By early February 2019, the Indian National Congress looked set to do something that has little precedent in recent memory. Buoyed by the official entry of  Priyanka Gandhi Vadra into active politics on 23 January 2019, the Congress, and hashtags associated with it, had begun to trend on Twitter much more than those related to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and causes sympathetic to it.

Despite the idiosyncratic nature of what makes a hashtag or topic go viral on Twitter, the development was still unique. The trends, in a broad sense, reflect the social media pulse of the nation. For much of the previous five years, the BJP’s official and unofficial arms online had completely dominated social media. In spite of Rahul Gandhi’s efforts to increase his retweet rates and broader reach by deploying a calibrated mix of insult and confrontation since late-2017, the BJP’s social media citadel held strong for the most part—until a brief window opened up in February.

Immediately after Priyanka’s entry, the BJP machinery swung into action. Buoyed by a populist budget and Modi’s Pariksha pe Charcha, the saffron party slowly clawed its way back into the Twitter trending board. However, the topic that really changed the game came on 14 February 2019—the Pulwama attack. What happened on Twitter in the intervening few weeks till the end of March largely explains how the general elections unfolded.

These findings are based on an analysis of a subset of hashtags and tweets which gained the most traction, from a sample of more than 142,000 topics that trended on Twitter in a four-month span since 1 January (each hour, Twitter API returns the top 50 trends). Though, only an estimated 30 million Indians are active on Twitter on an average day, the platform has outsized influence due to its ability to set the “political hawa (mood)".

BJP becomes India

The wave of nationalism that gripped Indian social media in the middle of February, following the Pulwama attack, had one significant fallout: some of the surge automatically transferred into pro-BJP sentiment by the middle of March, trending even BJP hashtags that had nothing overtly to do with nationalism (see Chart 1)—thereby, offering a ready template for the party by the time campaigning began for the elections.

The battle cry on twitter that emerged around the time of the retaliatory airstrikes in Balakot in late February soon morphed into nationalistic messages coloured with the distinctively Hindutva-tinged #HarHarMahadev, while jingoistic hashtags including #IAFHaiToMumkinHai were crafted to increase the recall value of #ModiHaiToMumkinHai, as did the clarion call of “How’s the Josh?", which too was widely used by the Modi campaign.

The seamless melding of India and the BJP was the biggest early success of a hectic poll season, and it happened much before campaign stump speeches on nationalism became a routine feature. In the chaotic cauldron that was Twitter in late February, hashtags such as #GaddarList and #ShameOnAntiNationals also began trending for the first time (which meant, at least 10,000 people made a mention of those topics in the preceding 24 hours).

These trends lay the foundation for the ‘Main Bhi Chowkidar’ campaign in March 2019. The trend war had already swung significantly to the right, with corruption, which was a major trending topic in January, more or less falling off the list. Consequently, the very hashtag that had the most traction on the Congress side— #ChowkidarChorHain—was swiftly adopted by the BJP in its own chowkidar campaign. This was a keen reading of the pulse on social media—the nation seemed to be seeking a guardian, not a conscience-keeper. The appropriation of “chowkidar" may have been far less effective if it was merely about corruption, with none of the nationalistic overtones.

The same month (March) trended #RahulLovesTerrorists, replacing the oft-favoured attack style based on the dismissive moniker “pappu (an immature person)". The intersection of nationalistic hashtags with the Hindutva narrative became clear in the trending against Unilever through the #BoycottSurfExcel, following an ad that depicted a friendship between a Muslim boy and a Hindu girl amidst Holi festivities.

The loss of pole position on the trend board for the Congress was never regained till the end of April, well into the polling season. Akshay Kumar’s interview of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Modi’s Varanasi rally continued the momentum that chowkidar had set forth. In fact, chowkidar was one of the most enduring topics of conversation among Indians in the past four months—first due to the Congress and subsequently due to the BJP. Nationalism and surgical strikes mostly dropped off the charts by mid-March, but chowkidar endured.

Art of gaming a trend

Beyond chowkidar, the other two trends which had immense staying power were #GoBackModi and #TNWelcomesModi—an indicator of what happens when vested actors try to game the levers of audience attention in the age of social media.

South India’s frustration with Modi has been evident in a number of large-scale surveys, and obviously it has left a deep footprint on Twitter too. Since the summer of 2018, every time Modi has ventured southward, particularly to Tamil Nadu, the hashtag #GoBackModi has trended. Suddenly, a few months ago, the competing hashtag, #TNWelcomesModi, began vying for attention.

Over the past four months, both #TNWelcomesModi and #GoBackModi repeatedly trended—strangely, at a frequency that dwarfed even the New Zealand mosque shooting, which in terms of scale of engagement (number of tweets) was much larger, and was also a much more organic trending topic. This suggests a concerted effort to aggressively trend these particular pro- and anti-Modi topics, rather than it being an outcome of ordinary user activity.

A recent report by the US-based think-tank Digital Forensic Research Lab also singles out these two trending hashtags as the handiwork of “record-breaking level of automation" fuelled by bots. Among the two, #TNWelcomesModi seemed to be far more driven by automated traffic than the anti-Modi messaging, the report added. The instances of bot-driven trending are an important warning because, sometimes, momentary trends end up guiding media coverage.

Ultimately, all political parties seem to be indulging in a strategy of crafted hashtags that have sudden spikes in use followed by their disappearance from Twitter. For instance, there were a total of 45 widely trending hashtags from the Modi camp in just April 2019—with names such as #DeshModiKeSaath, #ModiHiAayega, #BharatBoleNaMoNaM, #BharatKaGarvModi, #AayegaToModiHi, which all received significant boosts in Twitter traction during short periods before passing on to the next hashtag.

Ironically, this strategy has long been employed by the spiritual cult, Dera Sacha Sauda, which trends almost every week on Twitter using hashtags with Gurmeet Ram Rahim in them such as #NurtureBirdsSaysStRamRahim and #CleanEarthCampaignByStMSG.

In conclusion

Despite the daily din of politics, and even in the middle of an important national election, the most significant topics that most Indians on Twitter care about on an average day are entirely non-political. They are: entertainment and greetings. The large-scale trend analysis shows that Indians love to greet each other, even about days of the week. Tags like #MondayMotivations and #TuesdayThoughts invariably outperform most political issues on any given week. For instance, #MondayMotivation, #TuesdayThoughts, #WednesdayWisdom, and #FridayFeeling consistently outperformed chowkidar and nationalism.

The top 20 trending non-entertainment tags give us a sense of what the mood of the nation has been since January. The New Zealand terror attack had, by far, the highest level of trending among various subjects, getting much higher traction than even Pulwama or Balakot.

Besides the year-opening greetings week, mid-February was the only period when entertainment was less significant than a political topic, and it took a major terror attack to move social media, if only for a week. Despite all the polarized political discourse and shrill chest beating about nationalism, on an average day, the nation may not really want to know. It is too busy with that #FridayFeeling.

The authors are social media researchers based in Bengaluru.

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