BAT­TLE OF THE TROLLS

India Today - - INSIDE - By Su­jit Thakur

Since 2014, it has been the BJP’s so­cial me­dia strat­egy that has been lauded for its sharp­ness, its savvy and its ferocity. But in the past few weeks, there has been some ev­i­dence that so­cial me­dia trolling and ef­fec­tive mock­ery are tricks that the op­po­si­tion too have up their sleeves. Last month, BJP pres­i­dent Amit Shah asked young peo­ple at a ‘town­hall’ meet­ing in Ahmed­abad to ig­nore so­cial me­dia cam­paigns against the party. “I want you to ap­ply your mind,” Shah said about “anti-BJP pro­pa­ganda be­ing spread on What­sApp and Face­book”.

No one is quite ready yet to say the tide has turned against the BJP. Cer­tainly not in Gu­jarat. But a con­certed ef­fort by the Congress and other op­po­si­tion par­ties to tar­get the BJP on­line is leav­ing its mark. Rahul Gandhi, the butt of so much trolling, has added one mil­lion fol­low­ers on Twit­ter over the past two months. A con­se­quence, some an­a­lysts ar­gue, of the Congress’s grow­ing so­cial me­dia pres­ence.

One so­cial me­dia user, Ajen­dra Tri­pathi, says that in his view even pe­rus­ing the com­ments on tweets by min­is­ters shows a change, that the nor­mal del­uge of fawn­ing praise is now be­ing coun­tered by more sar­casm, more scep­ti­cism. Be­tween Septem­ber 14 and 30, Tri­pathi an­a­lysed over 60,000 tweets and found that, on av­er­age, there are 18 neg­a­tive tweets about Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi ev­ery hour, 11 against fi­nance min­is­ter Arun Jait­ley, eight against BJP pres­i­dent Amit Shah and for­eign min­is­ter Sushma Swaraj

The BJP’s tack seems to be to take the ‘de­vel­op­ment gone mad’ meme head on and play it as fake news

and six against home min­is­ter Ra­j­nath Singh.

Much of this mo­men­tum is be­ing cred­ited to a Congress so­cial me­dia cam­paign in Gu­jarat ti­tled ‘Vikas gando thayo chhe’, loosely trans­lated as de­vel­op­ment gone mad. Ro­han Gupta, head of the Congress’s cyber cell, told re­porters that 45 peo­ple have been work­ing round the clock to get the mes­sage out on so­cial me­dia. They’ve been us­ing memes and vi­ral videos and hu­mour, a bro­ken-down bus, say, with the ‘de­vel­op­ment gone mad’ hash­tag, for max­i­mum ef­fec­tive­ness. Ac­cord­ing to Vi­rag Gupta, an­other avid so­cial me­dia user, the Congress cam­paign ap­pears au­then­tic, that the re­sponses to it are from real peo­ple with gen­uine han­dles rather than bots or party vol­un­teers retweet­ing canned re­sponses.

The BJP has coun­tered with its own cam­paign, ‘Hun chun vikas, hun chu Gu­jarat’. The aim is to fo­cus on the BJP’s claim to pro­vid­ing de­vel­op­ment for all, the so-called ‘Gu­jarat model’ that pro­pelled Modi to the prime min­is­ter’s chair in 2014. Of course, placed in per­spec­tive, even Rahul Gandhi’s amped-up fol­low­ing rep­re­sents only a tenth of that en­joyed by Modi. Amit Malviya, the BJP’s com­bat­ive IT guru, points out that in the past two years, the party has nearly dou­bled its Face­book fol­low­ing from 7 mil­lion to over 13 mil­lion; nearly 7 mil­lion peo­ple fol­low the party on Twit­ter. It means any so­cial me­dia cam­paign or­ches­trated by the BJP reaches a vast au­di­ence. The op­po­si­tion might en­joy a brief bounce through neg­a­tiv­ity, Malviya says, “but our pos­i­tive, fact-based cam­paign will ul­ti­mately pre­vail.” Malviya’s strat­egy ap­pears to be to take the ‘de­vel­op­ment gone mad’ meme head on and por­tray it as fake news. For all the daz­zle of the Congress so­cial me­dia cam­paign, the BJP’s dif­fi­cul­ties in Gu­jarat are more pro­saic, to do with caste con­sid­er­a­tions and the Pati­dar ag­i­ta­tion. Rahul Gandhi ef­fec­tively at­tacked chief min­is­ter Vi­jay Ru­pani and his gov­ern­ment for lack of per­for­mance. But it is the daz­zle that is ap­pear­ing to cut the deep­est. The party was wor­ried enough to send big hit­ters Jait­ley and de­fence min­is­ter Nir­mala Sithara­man into the fray. They were part of a work­shop de­signed to show the BJP’s Gu­jarat lead­ers how to use so­cial me­dia to their ad­van­tage. Ru­pani at­tended the ses­sion.

Min­is­ters and politi­cians in Gu­jarat, IT cell sources say, have been told to fo­cus their so­cial me­dia posts on en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion, clean­li­ness and sim­i­larly un­con­tro­ver­sial top­ics. “There is,” one in­sider said, “less scope to get caught up in a flame war. The op­po­si­tion is go­ing to try to get BJP lead­ers to ad­dress ris­ing prices or cow-re­lated vi­o­lence or GST, but we have asked them not to en­gage.” Amit Shah’s per­for­mance in Ahmed­abad supplied the tem­plate, a sus­tained belit­tling of the state of Gu­jarat be­fore the BJP came to power, and how with­out the BJP the elec­torate risked a re­turn to those dark days.

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