With the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act, the voices against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have only grown louder. And, unlike earlier, the BJP has not been able to counter the narrative or even control it. According to several sources, people within the BJP IT Cell have not been able to figure out how to respond to dissent and a counter-narrative and as a result, they are failing online.
Ever since 2012, BJP has been able to manage the narrative on most social media platforms, including Twitter and Facebook, but this time they are staring at navigating unchartered territory. BJP has mostly got adulation online and the opposition to it was not amplified enough, but this time even those who supported BJP since 2012 are speaking against the party.
“One major reason is that many people organically supported BJP on social media from 2012 to 2017/18. After that, the party began to lose its organic supporters. Some people deserted it because it was being divisive, some others because they realised that the economic reform that was promised was not going to come, then a few others because prices have been rising (fuel, food grains, onions), then BJP forcefully implemented demonetisation and Goods and Services Tax (GST) and adding to this was the criminalisation of several people because of tax collection drives,” explained Shivam Shankar Singh, a former data analyst with BJP and author of ‘How to win an election: What Political Parties Don’t Want You to Know’.
For a party to be able to change the narrative online, they need organic supporters on these platforms. “Currently, BJP has only trolls, bots and people who have completely bought into the BJP narrative. These three groups alone are not enough. There are no real supporters for BJP who can talk logically about any issue whatsoever. This is why they are losing the national narrative. There are several prominent faces speaking against the Citizenship Amendment Act, National Register of Citizens, National Population Register and state-sponsored violence against students, but who is on the other side?” underscored Singh.
Pointing towards BJP-supported social media handles losing Twitter polls, a person who used to work with the BJP social media team and whose name has been changed to protect his identity, Rakesh Singh revealed, “Several people I know within the community, don’t know how dissent can be countered. That is why the BJP and people affiliated to it ran polls, thinking that they would win these polls as they usually have in the past. But, they lost. And when they lost, even the BJP IT Head Cell Amit Malviya locked his account for a while, when he was being trolled. What he got was nothing when you compare it with what the earlier Congress IT Cell head Divya Spandana got. They have lost polls, the trolling was often vicious and life-threatening, but she never locked her account. That itself says a lot.”
“Once they lose a poll, the general narrative put out is that Pakistan and ISI have taken over the polls. If it was so easy for Pakistan to take over the polls, why hadn’t they taken over social media polls earlier? The RW handles won a number of polls in the aftermath of Balakot and Pulwama. They should have lost those also. As a result, no neutral person is convinced by what BJP accounts tweet right now. And that is a considerable margin of supporters. Neither do they have a prominent spokesperson on social media,” added Shivam Singh.
Now what the right-wing trolls do is, they also troll people who have generally put out tweets in support of BJP. “When Rahul Kanwal tweeted against BJP after the investigation into the JNU attack, the trolls piled on him. Look at what they are doing to Tavleen Singh’s posts. Another example is the troll attack on BJP supporter Rupa Subramanya for even mild criticism of the BJP. There is no understanding of nuance. The right-wing ecosystem attacks and trolls everyone for the slightest hint of dissent. This eco-system supports PM Modi so much that if he were to repeatedly say anything against trolling, it probably would reduce. But, he won’t and instead, he follows several of these trolls,” highlights Shivam Singh. He also pointed towards the response towards Deepika Padukone’s visit to Jawaharlal Nehru University to meet the JNUSU students who were beaten up. Hers was a quiet solidarity against violence, but as soon as she was photographed there, there was a kind of knee-jerk reaction from the right-wing towards it.
“This is happening because the BJP and the right-wing ecosystem do not understand dissent, nor do they understand the varying shades of support. Look at how the Women and child minister Smriti Irani reacted. She is a minister of the country and not of BJP. They understand submission, no questions must ever be asked. Those working with the IT cell are yet to understand how not to alienate their moderate supporters. They believe that saying several lies will make it the truth. They have not realised that the social media ground changes swiftly,” asserted Rakesh Singh.
Another person who worked on several BJP social media campaigns and whose name has been changed to protect his identity, Abhishek Kumar divulged that the BJP IT Cell is good at putting out narratives and they have seen them being picked up, but there is no plan of action when it doesn’t. “Most often it is character assassination and name-calling. That also hasn’t worked this time. People on the team do not understand that people will see through similar strategies. Home Minister Amit Shah has been reduced to releasing five lakh letters, despite having 50,000 Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh shakhas. In seconds, everyone questioned it. That has also failed,” said Kumar.
“They still do not understand that delegitimising any dissent is not the solution. Those in BJP, which includes the IT Cell, believe that they will benefit out of the violence. They believe that the protests will help them as they are convinced that the protests will not harm them,” concluded Shivam Singh.