Today, almost all political parties – national and regional – are harnessing the power of technology to reach out to their potential voters. From hi-tech 3D rallies to tea-booth conference calls, parties are employing offbeat and innovative ways to boost their agenda and campaigns. But, what’s occupied the top positions of social media plans of political parties is the popular messaging app – Whatsapp. With 200 million active users, India is Whatsapp’s largest market in the world. Unlike other social media apps like Facebook and Twitter, Whatsapp reaches people in every corner – urban to rural. Falling internet prices have only increased the app’s usage, with a whopping 90% of the people with smartphones having this app installed. Aware of this power, BJP’s IT Cell head – Amit Malviya – declared 2019 Lok Sabha Elections as India’s ‘first Whatsapp elections’.
Here’s a step to step guide how they’re doing it:
Step 1: Carefully frame the content of the message
Hate speech, misinformation and memes or jokes ranting the opposition are the key topics political parties often use as content for their Whatsapp messages. While text messages are popularly used format – fabricated videos, images and audios too are used. For example, Ayodhya temple and Muslims are to two persistent themes used by the BJP to push their agenda across various Whatsapp groups like “Hardcore Hindu Army 2”, “Vote for Modi” etc. A message in one of the right-wing groups to spread anti-Muslim communal propaganda reads:
“Wherever you look nowadays you will see only Muslim men and women. 700 million Hindus, 650 million Muslims,” it read.
Shivam Singh, who handled data analytics for the BJP, says violent videos from Syria and Bangladesh are circulated on Whatsapp with the caption “Look at what’s happening in Muzaffarnagar.” As men in the video are wearing a beard and skull caps, it’s hard for people watching this video to spot the reality. In another incident, a lynching video in Guatemala was widely circulated and described as an attack on Hindu women by a Muslim mob. Unaware of it being fake news, people are quick to forward such messages and videos.
Step 2: Form Whatsapp groups and divide them for better targeting
Once the content is produced it’s disseminated across thousands of Whatsapp groups across India – from urban cities to rural villages. As per reports, BJP has the maximum Whatsapp groups – approximately 2-3 lakhs. Congress, on the other hand, comprises of approximately one lakh groups. And these numbers are only getting bigger. As a part of BJP’s Whatsapp strategy, the party announced that they plan to have three Whatsapp groups for each of India’s 927,533 constituencies. Considering each group has the capacity to include 256 members, the party will be able to reach out to a whopping 700 million citizens (of the 1.3 billion).
Groups are then customised and divided based on locations, caste and religion, socio-economic status etc.
This is done by churning out the databases from different sources like electoral rolls, electricity bills etc. The electoral rolls alone help get the voter’s name, parent’s name, their constituency and age. In states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the caste of 70% of the voters can be determined merely by analysing their names and last names.
Electricity bills are a good indicator of social-economic status. Messages are then curated and targeted based on the group bracket they fall in. For instance, in regions and states with high Hindutva vibe, messages are curated to tell you how bad Muslims are. In rural areas, the messages will be more farmers oriented and will reinforce a pro-farmers ideology.
Step 3: Build an army to spread the messages
Compared to other political parties like Congress, AAP, BSP etc. BJP, by the virtue of its deep pockets, has a well-connected human chain and a powerful IT Cell. BJP’s volunteer base alone is 120 million. Volunteers, once registered are trained how to form Whatsapp group, which numbers to add, how to target messages etc. In fact, there’s any army of volunteers whose job is just forwarding messages. This edge in human power helps them overcome the Whatsapp’s recent regulation of reducing the number of forwards limit from 20 to just five.
Soma Basu, a fellow from Oxford University, who’s is researching on fake news on Whatsapp groups in India says this well-connected chain works a lot like an industry. Forwarding messages in this political space are incentivised.
Often party workers and volunteers are paid to forward messages in different groups. And if not incentivised, a motivational and interactive session delivered by the party heads too works. In 2018, while addressing a social media volunteer meet in Rajasthan, BJP President – Amit Shah – addressed the volunteers saying “We can keep making messages go viral, whether they are real or fake, sweet or sour.”
Volunteers then become the foot soldiers of this virtual battle for votes being fought on Whatsapp. This textbook strategy of BJP has proved to help the party win in Uttar Pradesh State Assembly elections. During the elections in UP in February and March 2017, cheap data connections penetrated the markets deeply. Further, IT Cell’s chief Amit Malviya travelled extensively to the rural and remote villages in UP to train and prepare the volunteers about social media campaigns. With this outreach programme alone BJP has 1.2 million volunteers creating awareness during the state’s elections.
Step 4: Use it as a weapon
This virtual weapon is exploited even further during elections, incidents of communal tensions and hyper-nationalism. For instance, during the Pulwama attacks Whatsapp became a key platform to spread hate speech – which saw a swift shift from nationalism to politicking.
Chats in one of the BJP-leaning groups read “Nakshe se Pakistan ko mitana hai”. Which was quickly followed by “Nakshe se nahin, toh Google Maps se toh zaroor mitana hai.”
Here’s a small scale case study from the Karnataka State Assembly elections. Pranav Bhat, a college student and a BJP’s youth leader was assigned to be a link between the party and 60 voters. He proudly states that he was able to persuade 47 of the 60 (ie approximately 80%) of the voters to vote for BJP. One reason for this was that Bhat was constantly in touch with these 60 voters via Whatsapp. His messages mainly revolved around Hindus being murdered by Muslims jokes ridiculing Congress leaders and pro-BJP videos.
The political Whatsapp strategy is well planned and scheduled in advance. Timings, formats, which topics are all thought off to ensure a continuous flow of posts throughout the day. A Delhi based political consultant call term it as “It’s like Hindutva on steroids.” Some right-wing Whatsapp groups start as early as 4 am with a ‘Jai Shri Ram’ posts about religious content including Whatsapp stickers Lord Ram. Followed by routine good morning messages. Then comes infographics about highlights of BJP’s achievements. Next up are jokes and memes about the Opposition parties. ‘Post wars’ like these have become a central part and weapon of political party’s Whatsapp strategy.
Other social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Telegram too are exploited by parties. However, unlike these platforms, Whatsapp does not have a mechanism or system to combat fake news and filter false information. This issue is only worsened by the company’s end-to-end encryption technology – which restricts anyone, except the sender and the receiver, from getting access to the messages. Thus, even the company’s engineers cannot see the content of the messages, making identifying the source of fake news almost impossible.
WhatsApp has a big fake news problem in India. Here’s Why.