindu Right Wing Fringe crime like the one in which a goon beating kashmiri… [This account has now been suspended and the non-truncated version of the tweet thus cannot be accessed. This demonstrates the importance of real time data collection in these political events.]
[Retweeted 1,700 times in the dataset]
|@republic||Republic Media Network – a major news channel; the channel’s coverage is supportive Modi and the BJP and critical of Rahul Gandhi and the INC||40,628|
|Most retweeted status: #BalakotTape SUPER EXCLUSIVE Balakot Tape: Secret source confirms ‘Pakistan burnt bodies and dumped them in river; ISI & JeM in fear’ and names terrorists killed in IAF’s Balakot blitz
[Retweeted 775 times in the dataset]
|@MajorPoonia||Major Surendra Poonia – well known sportsman and former special forces officer in the Indian Army, Major Poonia supports Modi and the BJP||37,981|
|Most retweeted status: Govt banned #JKLF because 1-It’s is a terror organisation supported by ISI 2-Run by a Terrorists Yasin Malik,who murdered 4 IAF Officers & many more 3-Anti-India 4-Members of org involved in genocide of Kashmiri Pandits ! And Madam Mufti is still asking w
[Retweeted 4,484 times in the dataset]
|@mipaltan||Mumbai Indians – cricket team||37,412|
|@SwamiGeetika||Geetika Swami – Twitter “influencer,” supports Modi and the BJP||36,816|
|Most retweeted status: #RahulKaJumla If Rs 12,000 is for a month, how it makes Rs 72,000 for a year Before making an official statement on Garibi Hatao 2.0, Congress didn’t even care to do simple mathematics? #MinimumIncomeGuarantee #NYAY #RahulForBehtarBharat
[Retweeted 2,119 times in the dataset]
|@muglikar_||Ashu – Twitter “influencer,” supports Modi and the BJP||35,057|
|Most retweeted status: RT if you have a job and feel Rahul Gandhi must remain jobless for next 15 years as well. #ModifiedJobs
[Retweeted 3,255 times in the dataset]
|@AdityaRajKaul||Aditya Raj Kaul – journalist with Business Television India||34,352|
|Most retweeted status: #BREAKING: Big success for J&K Police in the Jammu Grenade blast. Within hours of blast which killed 1 & injured over 30, @JmuKmrPolice has arrested the Grenade thrower Yasir @ Arhaan who is from Kulgam, South Kashmir. He was caught while fleeing. J&K DGP
[Retweeted 3,614 times in the dataset]
|@TimesNow||Times Now – major English language news channel||32,512|
|Most retweeted status: Kanhaiya and Co should not be walking on the streets: @SadhguruJV tells @navikakumar | #FranklySpeakingWithSadhguru
[Retweeted 1,046 times in the dataset]
|@Shehzad_Ind||Shehzad Jai Hind – prominent Muslim commentator in support of Modi and the BJP, and against the Gandhi “dynasty”||32,046|
|Most retweeted status: Friends if you, like me, also believe that @smritiirani must be given the support of every non-dynast in India to defeat the most undeserving poster boy of privilege @RahulGandhi then tweet #SmritiForAmethi & keep watching this space!! Merit over dynasty
[Retweeted 2,190 times in the dataset]
|@ZeeNewsHindi||Zee News Hindi – major Hindi language television channel||30,542|
|Most retweeted status: मोदी को हराएं नहीं तो वह अनंतकाल के लिए प्रधानमंत्री बने रहेंगे : केजरीवाल #AbkiBaarKiskiSarkar https://t.co/mlhq3zzknm [Link article on site.]
[Retweeted 1,031 times in the dataset]
|@IPL||Indian Premier League – cricket||30,402|
|@theskindoctor13||The Skin Doctor – describes themselves as “an ex-army dermatologist tweeting on current affairs,” supports Modi and the BJP||28,740|
|Most retweeted status: Because of strong Modi wave in 2014, few undeserving people also reached the Parliament. These people have no connect to masses, no respect for public sentiments and no political sense. Manoj Tiwari is one such man. Sir @narendramodi, Delhi BJP deserves a better leader.
[Retweeted 2,007 times in the dataset]
|@ChennaiIPL||Chennai Super Kings – cricket team||27,451|
|@OpIndia_com||OPIndia – a right-wing news and opinion website||27,238|
|Most retweeted status: Rahul Gandhi claims small weapons were being made in the Amethi plant, but govt records show nothing was being produced there
[Retweeted 923 times in the dataset]
|@taran_adarsh||Taran Adarsh – a film critic and journalist, posts about films and entertainment, rarely about political or social issues||26,226|
|@BCCI||Board of Control for Cricket in India – cricket||25,906|
|@TajinderBagga||Tajinder Bagga – spokesperson for the BJP in Dehli||25,113|
|Most retweeted status: Mummy on Bail Beta on Bail Damad on Bail #CONgressEkBailKatha
[Retweeted 1,683 times in the dataset]
|@KKRiders||Kolkata Knight Riders – cricket||24,406|
The most retweeted user was the news agency Asia News International. The top ten most retweeted posts by ANI did not directly concern the election. However, many centred on the tensions between India and Pakistan, after the Pulwama attack on 14 February in which a convoy of vehicles carrying Indian police in the contested Indian region of Jammu and Kashmir was attacked by a suicide bomber resulting in 40 deaths. These events occurred and inflamed in a wider atmosphere of religious tension in the country, influencing the political discourse of the campaigns throughout March.
Prime Minister Modi was the second most influential voice in the trending topics, the original author of 108,930 of the posts collected in this sample. His ten most retweeted posts are characterised by positive language and praise of BJP politicians and supporters. His most retweeted post describes Manohar Parrikar, a former leader of the BJP who died 17 March as “an unparalleled leader, a true patriot and exceptional administrator,” to whom he is “eternally grateful.” In another post, Modi extends birthday wishes to Smriti Irani, Textiles Minister and BJP member, who Modi praises as having “made valuable contributions towards strengthening the BJP.”
In his second most retweeted post, with 3893 posts in the dataset, Modi addresses his supporters as “dear friends” and calls on them to support his election campaign, and in particular watch his upcoming rallies on his custom app. Although the election itself and wider BJP discourse may be characterised by rising Hindu nationalism, the posts of the party’s leader in the run up to the vote conveyed civility and respect for others. However, his fourth most disseminated post, with 3216 retweets in the dataset, notes that “The most trusted advisor and guide of the Congress President has kick-started the Pakistan National Day celebrations on behalf of the Congress, ironically by demeaning India’s armed forces. Shame!” This post is part of the wider discourse associating the INC with Muslims in general and the neighbouring Muslim dominated country which is seen, in particular, as a threat following the Pulwama attack.
An interesting contrast is noted between the dominance of the voices of the two parties and their respective leaders; while Modi’s posts are retweeted more frequently than those of the BJP, the INCs posts are retweeted more than those of Rahul Gandhi. The most popular INC posts focus on promoting the words of Rahul Gandhi and emphasising the strength of their candidate’s support. Popularly disseminated tweets refer to a proposed “Right to Healthcare Act” and dissemination of Gandhi’s statement about his poverty reduction policies. Many of the popularly disseminated INC posts contained links to livestreams of Gandhi’s rallies and public meetings. Only one of the INC’s most retweet posts attacked Modi and the BJP, in this case mocking Modi as weak and subservient to President Xi Jinping of China. Interestingly a major theme for both parties was to paint the other as weak (even supportive) of China, pointing to a sense of pride and strength vis-à-vis their eastern neighbour as important to Indian voters.
There is a significantly different tone in the BJPs most popular posts. Among the most commonly retweeted posts are critiques of the INC for their foreign policy against Pakistan and China. In contrast to the INC, which focuses on the policies and words of its candidate in relation to economic development and social issues and on emphasising the support the candidate has received, popular BJP posts criticise the INC rather than promote themselves and in particular suggest that the INC is weak on security issues and, particularly in its Hindi language posts, promotes the idea that Rahul Gandhi has links to terrorists. Underscoring the BJP’s focus on India’s Hindu majority, four of the BJPs top posts were entirely in Hindi and one in a combination of English and Hindi (with the remaining five written in English). In contrast, only one of the INC’s top ten most retweeted posts was in Hindi and one in a combination of English and Hindi (with the remaining eight written in English). The posts are also obviously addressed to a Hindu audience, in keeping with the party’s Hindu nationalist orientation. Notably the two BJP posts that most strongly allege that the INC and Gandhi are linked to terrorists (presumably Muslim terrorists) are both written entirely in Hindi.
The most popularly disseminated posts of Rahul Ganhdi also take a very different tone to those of Modi. While Modi’s posts praised other politicians and supporters, five of the top ten most popular posts criticise Modi: his supposedly weak stance toward China and allegations of corruption in a particular military contract. Other popular posts reiterated the tone of Gandhi’s posts focusing on economic development and pointing toward the historic status of the INC in India, with posts noting that it was the anniversary of the INC’s “final assault on poverty” and another promoted the party’s economic plan for business development and job creation.
After Modi, the BJP, Gandhi and the INC taking four of the top five spaces for strongest voices in trending topics in India, a large number of the remaining influential accounts are BJP-aligned individual posters: SirJadeja, AskAnshul, rishibagree, MajorPoonia, SwamiGeetika, muglikar_, Shehzad_Ind and theskindoctor13. In contrast to the language of Modi himself, the most common sentiment in these posts was criticism of Rahul Gandhi (much higher than promotion of Modi). Posts frequently were addressed to Gandhi using sarcastic familiarity, e.g. “Dear Rahul Ji -Who gifted UNSC seat to China?,” “Dear Rahul Gandhi, listen to this Afghan brother” and “Dear @RahulGandhi Good morning. Here is a question for you.” The most common themes accused Gandhi of being soft (even supportive) on terrorism and weak (even supportive) of China. Popular posts also accused him of being slow: ignoring the answers of students to a question he asked and disseminating a parody essay about a cow allegedly written by Gandhi as a young student. Several posts referenced a report by the right-wing news and opinion site, OpIndia, that alleged to show that Gandhi was corrupt and linked to arms dealers.
OpIndia_com itself was the 20th most influential voice within these trending topics. The majority of popular posts by the outlet in the dataset attacked Gandhi. Many of the posts refer to this alleged proof of Gandhi’s corruption, and citizen reactions, including teasing the post on 12 March with “OpIndia expose coming up soon! Rahul Gandhi’s links with arms dealer Sanjay Bhandari” (which appears to now have been deleted from the platform) and reactions on 15 March “Netizens use #RahulKiDalali to question Rahul Gandhi after OpIndia expose about his dubious links with arms dealer.” Numerous other popular stories accused Gandhi and the INC of hating Hindus writing that “Congress leaders would have hoped for the conviction of Hindus regardless of their guilt as it would have deflected attention from the despicable efforts it made to perpetuate a mythical narrative on Hindu terror” and reporting that Congress were haughty and confident of winning in Hindu-minority constituencies. The outlet is also highly critical of other INC figues, reporting that one member “painted Pakistani flags on her semi-nude body,” that a candidate threatened to “cut PM Modi to pieces” and that another member was previously sentenced to two years for rioting. Other popular posts by OPIndia, allege religious violence perpetrated by Muslims against Hindus, such as that a Hindu was murdered with his rectum missing and his eyes gouged out because he refused to convert and that the Pakistani Nobel-prize-winning youth education campaigner Malala Yousafzai has failed to speak out against the abduction and forcible conversion of two Hindu girls. Like the right-wing commentators, there was little coverage of Modi and the BJP, in favour of vicious (and apparently largely unfounded) attacks on the opposition as well as clear evidence of attempts to incite fear and hatred of the Muslim minority. Similar to BJP discourse, some OP India posts painted the INC and Gandhi as close to China.
Another BJP-aligned news and opinion site – the Republic Media Network – was also among the top 25 most retweeted users among trending topics in India in the leadup to the election. Two of their top ten most retweeted posts (as well as their 11th most retweeted post) refer to these allegations of Gandhi’s links to an arms dealer, including references to OP India reports. Two other popularly retweeted posts promote an audio recording that supposedly provides an eyewitness account of attempts by Pakistan to suppress knowledge of an Indian air strike (including burning the bodies of those killed and dumping them in a river). The results of this strike have been disputed with Pakistan claiming that the bombs missed and killed no one, while India maintains that it killed a large number of militants from a group were linked to the Pulwama attack. Posts from Republic also idolise Modi as a strong military leader and selfless servant of the people, and denigrate the INC as inept and corrupt.
Notably absent in these top 25 most influential posters are pro-INC voices. This appears in keeping with online discourse in other recent elections, in which nationalist, ethnocentric and incivil voices dominate social media channels. Although almost all of the posted information contained links to outside sources (the investigation of which – including the truth claims of the information therein – is outside the scope of this short post), the short-form nature of social media appears to lend itself much more readily to rumour, fear mongering and simplistic answers of more extreme voices. The civil and praising tone of Modi seems, however, to distance the candidate from the words and tactics of those who support him. While Gandhi and the INC might be praised for a greater focus on policy positions, compared to the notable absence of any policy positions in either Modi or the BJPs posts, previous evidence of strong association between engagement on social media and electoral suggests that the BJP will see repeat of their 2014 election success.
It should be noted that this is a very cursory look at initial data in the run-up to the election. The data collection method did not collect all posts, only the 200 most recent posts in each trending topic in the 22 locations Twitter every 10 minutes. There is no reason to believe that these posts are not representative of wider discourse within these topics, but cannot speak to the kinds of information that is circulated outside trending topics or within these topics before or after they were trending. This blog post focused on the 25 most commonly retweeted users across these trending topics and considered a selection of their most commonly retweeted posts to provide a summary of online discourse. It is intended that further research will investigate a selection of posts from within the most popular political trends as well as investigations into the prevalence of misinformation, extreme and polarising content, and attempts to influence public opinion with bots, trolls and automation. Five weeks of voting remain in the Indian election and there will likely be continued analysis after the results are announced and the Centre for Democratic Engagement blog series will continue to analyse the nature of online discourse in this historic election.
Dr Gillian Bolsover is a Lecturer in Politics and Media at the University of Leeds.