Ahead of the 2021 legislative assembly elections in West Bengal, the ruling Trinamool Congress party started to recruit members for its online army. The shift in focus from regular recruitments to recruitments for people to work online was a novel idea in West Bengal, a state where cadre-based, booth-level workers form the backbone of state politics.
The main reason for this shift was the emergence of the Bharatiya Janta Party as the main Opposition in the erstwhile Left-dominated state. Even in 2020, there were reports of the party inducting over 50,000 young recruits to work in its online army to combat the BJP’s virtual clout.
The BJP was one of the first national parties in India that realised and capitalised on the power of new digital platforms. BJP’s “IT Cell” is fuelled by a dedicated army of online warriors who work round the clock to ensure the party and its leaders look good online. In previous interviews, senior members of the IT Cell have claimed that people with backgrounds in tech were recruited more rigorously. The majority of the party’s online presence is “voluntary”. The party was the first to capitalise on the social media boom.
In 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said that the 2019 elections “will be fought on the mobile phone”. In the 2018 Tripura campaign, the BJP reportedly used data from constituency profiles created by tech geeks using data analysis to identify key polling issues.
The 2022 legislative assembly elections saw several parties conducting digital rallies in accordance with the Election Commission’s COVID-19 guidelines.
In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP relied on its virtual soldiers to carry out dissemination work. IT Cell members ensured round the clock social media monitoring and tracking of local voters’ phones through campaign SMSs, and also by ensuring public opinion through successful online campaigns.
Journalist Swati Chaturvedi, in her book I Am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army, described in detail the digital set-up of the BJP. While many of the cadres were truly volunteers, Chaturvedi posited that many were even paid “trolls”. Equating a politically driven online troll attack to a physical mob out on rampage, Chaturvedi wrote that such troll attacks not only have the ability to spread misinformation at a massive scale but also fuel communal hate. The online brigade has now moved way beyond the electoral politics. Now it issues threats to dissenting people including artists, filmmakers, and writers.
The era of online politics
While the BJP may have got a head start, most political parties today have realised the importance of online cadres. While in West Bengal, the Mamata Banerjee-led TMC started nurturing “Jubo Joddhas” (youth warriors), connected through WhatsApp groups in a bid to find local leadership, the Aam Aadmi Party has also been using social media with a network of dedicated workers. Much like the BJP, AAP’s online team consists of people who are not directly part of the party but share the party’s ideology and vision. If BJP’s IT Cell is fuelled by polarising religious content and Hindutva push, the AAP uses anti-corruption campaigns and populist issues to gain followers on social media.
In Punjab, the AAP successfully harnessed social media to fight accusations of spreading “Hindu fear” to “Sikh radicalism”. They also used Punjabi web channels to their advantage.
Amid this, the Congress has remained a minor player on social media. In March 2022, Congress Chief Sonia Gandhi had said that social media was being used to “hack democracy”. Despite some social media campaigns like Rahul Gandhi participating in YouTube cooking shows, the party has failed to capture the digital imagination. Just a comparison of the party’s Twitter followers reveals a wide gap. While the BJP’s official national account boasts of over 18 million followers, the Congress has just 8 million. The AAP is soon catching up with 6 million.
PM Modi remains the second most-followed politician on Twitter after Donald Trump. He also follows ordinary citizens on social media who show vocal support for the BJP. Many of them have been accused of spreading misinformation and hate in the past.
In April 2019, Facebook took down 700 pages that were reportedly run by supporters of both Congress and BJP. These pages were spreading misinformation and objectionable content.
Online cadres leading misinformation campaigns have become an increasingly common site on social media. Messaging sites like WhatsApp are also being generously used by parties to spread the party’s vision as well as propaganda. The online world has a potential to enrich democracy, but its murk is no less threatening.