Social media today has gained importance as a “leader” in leaderless movements. Previously, newspapers or spokespersons were used to galvanize public opinion; today, people use social media platforms to get news and information on issues relevant to them. Help mobilize online audiences to take action offline.
Social media platforms have also become a key place for political debates. Quite insidiously, they have become a useful tool for authoritarian regimes to divert public attention, spread fear and target dissent. A case in point is what happened after changes were made to the Indian Citizenship Act last year.
The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was passed on December 11, 2019, sparking fury and protests across India. Tens of thousands of people, including students and rights activists, participated in peaceful protests in several cities. Within days, several chief ministers had also refused to implement AAC in their respective states: Maharashtra, Kerala, Punjab, Rajasthan, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh. The Prime Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, in fact, said: “As long as I am alive, AAC will not be implemented in Bengal. Nobody has to leave the country or the state. There will be no detention center in Bengal. “
Strategies for obtaining support for AAC
National protests and responses from opposition parties in many states have overshadowed the Indian government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Under pressure, the government has decided to launch several online and offline campaigns, including a social media campaign, a missed call campaign and Jan Jagran Abhiyan nationwide, to generate public support for AAC.
Before inventing clickbait methods, such as “promise of sex”, “jobs”, “free mobile data” and “Netflix account” as part of the “missed call campaign” to support AAC, the BJP started promoting a video of Jaggi Vasudev, popularly known as Sadhguru.
The video shows Sadhguru addressing a gathering when a young woman raises a question about AAC. He begins to share his opinion by saying: “I have not read the Act completely. I only know from the newspapers and whatever else is generally available. “However, he continues to give his answer in a 21 minute reply.
Sadhguru, who has a huge follower base and has the potential to influence millions of people through his speeches, has posted this video across all of his social media profiles. In the video, he asks students to read the Act before protesting, even though he himself “has not read it completely”. Finally, Sadhguru concludes his speech by saying, “… the illiterate young people in the universities have gone wild” and bursts out laughing.
On December 30, 2019, Modi tweeted, “Hear this lucid explanation of aspects related to AAC and more from Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev. It provides historical context, brilliantly highlights our culture of brotherhood. It also calls disinformation by vested interest groups. #IndiaSupportsCAA. “He posted the YouTube link to the video, kicking off the” India Supports CAA “campaign.
On the same day, the Isha Foundation, run by Sadhguru, also posted a poll on Twitter asking users if they think the anti-CAA and anti-NRC (National Register of Citizens) protests are justified, followed by a link to his video. From the information available, it can be deduced that 11,439 Twitter users took part in the opinion poll. However, the poll ended the same day after 63% said the anti-CAA and anti-NRC protests were justified.
Now, the crucial question that needs to be asked is what circumstances may have been that led Sadhguru to speak of the highly controversial and polarizing AAC in a misleading and openly misinformed way, unfairly targeting anti-AAC protesters and labeling college students and researchers. scholars such as “illiterate youth”?
Financing for #India Supports AAC campaign
Interior Minister Amit Shah also posted the same video as Sadhguru on Facebook and said, “Stop believing the lies and half-truths about AAC. Here is a very well articulated explanation from @SadhguruJV ji. I invite everyone, especially young people, to look and have a historical perspective on why we need AAC. Share it with others too. #IndiaSupportsCAA “.
This video premiered on Sadhguru’s English YouTube channel on December 28, 2019. Sadhguru posted the video to his verified Twitter and Facebook profiles on the morning of December 29. However, the BJP started promoting Sadhguru’s video from December 30, 2019, and the first sponsored promotion was viewed by more than a million Facebook users.
BJP’s Facebook page also launched three more ads with the same video, but dubbed in Hindi, and the Facebook ads ran from December 30, 2019 to January 23, 2020. The page also launched two more ads on the missed call campaign. pro-CAA, active from 7 January to 23 January 2020.
From December 30, 2019 to January 23, 2020, the page spent Rs 15-17 lakh on Facebook ads, which were viewed more than 10 million times, with the most views in West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. The maximum number of spectators in West Bengal is noteworthy, as it is a border state where the BJP has tried to make its way and is ready to use all its strength to try and win the upcoming elections.
Not only the main BJP Facebook page, but BJP leaders like Jitu Vaghani who is an MLA from Gujarat also paid around Rs 90,000 to Rs 1 lakh to promote the #IndiaSupportsCAA campaign. Former Bihar MP Rajya Sabha RK Sinha, who is a regular ad editor on Facebook, also paid a fair amount of money to promote the #IndiaSupportsCAA campaign.
As many as 99 Facebook pages, including BJP leaders, BJP state units, other fan pages run by BJP supporters, and some pro-government media houses posted a total of 220 Facebook ads between December 16, 2019 and March 9, 2020.
While BJP ran the #IndiaSupportsCAA ads, the campaign generated a large number of posts and interactions. From 11 December 2019 to 9 February 2020, the total number of posts and interactions was 11,348 and 10,469,748 respectively.
It was also noted that during the paid campaign #IndiaSupportsCAA on Facebook, i.e. from December 30, 2019 to January 23, 2020, the total number of posts was 10,175 and the total number of interactions was 8,778,476.
So in 36 days – 14 days before and 17 days after the paid campaign #IndiaSupportsCAA run by the BJP – total posts and interactions dropped to 1,173 and 1,691,272, respectively. This demonstrates the injection of funds to push some online messaging.
However, #IndiaSupportsCAA is a failed campaign
Furthermore, during the paid campaign conducted by the BJP Facebook page, the average daily number of Facebook posts with #IndiaSupportsCAA was 356 and the average interactions linked to these posts were 3.02.092.
Although the BJP stopped paying for the campaign on January 23, 2020, the party’s leaders and workers continued to pay for the announcements until March 9, 2020 with the hashtag #IndiaSupportsCAA. During this period, the daily average number of Facebook posts with #IndiaSupportsCAA was only 26, and the average number of interactions was 25,994.
Debates, demonstrations, meetings, etc., in support of and against the AAC, NRC and the National Population Registry (NPR) continued until the COVID-19 blockade began in late March 2020. However, in the aftermath of the #IndiaSupportsCAA campaign, not many people posted updates on their Facebook profiles in support of AAC. From 10 March to 11 December 2020, a total of 61 public posts and 39,747 interactions related to the #IndiaSupportsCAA campaign were found. In stark contrast, on December 31, 2019, one day after the BJP started its planned #IndiaSupportsCAA campaign with huge financial resources, #IndiaDoesNotSupportCAA was the number one Twitter trend in India.
Therefore, the behavior of the online audience clearly indicates that those who engaged with the #IndiaSupportsCAA campaign previously did not continue their engagement for long and later ignored or rejected the campaign. Being a cosmetic injection, the pro-AAC campaign was not self-sufficient, but the anti-AAC campaigns that seemed to be more organic.
Harness the true power of social media
This aggressive #IndiaSupportsCAA campaign demonstrates the government’s point of view on AAC. While large numbers of citizens were against AAC and NRC and supported anti-CAA and anti-NRC protests, a handful of right-wing politicians attempted to overthrow public opinion with the help of monetary power, without seeking to understand the core of citizens’ concerns.
Therefore, they continued to fund ads on social media platforms to spread disinformation and target dissent. But, in this paid and artificial campaign, the right has failed to gain sufficient support. They might be more successful next time,
The power of money and a growing influence on social media can play a significant role in crushing democratic values and have the ability to create divisions in society.
The challenge that awaits us is much greater than yesterday. It’s a challenge facing all democracies around the world grappling with the new reality of social media and its power to spread divisive, intolerant and uninformed views that can even shape election results. It is certainly a challenge to be reckoned with.
Buddhadeb Halder is a Post-Doctoral Research Associate with the Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project titled “Reinventing Citizenship: Citizenship Amendment Policy Works India“(AH / V001809 / 1) from the University of York.
Data source: CrowdTangle is Facebook ad library