BJP’s social-media dominance is shaping mainstream media narratives ahead of Bihar polls

BJP workers watching union home minister Amit Shah’s virtual rally at the party office in Kolkata on 9 June, 2020. Over the past five years, the BJP has built a formidable social media infrastructure, one of the largest in terms of recognition, reach and influence, which has allowed them to frame the mainstream media narrative for the Bihar election. Samir Jana / Hindustan Times / Getty Images
03 October, 2020

On 25 September, the Election Commission of India announced that voting for the Bihar assembly elections will be conducted in three phases, between 28 October and 7 November. The EC had earlier released broad guidelines for the conduct of elections during the COVID-19 pandemic and some recommendations for Bihar specifically, which heavily restrict physical campaigning. As a consequence, political parties in Bihar are increasingly reliant on digital campaigning and social media to connect with the voter and shape the political narrative.

Five days before the announcement, Sushil Modi, Bihar’s deputy chief minister and senior member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, was interviewed by The Lallantop, a Hindi online news platform owned by the India Today Group. In a conversation that stretched for over two hours, Modi answered questions about his government’s response to COVID-19, the goods and services tax and development, in a convivial setting. Modi also included barbs about Lalu Prasad Yadav, the head of the Rashtriya Janata Dal—Bihar’s largest opposition party—and his son Tejashwi Yadav. The same day, Modi tweeted a clip of the interview from his account. That day he also tweeted two press notes, both of which were covered by daily newspapers, which Modi duly retweeted as press pickups.

The synergy between Modi’s use of social media and its feeding into mainstream media is indicative of a wider trend in the Bihar, one which allows the BJP to have an overbearing role on the media narrative of the election. Over the past five years, the BJP has built a formidable social media infrastructure, one of the largest in terms of recognition, reach and influence. This includes a larger number of verified leaders on social-media platforms, and a larger network on WhatsApp. The BJP and its ally the Janata Dal (United) have also been able to use the financial incentive of government advertisements to ensure that mainstream media reports positively on them. The BJP does not outspend other political parties for social-media advertisements, but it benefits from third parties that push content aligned to its narrative. The digital campaign highlights several major lacunae in India’s campaign finance laws.

The BJP’s dominance on social media can be gauged by the fact that at least 23 BJP leaders from the state have verified accounts on both Twitter and Facebook. This includes Modi; the BJP’s Bihar president, Sanjay Jaiswal; the union ministers Ravi Shankar Prasad and Giriraj Singh; members of parliament and state cabinet ministers. A verified account tends to have a larger following on social media, and due to its authenticity, it is more effective at shaping a political narrative. The combined following of these 23 BJP leaders on Facebook and Twitter stretches to over several million.

The feedback loop between social and mainstream media ensures that posts from the verified accounts of BJP leaders are picked up by mainstream media, which in turn are re-posted as press pickups by these accounts. This leads to a situation where the BJP is able to have an overwhelming influence in determining the agenda that would be discussed by the mainstream media in their election coverage.

In contrast, only five senior leaders of the RJD, Bihar’s largest opposition party, have verified accounts on both Twitter and Facebook. All five are members of Lalu Prasad Yadav’s family. A handful of other RJD leaders such as Sanjay Yadav, Tanweer Hassan, Shailesh Kumar and Nawal Kishore have verified accounts on Twitter but not on Facebook. Similarly, Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar, is the only JD(U) politician with a verified account on both platforms. Even senior leaders of the party such as Bashistha Narain Singh, the JD(U) president, are not verified on both platforms. The situation is similar for the Congress, which is also a member of the mahagathbandhan, or grand alliance, of opposition parties in Bihar. Madan Mohan Jha, the president of the Bihar Congress, Akhilesh Prasad Singh, the chairman of the campaign committee, and Chandan Yadav, a national media panellist for the Congress, seem to be the only senior leaders who are verified on both Facebook and Twitter.

It is unclear whether the inequitable distribution of verified accounts across Bihar’s political spectrum is deliberate on part of the platforms, or a result of the BJP’s head start and concerted bid to use social media for political messaging is unclear. Twitter’s verified accounts programme is currently on hold. When asked about the inequitable distribution of verified accounts, a Twitter spokesperson said, “Our product and policies are never developed or implemented on the basis of political ideology … We work with Indian political parties across the board to verify candidates, elected leaders and relevant party officials whose accounts will be active in the public conversation.” To the same question, a Facebook spokesperson did not give a clear answer and simply pointed to their public guidelines for verifying accounts.

“The conversion from social media to mainstream media is quite effective for the BJP on Twitter and no other mainstream leader in Bihar is doing it as effectively,” Shivam Shankar Singh, a data analyst who previously worked for the BJP, but now works for the mahagathbandhan, told me. “Sushil Modi puts out a press release and the media make a story out of it. Everyone else needs to send it to the editor, then call him up and say, ‘Please publish it, position it prominently, run it with a good photograph.’ Even after this they will publish it on the third page.”

Congress leaders in Bihar also felt that they were getting far less coverage in mainstream media, in addition to their relative absence on social media. “How does one get one’s stand on issues across if the media is not even willing to listen?” Gunjan Patel, the president of the Bihar Youth Congress, asked. “We keep sending press releases with our point of view to the offices of the mainstream media, but even to get four lines of coverage we have to struggle. Most of the newspapers are tilted towards the BJP and the government.” Patel has a verified account on Twitter, the only Youth Congress leader in Bihar to have one, but even he lacks a verified account on Facebook.

“Your influence on social media and mainstream media—print and television—is directly proportional to the amount of resources you can deploy,” Yashwant Sinha, a former BJP leader who served as the union finance minister under the prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, told me. Sinha quit the party in 2018 and has since become a major critic of it. He is the chairperson of the United Democratic Alliance, a 17-party coalition of smaller parties that plans to contest the Bihar elections independent of the ruling and opposition coalitions. “The tragedy of our times is that even mainstream media look upon election time as income time,” he said. “Those who have the power of the government at their disposal can issue advertisements. Secondly, the resources deployed by rich parties like the BJP, including on social media, are ahead of all other parties. This has completely destroyed the electoral level playing field.”

 “In an election year, the focus of the television channels is to maximise advertising revenue,” Shashi Bhushan, the chief reporter of an online news portal First Bihar, told me. “Is it possible to take government advertisements and also speak against the government? Very few channels have such guts.” First Bihar monitors social media, especially Twitter, for announcements by politicians and if a verified account tweets, it can run it as a news story.

Bihar’s ruling coalition has also been able to use more traditional methods to garner more positive coverage for themselves. “No newspaper is willing to write against the government because of the Nitish government’s advertising revenue policy,” Bhushan told me. “In Bihar it is understood that if you write against the government you will stop getting advertisements. What is left are the regional television channels. There are three main ones. Kashish News, doesn’t have distribution. There is News18 Bihar-Jharkhand and Zee Bihar-Jharkhand. I’ve worked in both.” Mainstream media is still vital in influencing an election in Bihar as smartphone penetration in the state is only 30 percent.

Besides an outsized influence in mainstream media, the BJP have been able to build an unparalleled network of local groups on the messaging service WhatsApp. I previous reported for The Caravan that the BJP has formed over one lakh WhatsApp groups for Bihar, more than the approximately 72,000 voting booths in the state. The party is also building WhatsApp groups at the booth and panchayat levels in Bihar and has appointed 9,500 people as administrators of these groups. This has enabled the party to directly communicate with voters in a manner unaffected by the pandemic.

Most other political parties in the state lack the reach the BJP has on WhatsApp. In comparison, the Congress in Bihar has only 3,800 WhatsApp groups, according to Sanjiv Singh, the IT cell head of the Congress. “At this point, creating new WhatsApp groups is almost impossible because the elections are so close,” Shivam told me. “If you didn’t do it in the last 5 years, you cannot do it in the next two months.”

The JD(U), BJP’s ally, may also be struggling to create a social-media infrastructure for itself. “Our party’s temperament is not digital,” Sanjay Jha, the water-resources minister from the JD(U) and a close confidante of Nitish Kumar, told me. Speaking about the chief minister, he said, “Ours is a politics of the ground, and digital doesn’t suit his temperament and politics. The basic minimum of Twitter and Facebook was there, but the pandemic has changed everything. JD(U) wasn’t so focused on digital, so we don’t have that many people with verified accounts.” Jha said that the JD(U) had recently launched a website to broadcast speeches that could “accommodate up to ten lakh people.”

The BJP also seems to have a major advantage in advertising on social-media platforms. This is the result of a number of third-party advertisers are running advertisements critical of the opposition parties, which helps the BJP and the ruling coalition. According to the Facebook Ad Library, a database of advertisements in Facebook, between 2 July and 29 September the largest spender on political advertisements on Bihar was the Indian Political Action Committee, a political advocacy and consultancy group. IPAC spent Rs 26.96 lakh on 367 advertisements to promote their ‘Baat Bihar ki’ campaign. The JD(U) spent Rs 10.82 lakh on 480 advertisements while the Congress’s Bihar wing spent Rs 8.14 lakh on 2,388 advertisements. The BJP spent Rs 4.08 lakh on 479 advertisements from its Facebook page.   

Manan Krishna, the convenor of the BJP’s IT cell in Bihar, told me that the BJP’s advertisements on Facebook and WhatsApp are “completely positive.” A random perusal of the BJP Bihar advertisement library corroborated this. However, this does not take into account third-party advertising. For instance, one of the advertisers who is running anti-RJD advertisements is a Facebook page called Rashtriya Jungle Dal—a reference to Lalu Prasad Yadav’s rule of being called a “jungle raj” for its poor law and order record. An advertisement on their page, for instance, said that Shahbuddin, an RJD legislator, kidnapped Hindu doctors. “Have you forgotten those days? Has your blood cooled, O’ Hindus?” the advertisement said. Another advertisement on the page tried to paint Tejashwi Yadav as an uneducated boor in cahoots with criminals. Facebook’s transparency report for the page says that it has spent Rs 48,253 between 8 Feb, 2019 and 19 September, 2020.  

An investigative report by the news-website details how high spending, shadowy third parties are exploiting loopholes in Facebook’s transparency rules to enhance the image of Narendra Modi online. Weak enforcement of campaign laws aids this. “Three of India’s ten biggest political spenders on Facebook, and eight of the top 60, are hard-to-trace pro-BJP proxies,” the report said. “Together they’ve spent substantially more—more than $800,000—in a year and a half than the BJP ($680,000) itself.” This highlights a major lacuna in India’s campaigning financing rules which allows for wealthier parties to use third parties and social media to gain far more coverage than their competitors.

“Right now, the only party that has a real campaign in Bihar is the BJP,” Shivam, the data analyst, told me. “They are sending out press releases, doing something on social media et cetera. All the other parties post some graphics, but there is no reach.  No one has as many Facebook pages or WhatsApp groups as the BJP, and since the opposition is not doing much on the ground because of the pandemic, it’s very difficult to create a narrative and push it on social media.”

Shivam told me the narrative being created for people who dislike the RJD is, “if the RJD come to power then the Muslims will take over.” He continued, “Then you create stories that circulate on social media. For instance, in case of the Delhi riots, the story would be: The Muslims and the Communists have collaborated to create mayhem.”

Even public-relations experts noted that the BJP has been methodical and efficient in using social media. Navnit Anand is a former journalist and founder director of Grey Matters, a public-relations agency that managed the BJP Bihar’s social-media strategy during the 2019 general elections. “Mr Sushil Modi is using Twitter to largely set the agenda by magnifying key messages and highlighting policy initiatives,” Anand told me. According to Anand, there has been a shift in the overall media-consumption habits of people. Newspapers, which earlier comprised 60 percent of media consumption, have now declined to 20 percent after of the explosion of digital platforms. “Any smart strategist would use digital to magnify whatever you get in print, to optimize reach,” Anand said.

He continued, “If I had to rate platforms, Twitter builds the narrative and shapes the agenda for political discourse because [media and policy] influencers are on Twitter. But the voter is someone largely accessing Facebook.” He explained how other leaders in Bihar were using social media. “Nitish Kumar is largely acting as the Chief Minister on his Twitter feed,” Anand told me. “The political attacks are happening in his speeches whereas Tejashwi’s attacks on the chief minister and JD (U) are sharp. If he shares a village connection story he is trying to connect with his audience, which is more rural in orientation.”

I asked Shivam how he would design a digital campaign for Bihar. “I estimate that there are 1.5 crore smart phone users in Bihar and it will cost Rs 5 per user for a decent campaign on Facebook,” he said. “Assuming all of them have the app, that itself is Rs 7.5 crore. This is just to get your message to the user. Creating the message is a different story. On Facebook you create different advertisements for different groups. With some people who dislike Nitish Kumar, you tailor an advertisement saying Nitish is not good for Bihar.”

“There is no doubt that the BJP has displayed a prowess in digital communication and campaigning and will be a beneficiary due to the current realities,” Apar Gupta, a lawyer and director of the Internet Freedom Foundation—a non-profit organisation that advocates for digital rights—said. “This also speaks to the lack of regulation, transparency and enforcement with respect to disclosure of financial spending by candidates and third parties on behalf of that candidate. Campaign finance limits that determine digital advertising spends are also fairly deficient.”

On 17 July, parties aligned to the mahagathbandhan—including the RJD, the Vikassheel Insaan Party, the Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist-Liberation) and the Loktantrik Janata Dal—wrote a memorandum to Sunil Arora, the chief election commissioner, expressing apprehensions about digital campaigning. “The parties in power have started their virtual blitzkrieg while the Election Commission is yet to fix the limit of expenditure on this virtual political campaign,” the memorandum read. “It is the constitutional mandate of the Election Commission to ensure a free and fair election guaranteeing a level playing field to all contestants and political parties.”

The Representation of Peoples’ Act—the law that stipulates how elections are to be conducted in India—specifies the expenditure limits for candidates for state and national elections. Social-media spending is currently assumed by the EC to be enveloped within this amount. “But these limits are not adhered to and when one looks at online campaigning it becomes incredibly worrying because it is opaque,” Gupta said. HR Srinivasa, the chief electoral officer of Bihar, did not respond to multiple phone calls, text messages or emailed queries regarding this story. Though the BJP currently seems to have a head start in using social media to reach voters and set the tone of the election, it remains to be seen how this will affect the outcome.