How the BJP tried to manipulate public opinion on social media in favor of the CAA

Social media has grown in importance today as the “leader” in leaderless movements. In the past, newspapers or mouthpieces were used to raise public opinion. Nowadays people use social media platforms to get news and information on topics relevant to them. It helps mobilize the online audience to trade offline.

Social media platforms have also become an important place for political debate. Rather insidious, they have become a useful tool for authoritarian regimes to divert public attention, spread fear, and target dissent. A case in point is what happened after changes were made to the Indian Citizenship Act last year.

The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was passed on December 11, 2019 and sparked anger and protests across India. Tens of thousands of people, including students and human rights activists, took part in peaceful protests in various cities. Within a few days, several prime ministers had also refused to implement the CAA in their respective states – Maharashtra, Kerala, Punjab, Rajasthan, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh. The Prime Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, actually said: “As long as I am alive, CAA will not be implemented in Bengal. Nobody has to leave the country or the state. There will be no internment camp in Bengal. “

Strategies to support the CAA

Nationwide protests and reactions from opposition parties in many countries have pushed the Indian government under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi into the background. Under pressure, the government decided to launch several online and offline campaigns, including a social media campaign, a missed calls campaign, and the nationwide Jan Jagran Abhiyan, to generate public support for the CAA.

Before clickbait methods like “Promise of Sex,” “Jobs,” “Free Cellular Data” and “Netflix Accounts” were developed as part of the “Missed Calls Campaign” to garner support for the CAA, the BJP began with the promotion of a video of Jaggi Vasudev, popularly known as Sadhguru.

The video shows Sadhguru at a meeting when a young woman poses a question about the CAA. He shares his opinion by saying, “I have not read the law in full. I only know it from the newspapers and whatever else is out there in general. “However, he gives his answer in a 21 minute answer.

File photo of protests against CAA-NRC in Gujarat. Photo: PTI

Sadhguru, who has a huge follower base and the potential to influence millions through his conversations, posted this video on all of his social media profiles. In the video, he asks students to read the law before protesting, even though he “did not read the law in full” himself. Finally, Sadhguru ends his speech with the words: “… illiterate people in the universities have gone wild” and bursts into laughter.

On December 30, 2019, Modi tweeted, “Hear this clear explanation of issues relating to CAA and more from Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev. It provides historical context and brilliantly highlights our culture of brotherhood. It also creates the misinformation from interest groups. #IndiaSupportsCAA. ”He posted the YouTube link to the video and launched the India Supports CAA campaign.

On the same day, the Isha Foundation, run by Sadhguru, also released a Twitter poll asking users if they thought protests against CAA and against NRC (National Register of Citizens) are warranted, followed by the link to his video . From the information available, it appears that 11,439 Twitter users took part in the poll. However, the poll closed the same day after 63% said anti-CAA and anti-NRC protests were warranted.

The crucial question to ask is under what circumstances Sadhguru could be convinced to speak misleadingly and confessingly uninformed about the highly controversial and polarizing CAA while wrongly cracking down on anti-CAA protesters and students and? Researcher Marks Scholars As “Illiterate”?

Funding for #IndiaSupportsCAA campaign

Interior Minister Amit Shah also posted the same video of Sadhguru on Facebook, saying, “Stop believing lies and half-truths on CAA. Here is a very well articulated statement from @SadhguruJV ji. I urge everyone, especially the youth, to observe and get a historical perspective on why we need CAA. Share it with others too. #IndiaSupportsCAA ”.

This video premiered on Sadhguru’s English YouTube channel on December 28, 2019. Sadhguru posted the video on his verified Twitter and Facebook profiles on December 29 morning. However, the BJP began promoting Sadhguru’s video on December 30, 2019, and the first sponsored advertisement was seen by more than a million Facebook users.

BJP’s Facebook page showed three more ads with the same video but they were synced in Hindi. The Facebook ads were active from December 30, 2019 to January 23, 2020. The site also ran two more ads for the Pro-CAA missed calls campaign, which ran from January 7-23, 2020.

From December 30, 2019 to January 23, 2020, the page spent 15 to 17 lakh on Facebook ads, which were viewed more than 10 million times and had the most views in West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. The maximum audience in West Bengal is noteworthy as it is a border state where the BJP has tried to make progress and will do all it can to win the upcoming Congregation polls.

Not only the main BJP Facebook page, but BJP leaders like Jitu Vaghani, a Gujarat MLA, paid an estimated Rs 90,000 to Rs 1 lakh to promote the # IndiaSupportsCAA campaign. Former Rajya Sabha MP of Bihar RK Sinha, who regularly posts ads on Facebook, also paid a reasonable amount to promote the # IndiaSupportsCAA campaign.

Up to 99 Facebook pages, including BJP leaders, state BJP units, other fan pages run by BJP supporters, and some government-affiliated media houses have a total of 220 Facebook ads between December 16, 2019 and March 9, 2020 switched.

While BJP was running # IndiaSupportsCAA ads, the campaign generated a large number of posts and interactions. From December 11, 2019 to February 9, 2020, the total number of posts and interactions were 11,348 and 10,469,748, respectively.

It was also found that during the # IndiaSupportsCAA paid campaign on Facebook, i.e. from December 30, 2019 to January 23, 2020, the total number of posts was 10,175 and the total number of interactions was 8,778,476.

In 36 days – 14 days before and 17 days after the BJP’s # IndiaSupportsCAA paid campaign – the total number of posts and interactions dropped to 1,173 and 1,691,272, respectively. This shows the injection of funds to put a particular message online.

Still, #IndiaSupportsCAA is a failed campaign

During the paid campaign run by the BJP Facebook page, the average daily number of Facebook posts with #IndiaSupportsCAA was 356 and the average interactions associated with these posts was 3.02.092.

Although the BJP stopped paying for the campaign on January 23, 2020, leaders and party staff continued to pay for ads through March 9, 2020 using the hashtag #IndiaSupportsCAA. During that time, the average daily number of Facebook posts with #IndiaSupportsCAA was only 26 and the average number of interactions was 25,994.

The debates, rallies, meetings, etc. in support of and against the CAA, the NRC and the National Population Register (NPR) continued until the COVID-19 lockdown began in late March 2020. However, during the campaign period after #IndiaSupportsCAA, not many people posted updates on their Facebook profiles to support the CAA. From March 10 to December 11, 2020, a total of 61 public posts and 39,747 interactions related to the #IndiaSupportsCAA campaign were found. In contrast, #IndiaDoesNotSupportCAA was the number one trend on Twitter in India on December 31, 2019, the day after the BJP launched its planned #IndiaSupportsCAA campaign with massive funds.

The behavior of the online audience clearly shows that those who had previously dealt with the #IndiaSupportsCAA campaign did not continue their engagement for long and later either ignored or rejected the campaign. As a cosmetic injection, the pro-CAA campaign did not survive itself, but the anti-CAA campaigns, which appeared to be more organic.

Harnessing the real power of social media

This aggressive # IndiaSupportsCAA campaign proves the government’s position on the CAA. While large numbers of citizens were against the CAA and NRC and supported anti-CAA and anti-NRC protests, a handful of right-wing politicians tried to use money power to overthrow public opinion without trying to understand the core of the citizens To care.

Therefore, they continued to fund ads on social media platforms to spread misinformation and combat dissent. However, in this paid and artificial campaign, the right wing could not get enough support. You can be more successful next time

Money power and increasing influence over social media can play a significant role in the destruction of democratic values ​​and they have the ability to create divisions in society.

The challenge ahead is much bigger than yesterday. It is a challenge that all democracies around the world must face as they grapple with the new reality of social media and its ability to spread divisive, intolerant and misinformed views that can even affect election results. It is certainly a challenge to be reckoned with.

Buddhadeb Halder is a postdoctoral fellow in the project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council entitled “Rethinking Citizenship: The Citizenship Change Policy is at work in India”(AH / V001809 / 1) at the University of York.

Data Source: CrowdTangle and Facebook ad library