In February, following a terrorist attack by Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed that killed 40 Indian paramilitary soldiers, and retaliatory air strikes by India on a terrorist training camp in Pakistan’s Balakot, the two nuclear-armed neighbours were on the brink of war.

As tensions heightened at the border, netizens of the two nations were fighting another war on Facebook. Pakistani users flooded the comment section of some of India’s most followed media pages: they called out journalists (“Itz now officiaL, US says no indian fighter jet has capability to hit F-16. And here in india its media and iaf keeps spreading fake propaganda against PAF."); they challenged the claims made by Indian authorities (“BREAKING: Indian Jets dropped some massive tomatoes in Pakistan injuring 5 trees."); they heaped praise on their Prime Minister Imran Khan and ridiculed India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (“See the difference between the two national leaders An Oxford graduate And a tea seller.").

In volume terms, Indians outnumbered Pakistanis on these pages. But nationality is irrelevant for Facebook’s comment ranking algorithm: the counter-narrative offered by Pakistanis—“liked" hundreds of times by their fellow countrymen—occupied the top position in the “most relevant" comment display, Facebook’s ranking order where the “most engaging comments" are shown first—often those “with the most likes and replies".

Some Indians were visibly uncomfortable: one issued a warning to not be swayed by their posts (“There are lot of Pakistani guys who are commenting on our news posts and misguiding us constantly.. be careful!"); another wanted them to be blocked (“can you block these Pakistanis from commenting on this link My blood boils to see them commenting.").

But that’s not how the internet works. While news channels can decide whom they want to invite on their debates; newspaper journalists can choose the sources they interview; and politicians can do away with engagement altogether—such control is rarely visible on the comment section of Facebook. It is open to all.

And what gets said matters because while a top comment on a popular page may garner 2,000 “likes", the average interaction (like, angry, love and sad, etc.) on a Times of India post is only about 120. With the introduction of algorithmic ranking which prioritizes “engagement", the right Facebook comment at the right time on the right page is the new gateway to mass attention on the internet.

(Jayachandran/Mint)


Spike in Facebook comments

Mint reviewed the “most relevant" comments on the 50 most commented posts shared over the last six months on 18 popular Indian Facebook pages (see graphic for the complete list). It includes the most followed mainstream media pages in English and Hindi, accounts of national and regional politicians, and partisan political pages.

The findings are revealing: Facebook commenting activity went through the roof around the end of February as Indians and Pakistanis fought a protracted online battle to dominate the narrative post the Pulwama attack; some comments on the platform are as popular as the posts on pages with millions of followers; and sycophantic amateur poetry is a popular form of comment.

On Monday, Facebook took down over 700 pages for repeatedly engaging in “coordinated inauthentic behaviour" aimed at influencing India’s elections. Both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were implicated, apart from the Inter-Service Public Relations wing of the Pakistani military. The activity that was under scrutiny was posts, while comments still fall outside any sustained monitoring.

But purely based on traction and audience footprint, the comment thread is a publishing platform on its own. According to India Digital News Report 2019 by Reuters Institute, a third of the English-language Indian news users comment on online news. Unlike a status update on one’s personal profile, the visibility of a top comment on a large Facebook page goes well beyond a user’s own social network. Still, when information dissemination via social media is discussed, comments are largely ignored. They can be crucial.


Meaningful interactions

Contrarian voices—which don’t always stick close to facts—feature prominently in the comment spaces of many controversial posts on Facebook pages with millions of followers, breaking the traditional hierarchy between content creators with a large following and ordinary users. What fetches the most comments: Controversial statements by celebrities, tall claims by politicians, and tragic news reports.

Politicians’ pages bagged the most number of comments per post. Engagement on their posts dwarfs the commenting activity on others. For instance, the average number of comments on Narendra Modi’s page was 5,449; it was over 500 for other politicians. That figure was less than 20 for every media page. Partisan political pages fell in between.

The number of comments matter. In January 2018, Facebook changed its news feed algorithm: the company will “prioritize posts that spark conversations and meaningful interactions between people", the announcement blog post read, adding, “posts that inspire back-and-forth discussion in the comments and posts that you might want to share and react to" will be shown higher up in the feed.

But “back-and-forth discussion in the comments" doesn’t necessarily translate into “meaningful interactions"—it is not even clear what “meaningful" means. The tone and style of top comments vary significantly by page type, language, and the audience the page attracts. The game is to rise to the top.

To cut through the thousands of comments and feature as “most relevant", the content needs to be contrarian; share a powerful personal anecdote; be witty or sarcastic; crack a joke; argue with shayari; use hashtags; post a meme. There is no fixed formula.

Narrative wars

On media pages, politicians across party lines are extensively challenged. Among the top comments are those who counter a politician’s claim by claiming direct knowledge of the issue at hand, or have a personal stake in the story.

In an election rally in November, when Modi said that “ (the) Congress worships cow in Madhya Pradesh but Kerala leaders eat beef in public", one man challenged: “I am from Kerala, I have many friends belongs (sic) to BJP and RSS all of them eats beef." This became the top comment. On claims that West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC) government in Bengal had created around 900,000 jobs in the last fiscal year, the top comment, with over a thousand likes, read: “I am from bengal and all these figures are fabricated.. Whoever joins in TMC, she counts it as a new job."

When a former Pakistan high commissioner remarked that the majority of Indian Muslims live like second-class citizens, all the top 15 comments—many fetched thousands of likes—were from Indian Muslims that claimed: “For muslim from all over the world. india is the best country to live peacefully"; “I never felt like a second class citizen in fact I have more Hindu friends than I have muslim friends. This dude doesn’t know anything."

Some users go far enough to write a blog-style comment. Responding to Modi’s statement critiquing Jawaharlal Nehru for his ignorance about farmer woes, a user wrote a 500-word comment arguing how “India has grown tremendously" in the last 60 years, crediting “brilliant decisions" by “all ex-Prime Ministers", which has made India the “second biggest power in Asia". He listed 19 bullet points to further his claim, ending with a request to not “make Modi a God". The comment fetched more than 1,800 likes—and stays at the top of the comment thread.

Critics often complain that the mainstream media is not inclusive enough. Take Jammu and Kashmir. In the jingoistic narratives about the past, present and the future of the disputed territory, the stakeholders—native Kashmiris—are often missing. The Facebook comment section breaks that. Following Pulwama, when migrants from the valley were mercilessly attacked across the country, one Kashmiri openly declared, “this is the main reason we Kashmiris want to freedom from India", a local sentiment that sounds uncomfortable, and rarely seen, in the mainstream. Unless page moderators decide to delete or hide a comment, it’s only Facebook’s algorithm that pushes the comment to the top. Inaccurate information sometimes passes that filter.

On a news article shared through The Indian Express’s Facebook page, about Punjab cabinet minister Navjot Singh Sidhu’s statement that “nations cannot be held responsible for the dastardly acts of terrorists"—referring to the Pulwama attack—the top comment is blatantly false. “He has got millions of dollar in his foreign account from Pakistan Army. He is now the spokesperson of Pakistan Army to India," the top comment with over two hundred likes, read. “Arrest him n put on jail for 5 years, then he’ll learn better skill of politics," the user suggested.

People have fun, too. In March, when Congress president Rahul Gandhi remarked that he will give all the money belonging to businessman to the public if he “gets hold" of diamantaire Nirav Modi, one user said: “Should make MOVIE on rahul gandhi and movie should name- “GAANJAA" - THE ULTIMATE POWER."

Facebook India did not respond to a request for comment despite repeated attempts.

Hindi language media

The activity in the comment space varies significantly by language. The English media comment feed is relatively more liberal than vernacular pages. For example, a larger number of top comments on English pages called for Indo-Pak peace post-Pulwama as compared to Hindi media pages. The latter also show much higher support for Modi and the BJP, with relatively little critique about government as compared to its English counterparts.

Top comments in the Hindi media pages are more creative, with jokes and shayari featuring on the top. The “most relevant" comments on the live broadcasts of Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi’s rallies have got nothing to with the context of the post. It’s mostly Modi fandom: “mohabat ho gayee hai Modi tere naam se, deevaane ho gaye hai Modi tere kaam se, vote kya cheez hai jaan bhi de denge , Modi tere lie shaan se!" (Modi, I am in love with your name. Modi, I am a fan of your work. Votes are nothing, Modi, I will proudly give my life for you.)

This comment, like many other carefully crafted messages that are appealing enough to catch attention, was repeated across multiple posts, hinting that non-original vernacular content is lifted from a repository to drive engagement on political posts.

In general, media pages are equal opportunity offenders: no politician is spared.

But don’t expect to gain any new insights or nuanced arguments.

Post-Pulwama statements from West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee and former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, that were not in sync with the Modi government’s narrative, were ferociously rebuked in the comment section, many with sexist overtones.

On Mufti’s statement that Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan should be given another chance, the most liked comment read: “If you like him then go and marry him."

What one classifies as “uncivil" or “hateful" can be subjective. Still, compared with the visible and vicious trolling on Twitter, Facebook comments are relatively clean. In fact, research suggests that “Facebook breeds less incivility overall than more anonymous spaces such as Twitter," political scientist Rebekah Tromble tweeted.

In some cases, the counter-narrative in the comment section serves as an antidote to baseless troll-like statements. When T. Raja Singh, the lone BJP legislator in Telangana assembly, demanded the removal of tennis star Sania Mirza as the brand ambassador of Telangana because she is a “bahu (daughter-in-law) of Pakistan", all the top ten comments on Facebook post supported Mirza. “She is daughter of India and Idol for million of Indian girls. Rather than pointing at her, BJP MLA should join Army if he is that brave to serve the country. Jai Hind." The comment has 1,500 likes.

Such behaviour is rare in outright partisan pages that attract ideological audiences. But even within echo chambers, there can be moments of clarity.

For example, when the wildly popular Nation with Namo page posted a heavily edited video in December 2018 to promote the fake news narrative that Rahul Gandhi walked back on the promise of loan waiver in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, one person commented: “This is fake news. I’m a supporter of BJP and Modi but this is wrongly portrayed… Don’t try to gain support by fake propaganda." (top comment with 1,500 likes)

In a world where comments have begun to acquire outsized influence and platforms take little responsibility, such rare moments of responsible online citizenship is all that is left to hold on to.

Samarth Bansal is a freelance journalist based in Delhi. He writes about technology, politics and policy.

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