New Delhi: For each pro-Congress account spreading propaganda and fake news on Twitter, there are 120 doing the same for the BJP, a study has claimed.
The study has been conducted by a user of the social media portal Reddit who goes by the username ‘/u/onosmosis’. The user claims to have analysed lakhs of unverified Twitter accounts to identify trends in online misinformation.
Conducted with the help of an algorithm, the study started by identifying around 4 lakh Twitter accounts with a clear political leaning. Around 1.2 lakh of these accounts were identified as pro-Congress and 2.7 lakh as pro-BJP, according to the research, published on the user’s webpage UrbanNazi.com.
The study also identified the number of accounts that served as sources of misinformation and propaganda — while 17,779 pro-BJP accounts were identified thus, the number for the Congress stood at 147.
How the study was conducted
/u/onosmosis chose to stay anonymous for this report fearing troll attacks, but told ThePrint that he works as a software analyst at a tech start-up developing a platform for content management and sharing.
The study they conducted focused on identifying unverified politically-oriented Twitter accounts, because, according to /u/onosmosis, “unverified accounts publish tweets with hate, abuse and false information in larger volume than verified accounts”.
To do so, /u/onosmosis said they devised an algorithm to sift through lakhs of Twitter accounts in a bid to shortlist those that checked certain boxes.
For an account to be identified as pro-BJP, their Twitter bio had to feature something like “Followed by Narendra Modi” or “India supports CAA”. Other criteria included being followed by one or more verified accounts of a BJP office-bearer or minister, or at least 2 per cent of its total retweets coming from the verified accounts of a BJP party or leader.
The accounts were identified as pro-Congress if the Twitter bio mentioned “INC Supporter” or “I support Priyanka Gandhi”, or if at least 2 per cent of its total retweets came from verified accounts of the party or any of its leaders.
/u/onosmosis also put in four hours each day “to analyse stuff or modify my [computer] algorithm to capture tweets better and faster”.
The computer, which ran 24 hours a day, eventually shortlisted over 3.9 lakh unverified Twitter accounts with a clear leaning towards the BJP or the Congress.
The research started 19 September 2019. While /u/onosmosis published these findings on 25 January, the analysis of tweets is still underway, the user said.
According to the study, social media’s hashtag feature, which first took root with Twitter, is a common way to spread misinformation and propaganda.
For example, on the night of 5 January, as a masked mob bore down on students and teachers on the JNU campus in Delhi, a pro-BJP account called “@pandeymanishmzp” started using the hashtag #LeftAttacksJNU around 10.30 pm. The hashtag was then used over 2.3 lakh times in under 30 minutes, according to /u/onosmosis.
Within an hour-and-a-half of @pandeymanishmzp’s tweet, BJP IT head Amit Malviya used the same hashtag, tweeting, “…Left backed student’s union are targeting members of ABVP…”. He appeared to back these claims with an accompanying video that shows a man identified as ABVP secretary Manish Jangid purportedly making the same allegations.
Manish Jangid, ABVP Secretary, narrates what happened in JNU. Left backed student’s union are targeting members of ABVP so that academic session can be disrupted… #LeftAttacksJNU pic.twitter.com/1PLH6SefH6
— Amit Malviya (@amitmalviya) January 5, 2020
The post was retweeted over 3,000 times with the video notching nearly 40,000 views.
The allegations are crucial because the exact perpetrators of that night’s attack remain unidentified. In the immediate aftermath of the assault, the Left and the Right had blamed the violence on each other, creating a web of chaos around the unprecedented episode that triggered protests across the nation.
/u/onosmosis also shared a purported instance of a pro-Congress account starting misinformation — Twitter user @Me_nehru, which is followed by the likes of Srivatsa YB, the Congress in-charge for Youth Congress national campaigns, and party spokesperson Udit Raj, a former MP.
@Me_nehru suggested in a tweet Wednesday that “shahin bagh protesters [were] arrested by police and kept in private school instead of police station?”. The tweet was posted with a video of an unidentified man making the same claim. It has been retweeted 119 times, while the video has been viewed 1,200 times.
— Me_nehru™ (@Me_nehru) January 28, 2020
Asked about the research, Pratik Sinha and Karen Rebelo, who are associated with the fact-checking portals AltNews and BOOM Live, respectively, said it was possible that each party had so many accounts affiliated to them.
They said they personally didn’t have data to back this claim, but acknowledged coming across misinformation perpetrated by Twitter accounts that support a political party.
The research falls in line with a 2018 BBC study on fake news in India, according to which “many more of the Twitter handles that have published fake news sit in the pro-BJP cluster, than in the anti-BJP cluster”.
‘Don’t support misinformation’
Approached for comment, both the BJP and the Congress denied the allegation that they supported accounts propagating misinformation.
Khemchand Sharma, a member of the BJP’s national IT and social media campaign committee, said the party’s online strategy relied on volunteers. He added that it “is not possible to give an exact number for the number of volunteers with Twitter accounts”, but said the party had at least one lakh social media volunteers.
“Working on misinformation is not the BJP’s motto,” he added. “We focus on a positive campaign and there is little the organisation can do about what volunteers do in their personal capacity.”
Congress social media head Rohan Gupta also acknowledged that the party depended on volunteer social media users but said it was not possible to estimate how many such accounts supported the party.
“We do not work on fake news,” he added. “Everyone knows the official trollers [sic] are official BJP office-bearers like [Sambit] Patra and [Amit] Malviya.”