This means war: BJP, Congress get nasty on Twitter

What does the Twitter battle between Congress and BJP supporters over Narendra Modi’s speech to the FICCI ladies organisation tell us? Quite a lot, actually. Here are some of the major conclusions.

1) The Congress is now taking social media seriously. It has always struck me as being bizarre that a party with so many young leaders with foreign degrees, fancy smartphones, and expensive computers should have been so much behind the times. When individual Congress leaders have tried to reach out on Twitter–Shashi Tharoor, for example–they have been slapped down by their colleagues within the party.

2) It has long been suspected that the preponderance of so-called Internet Hindus on social media is not an entirely spontaneous phenomenon. Thanks to journalistic stories and TV discussions, we now know that the Sangh coordinates strategy with several hundred ‘volunteers’ and tells them what the targets for the day are. This has been admitted to, on television, by the head of the BJP’s Internet wing.

We also know, thanks to investigative articles in such magazines as India Today, that the BJP runs control rooms staffed by hundreds of boffins who are directed to create Twitter storms.

When the boffins succeed, BJP leaders go on television to announce that as the Sanghi targets are trending on Twitter, the people of India have spoken.

3) There is no point in getting self-righteous about the BJP’s Twitter manipulations. It is clear that the Congress has decided to do exactly the same thing. If you believe that the Twitter effort that led Feku to trend worldwide when Modi was speaking was spontaneous then you probably believe anything: that the moon is made of blue cheese or that Modi fasts for Ramzan each year.

4) The Congress is doing exactly the same thing as the BJP. The Sanghis say that the Congress is now spending many crores on a Twitter campaign. Perhaps this is true. And perhaps the BJP ‘volunteers’ are all selfless chaddiwallahs who survive on love, fresh air and the odd goose-step. Either way, it doesn’t matter very much. The point is that Twitter storms are being manipulated.

5) Most American politicians hire agencies to manage social media for them. It is inevitable that the practice will spread throughout the world. So, I wouldn’t worry too much about it.

What does concern me, however, is the quality of the tweeting. The BJP’s Twitter army targets individuals whose views do not accord with the Sangh’s objectives. They are subjected to vile abuse by assorted ‘volunteers’ whose abuse is then retweeted by their colleagues. It is easy to identify them because most of them are semi-literate and the English is nearly always awkward or faulty.

On the other hand, I am not sure that the Congress is going to occupy the high moral ground either. The recurring theme of the Feku campaign was an attack on Modi’s personal life. I have no idea if the claims about Modi’s wife are accurate but there is something worrying about a campaign that stoops so low.

6) Does any of this matter? In voting terms, probably not. But it matters in television terms. One reason why Twitter has so much influence is because it sets the news TV agenda. Anchors and editors keep referring to Twitter to find out what’s happening, foolishly believing that Twitter trends are accurate reflections of the national mood.

7) I think the Twitter war is going to get uglier in the year ahead. But here’s the point to ponder. Why has a Twitter phenomenon that should be a battle between the Congress and the BJP turned into a war over a single individual: Narendra Modi. Even the BJP tweeters have no interest in defending any of the party’s other leaders. Their single focus is Narendra Modi.

Does this tell us something about the control rooms and who controls them?

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