On March 23rd, India elected 68-year-old Narendra Modi for the second term to rule the country. Prime Minister Modi and ruling Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) won close to 350 seats out of 545 seats in the Lok Sabha (lower house of the Parliament). Just to put this victory in the context, Modi is the first prime minister in almost 50 years to win a back-to-back majority in the world's largest democracy. It is baffling to theorize how one man can accumulate unprecedented power; However, the answer is relatively simple - harnessing the power of social media and creating an army of trolls.
India has a staggering 65% of its population under 35 years. In fact, no country in the world has more young people than India. This growing youth population in India is reflected by its increasing mobile data consumption and average time spent on social media. According to the study conducted by McKinsey, "India is one of the largest and fastest-growing markets for digital consumers, with 560 million internet subscribers in 2018, second only to China." India is the biggest market for WhatsApp, with over 240 million active users. India consumes more mobile data than its neighbor China and on an average, spends more time on Social Media than any country in the world.
Modi clearly understands the power of branding and social media usage among Indian youths. He is arguably the only world leader whose social media presence is well crafted to perfection and spans several platforms and applications including LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter with combined followers of over 100 million. He is reaching out to millions of people with web archive s of his events and speeches, a radio show 'Mann ki Baat', and his own TV channel NaMo TV. Using these mass communication mediums, Modi has meticulously crafted himself to be omnipresent everywhere reaching millions of Indians day and night. Political analyst, Pratap Bhanu Mehta notes "[Modi] can literally make himself the object of attention every second of public discourse. Many leaders win because the public does not see an alternative. Modi won because he made an alternative unthinkable."
Modi and the BJP effectively eviscerated their main rival, Cambridge educated scion of the powerful Nehru-Gandhi family Rahul Gandhi, referring to him as "pappu" which means little boy and has been the object of aggressive trolling through social media and forwarded messages on WhatsApp. Journalist Swati Chaturvedi who wrote a book on this issue, "I am a Troll: Inside the Secret Digital Army of the BJP," argues trolling is the modus operandi of the BJP which target politicians, intellectuals, or anyone who does not agree with the Modi vision or ideology.
The ruling party BJP has mastered the technique of harvesting the data of millions of voters based on caste, religious identity, policy issues, or causes and bombards them with messages to reinforce their biases and convince them only Modi will solve their problems. According to How to Win an Indian Elections authored by Shivam Shankar Singh notes, in the state of Karnataka, BJP has over 20,000 WhatsApp groups. The party has built a similar number of groups in other states providing capacity to send individual group tailored messages to millions of users across the country.
Facebook and WhatsApp have become the main tool of spreading partisan and fake news content at an unprecedented level in India. Last year, a false message on WhatsApp sparked a mob lynching in India. WhatsApp took some steps to limit the damage by limiting forwarded messages to five recipients. However, reporting from Reuters suggested software as low of $14 can remove these restrictions and allow messages to be forwarded to thousands of people at once.
According to a report by University of Oxford researchers' Samantha Bradshaw and Philip Howard, found evidence of BJP involved in cyber trooping to manipulate public opinion. The role of social media in electing right-wing candidates is not restricted to India, rather it is a global phenomenon. At the 2019 inauguration of Brazil's far-right candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, the crowd chanted "Facebook, Facebook, Facebook! WhatsApp, WhatsApp, WhatsApp! They were crediting the platforms with their man's victory, and they aren't entirely wrong."
Though the jury is still out if social media usage is altering the fabric of democracies around the world despite some disturbing evidence to suggest some relationship between the role of social media acting as the propaganda machine for far-right candidates. There is convincing evidence to suggest Modi benefits from well-oiled troll machine of BJP that works round the clock to promote Modi's agenda and at the same time manipulate facts, spread fake news and call names to anyone appearing as opposition to Modi and the BJP.