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What does Prime Minister Narendra Modi do on Twitter?

He sends his good wishes to athletes at the Glasgow games, and then thanks them for making him proud. He remembers those who died at Hiroshima. He urges all and sundry to work together to further the cause of world peace. He tells us how blessed he felt at offering prayers at the Pashupatinath temple in Nepal. He competes with the Press Information Bureau—“Harnessing Nepal’s potential in hydropower, tourism & herbal medicines will hasten Nepal’s development journey & benefit Nepal’s youth." He also reiterates his occasionally corny acronyms, and tweets about Jeet Bahadur, the youth he helped reunite with his parents. He is a risk-averse tweeter, occasionally banal, and dishing out pearls of wisdom: “mind is never a problem, mindset is."

What do journalists do on Twitter when they are out on assignments they consider important? Compete to make the Press Trust of India and agencies like it redundant. Lots of bright journalists from the top newspapers were tweeting from Nepal. They all sounded like each other; worse, they sounded no different from the official tweets. Everybody was reporting news as it happened.You cannot do more than that anyway unless you have a real scoop which can be compressed into 140 characters.

In assessing claims that Twitter has changed the way politics is practised and the way journalists function, we need to remember the following:

Twitter wants to grow its market in garrulous India. Thereafter the keyword for the microblogging site is, monetize.

This government wants communication minus accountability. If the Prime Minister didn’t need the mainstream media to win an election, he does not need them to communicate with the citizenry either. The official media and social media between them can do the job.

And pushed by their editorial and marketing managers, the media these days are tweeting as part of a promotional strategy that journalists abroad were encouraged to follow long before. Out on assignment? It’s not enough to go back and write your piece. You’ve got to tweet while you are there. More and more editors are now fixated on getting their staff to tweet.

A relatively new development is the fact that media houses now want to hire journalists with established Twitter profiles. A young reporter in Delhi was recently taken aback when he was asked at a job interview how many followers he had on Twitter. Is that going to be one of the new criteria for judging a journalist’s abilities, one wonders. Journalists report being urged by their editorial heads to tweet as much as they can, with targets being set. Twitter is pitching in with visits by its top people to media offices. At one Sunday paper there is talk of a financial disincentive for those who are not tweeting a minimum number a month. Talk of Twitter tyranny.

According to interviews the delighted people at Twitter give, they are responding to demand. Thanks to the Prime Minister being such an enthusiastic convert, the company has been given direct access to ministries and ministers, to train them, as well as diplomats, on how to use the medium. Meanwhile the RSS also asked for and got such training. They too are now on Twitter.

The latest addition is the President’s office. When President Pranab Mukherjee tweets himself it will be signed Pranab Mukherjee, you are helpfully informed. It isn’t as if there is no value to such an outreach: If you want to know what the President does all day, you are now told that. But if traditional PR has climbed onto social media, it doesn’t add up to a more communicative government.

Given the sheer numbers being bandied about, it helps to see these in perspective. If Narendra Modi has five million followers and 18 million plus Facebook likes, the competition on Twitter comes from the President of Indonesia who had more followers, and the office of the President of Mexico which puts out more tweets than three Narendra Modi related-accounts together including the official PMO one.

A study released earlier this year by the PR firm Burson-Marsteller offered the simple logic that leaders from more populous nations have a natural advantage and do better on Twitter! The exception is Barack Obama, who is ahead as No. 1 in terms of followers, and hardly ever tweets.

What’s more, if you are looking at how responsive the tweeting leaders were, Modi was low down on the list. The most “conversational" world leader on Twitter is Ugandan Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, with 95% of his tweets being replies to other users. Modi’s average is 5%. He is an avid one-way communicator.

This is also borne out by the fact that the concomitant to this expansion in abbreviated chatter is bureaucrats more reluctant to meet journalists than before, and, if journalists covering the Bharatiya Janata Party beat are to be believed, an Amit Shah effect on the party which ensures that formerly garrulous BJP leaders have turned taciturn.

At the end of the day, Twitter and Facebook as companies could end up being more concrete beneficiaries of the new Twitter mania than Indians who want their leaders to be more open.

Sevanti Ninan is a media critic, author and editor of the media watch website She examines the larger issues related to the media in a fortnightly column.

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