Bangalore: The boardroom battles at the $100-billion Tata Group business empire have escalated into a Twitter war of the kind corporate India has never seen.
Thousands of tweets with hashtags such as #WadiaTruthsTataLies, #CyrusMistryforGovernance and #RaTantrum are trending, steered by supporters of deposed chairman Cyrus Mistry. On the other side are #TataForIndia and #Support4Tata, maneuvered by the supporters of current chairman Ratan Tata, who sparked the feud when he unceremoniously ousted Mistry on 24 October.
The ongoing war on the micro-blogging platform indicates that the power struggle playing out in the boardrooms of Tata group companies is spilling over into social media. Several of the tweets indicate they’re being paid for by vested interests, say marketing executives.
“Many of the Twitter conversations are neither organic nor natural, I’m aware that many aspects of it are gamed by incentivized masses,” said Praanesh Bhuvaneswar, chief executive officer of New Delhi-based digital PR agency TeraReach, which pays influential tweeters to trigger conversations on social media. Bhuvaneswar said his agency only associated with brands and stayed away from taking sides in corporate or political battles.
Bhuvaneswar said many of the Twitter handles weighing in on the Tata feud were those of professionals who tweet for money. He said his trackers have discovered handles spitting out 10 tweets an hour, voicing their support for a side one minute, and switching sides minutes later. Tweets in support of Ratan Tata outnumbered those for the opposing side, mainly because regular users seemed to side with the patriarch, he said.
Asked to respond on paid and promoted tweets, a Tata spokesman said the company keeps track of social media platforms as part of its media engagement and has continued to do so since 24 October. An external spokesman for Mistry’s office declined to comment.
As both camps try to shape public opinion, shareholders will be called in December to pick sides at extraordinary general meetings being held to vote on Mistry’s removal from the boards of individual group units such as Tata Consultancy Services Ltd., Tata Chemicals Ltd. and Tata Power Ltd.
The Tata image has been tarnished by the battle playing out on the ground, replete with leaked e-mails, boardroom intrigue and threats of legal action. The Twitter fights appear to be another unseemly extension of the conflict
Competing hashtags have been vying for the top five spots on several Twitter trend lists and dominating the recent discourse alongside #cashless and #cashcrunch -- handles related to India’s recent controversial decision to ban its two highest-denomination currency notes.
“It is the Twitter equivalent of Fake News,” said Karthik Srinivasan, national lead of social at Ogilvy & Mather India, referring to a controversy that has dogged Facebook Inc. in the aftermath of the US presidential elections. The impression that both sides have hundreds of impassioned supporters is illusory, he said.
Many tweets themselves give the game away.
“Tweets on #RaTantrum are like promotions for any film. Same repeated tweets from many handles. Someone wants this trending in India,” one user @sonarprathamesh said. The tweet has garnered 106 retweets so far.
“What is the use of questioning independence of independent directors??#CyrusMistryforGovernance,” another handle @SanairaKhan tweeted.
Brands spats and political clashes are all too common on Twitter.
Leading political factions in India — the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, the opposition Congress Party and the Aam Aadmi Party, which governs India’s capital of New Delhi — have in the past deployed legions of paid as well as hardcore supporters to polarize public opinion.
Meanwhile, a stealthy, paid-to-tweet cottage industry of ‘influencers’ makes a living from brands and companies that pay digital marketers to generate conversations and fuel trends, without that all-too-obvious ‘promoted’ disclaimer on the tweets.
“We have seen political tweet storms raging in India, the US and elsewhere, but we’ve never witnessed an all-out corporate social media brawl of this magnitude before,” said Nikhil Pahwa, the New Delhi-based founder of Medianama, which monitors the digital economy. “It’s so vicious and full of disinformation that it makes it obvious that both sides have deployed hired armies to promote their own versions.” Bloomberg