New Delhi: No one has as many Twitter followers in India as Prime Minister Narendra Modi at 77.8 million, while his most prominent opponent, Rahul Gandhi, lags far behind at 20.4 million. On the other hand, Gandhi’s total Twitter engagement — likes, retweets, and quotes — was almost three times that of the PM in 2019-21, despite Modi having almost quadruple his number of followers.
These are a few of the findings of a research paper by economists Shamika Ravi and Mudit Kapoor, titled ‘Social Media and Political Leaders: An Exploratory Analysis’, published last month by the Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation (ORF).
The paper attempted to analyse the Twitter use of Modi and Rahul Gandhi, as well as how their audiences respond.
While Gandhi posted an average of 1.7 tweets a day in this span, 49 per cent of the time in Hindi, Modi dashed out about eight tweets daily, around 72 per cent of them in English. However, Gandhi also posted more “negative” tweets than Modi, which worked out favourably in terms of getting retweets.
Speaking to ThePrint, co-author Mudit Kapoor, who is associate professor of economics at the Indian Statistical Institute in Delhi, said that that study aimed to understand how the two leaders used tweets for their outreach, but also “how social media giants can, through their algorithms, influence democracy”.
What the study analysed
The study looked at tweets posted by Modi and Gandhi between 1 January 2019 and 31 December 2021, excluding retweets. Though statistical analysis, it identified “sentiments” expressed in these posts — positive, negative, or neutral — the engagement garnered by each type of tweet, and also the effects of the microblogging site’s new controls ahead of the 2020 US presidential elections.
Notably, while the study found that Gandhi’s Twitter engagement was on average higher in 2019-21 — which was a period of turmoil when there was criticism of the government over the management of Covid, the migrant workers’ crisis, and the farmers’ protests — he was also hit harder than Modi by the change in Twitter’s policy.
It may also be remembered that Gandhi had claimed he witnessed a drop in new followers after a brief freezing of his account last August for violating the platform’s rules by posting pictures of a rape victim’s family.
In December last year, Gandhi had also written to Twitter CEO Parag Agarwal, alleging that he had been “reliably” informed by people at Twitter India that “they are under immense pressure by the government to silence my voice” and that he had stopped gaining as many followers as usual as a result.
Twitter had denied these allegations, but this March, the Congress expressed a sense of vindication and claimed that Gandhi’s followers had started to rise after his letter.
More engagement for Rahul Gandhi— but negative posts get most retweets
Altogether, the two leaders posted 11,312 tweets in 2019-21, with 16 per cent coming from Gandhi and 84 per cent from Modi.
Gandhi, however, racked up way more engagement for his tweets than Modi. On average, a tweet by Gandhi got 10,034 retweets and 43,455 likes to Modi’s 4,554 and 28,095 respectively.
This could be at least partly attributable to the “sentiments” expressed by both leaders. The researchers scored sentiments as ranging from -1 (the most negative) to + 1 (the most positive). Of the two leaders, Modi’s tweets were quite a lot cheerier on average, with a mean sentiment score of 0.54 compared to Rahul’s 0.09.
While the researchers didn’t delve into the specifics of negative content, it seems evident that Gandhi, as a member of the opposition, found a lot more to criticise and complain about than Modi did, especially considering the turbulent events of the two years in question — from two Covid waves and lockdowns to extended farmers’ protests.
This “negative” content may have helped boost engagement for Gandhi’s tweets. As the authors noted, tweets expressing negative sentiments are “more likely to be amplified” than positive ones, especially in terms of retweets.
“If a politician’s objective is to attract attention, then these results indicate that tweets with negative sentiment attract more attention than those with positive sentiment,” the authors wrote.
Speaking to ThePrint, Kapoor had another explanation as well: “The reason behind Rahul Gandhi’s greater amplification could be his role as an opposition leader who can identify with people’s problems more.”
2020 Twitter policy change impacted Gandhi more than Modi
In October 2020, ahead of the American presidential elections, Twitter announced changes that were intended to make it more difficult for users to spread misinformation. These measures included making it necessary to write a comment before retweeting, warning labels on tweets deemed false, and no longer showing ‘liked/ followed by’ recommendations.
According to the ORF study, this policy impacted the likes, quotes, and retweets of both Gandhi and Modi, but the Congress leader more so.
On average, Gandhi’s total engagements declined from 65,123 to 44,880 — which is a drop of 31 per cent. For Modi, the decline was much less steep, from 36,354 to 31,533 — only about 13 per cent.
While Modi’s quote tweets actually increased by 50 per cent, Gandhi’s fell by 38 per cent.
The researchers also analysed the impact of the policy change on tweets representing different sentiments.
For Modi, after the policy change, a tweet with a negative sentiment got only about 3 per cent less retweets — dropping from an average of 6,010 retweets before the change to 5,808 after it. The decline in retweets for his positive tweets, however, was considerably greater at 24 per cent.
Rahul, on the other hand, saw his negative tweets getting 42 per cent less retweets. His average retweets fell from 11, 829 retweets before the policy change to only 6,823 after it.
In the paper, the researchers noted that “private enterprises” like Twitter were able to “exert an outright large influence on how messages are propagated” as shown by the changes in engagement and amplification of posts, especially negative ones, after the policy change.
Speaking to ThePrint, the paper’s co-author Shamika Ravi, who is vice-president of ORF and at one point served on the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, said that the findings raised important questions about how big corporations like Twitter lacked accountability and the need to exercise “editorial judgment”, unlike media organisations, but could still “impact democracy and freedom of speech”.
“In a number of nations, they are influencing democracy, which is a serious concern for everybody,” she said.
In their concluding observations, the study’s authors asked: “Who should control the propagation of political expressions — should it be left to the whims of private enterprises with minimal public oversight, or should they be brought into the ambit of regulation where an explicit code of conduct is established?”
Last year, the government of India was engaged in a tussle with Twitter to hold it legally responsible for content posted on the platform, which also raised a plethora of questions about free speech and democracy.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)