New Delhi: The number of Twitter followers of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi have almost stopped growing since August 2021. His total number of followers hover around the 20 million mark currently. Gandhi alleges it may have something to do with him being a vocal Opposition leader the government wants to silence.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year crossed 70 million Twitter followers and the BJP says he is the “most followed head of state” in the world.
ThePrint explains why a concerned Gandhi wrote about the matter to Twitter and why social media reach is beginning to matter more and more in politics, so much so that politicians actually complain when their follower count does not grow.
Gandhi writes to Twitter CEO
In a letter dated 27 December and seen by ThePrint, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi wrote to Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal, congratulating him on being appointed CEO. “We feel proud that one of our own has reached this summit,” he wrote.
Gandhi’s letter then said, “…it is perplexing that the growth in my Twitter followers has suddenly been suppressed.” The letter says that in May 2021, Rahul Gandhi’s Twitter account gained around 6,40,000 new followers. But since August 2021, the average number of new followers gained every month is “nearly zero”.
A Congress member shared with ThePrint a detailed analysis of new follower counts. It shows new followers gained every month for the accounts of Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi and Shashi Tharoor, as well as for PM Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah. The comparison shows Gandhi’s new Twitter followers drop dramatically — nearly 80-fold — from 2,20,501 in January 2021 to 2,788 in November 2021.
Rahul Gandhi’s account blocked in Aug too
Gandhi’s letter says, “Perhaps not so coincidentally, it was precisely during these months”, since August 2021, that he had taken to Twitter to post about the “plight of a rape victim’s family in Delhi, stood in solidarity with farmers and fought the government on many other human rights issues…. I have been reliably, albeit discreetly, informed by people at Twitter India that they are under immense pressure by the government to silence my voice. My account was even blocked for a few days for no legitimate reason”.
From 6 to 14 August, Gandhi’s Twitter account was blocked for tweeting a photo showing a Dalit rape victim’s family.
On August 9, ThePrint learnt from Twitter via email that Gandhi’s account was blocked after the microblogging platform assessed information received from a legal request by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, which cited relevant POCSO (Protection Of Children From Sexual Offences) Act provisions.
Twitter’s war on bots
Since 2014, Twitter has been trying to weed out bots (a software programme that does automated tasks) that people were using to automatically tweet content in order to amplify a certain issue, and to make their follower count grow faster.
In 2018, Twitter became more aggressive in its spam and bot slashing.
“In May 2018, our systems identified and challenged more than 9.9 million potentially spammy or automated accounts per week. That’s up from 6.4 million in December 2017, and 3.2 million in September,” a 2018 Twitter blog says.
The same blog says, “In Q1 2018, we suspended more than 1,42,000 applications in violation of our rules — collectively responsible for more than 130 million low-quality, spammy Tweets.”
Actor Amitabh Bachchan was among those who lost followers in 2018, and had tweeted about the same.
T 2599 – TWITTER ..!!!?? you reduced my number of followers .. !!??HAHAHAHAHAHAHA .. !! thats a joke .. time to get off from you .. thank you for the ride .. 😠😠😠 .. there are many 'other' fish in the sea – and a lot more exciting !! pic.twitter.com/85c15pDif4
— Amitabh Bachchan (@SrBachchan) January 31, 2018
Twitter admits in a company financial report for 2020 that the “long-term health” of its service and in turn its ability to attract real users means efforts to reduce abuse on Twitter and also reduce “spam, manipulation and malicious automation on the platform”.
In a Wall Street Journal report on the dwindling number of new followers in Gandhi’s Twitter account, Congress member Srivatsa Y.B. had denied that the account used automation to increase followers.
‘Zero tolerance to platform manipulation and spam’
When ThePrint emailed Twitter to ask if the social media platform was behind Gandhi’s follower count stagnating, the firm said it regularly requests accounts to validate account details or complete a ‘CAPTCHA test’. If an account fails to complete such a test within a specified time period, the account might be suspended or remain in a locked state, and its follower count will also remain stagnant.
CAPTCHA tests are used by online services to verify the user is human, and not an automated programme or a bot.
In addition, a Twitter spokesperson stated to ThePrint in an email: “Follower counts are a visible feature, and we want everyone to have confidence that the numbers are meaningful and accurate. Twitter has a zero tolerance approach to platform manipulation and spam. We fight spam and malicious automation strategically and at scale with machine learning tools, and as part of those consistent and ongoing efforts to ensure a healthy service and credible accounts, follower counts can and do fluctuate.…While some accounts notice a minor difference, in certain cases the number could be higher.”
ThePrint also contacted, via WhatsApp, a senior government official over Gandhi’s claim that the government was behind suppressing his content and follower reach on Twitter. To this, the official only said, “beneath contempt”.
Why does social media matter to politicians?
In an in-depth report by ThePrint on why Twitter has become so important to politicians, Tharoor had said that back in the day, Rahul Gandhi wasn’t very interested in Twitter or social media.
“I remember speaking to Rahul Gandhi in 2009 or 2010 and he said, ‘Not for me, I am never going to do this’. I am very glad that he changed his mind some years later and now has got a considerable following on social media,” Tharoor said.
A decade later, things have changed, with social media becoming a medium for Opposition politicians to rally public support and speak truth to power.
With important state elections this year and a general election looming in 2024, harnessing the full reach of social media is important for the Opposition.
Gandhi himself explained this in the same December 2021 letter to the Twitter CEO.
“The ideological battle between liberal democracy and authoritarianism across the world is being shaped on social media platforms. This places a huge responsibility on those that are at the helm of companies such as Twitter,” he wrote.
“As a leader of India’s largest Opposition party, it is my duty to raise my voice on behalf of our people against injustice. As you may be aware, there is an ongoing assault on India’s institutional framework and a complete capture of traditional mainstream media…. Hence, social media platforms like Twitter have become an important channel to raise people’s issues and hold the government to account,” the letter added.
(Edited by Saikat Niyogi)