On Monday, 14 December, from the makeshift stage at Singhu border outside New Delhi, Baljeet Singh Sandhu made a somewhat unusual announcement to the protestors present at the site.
“Those who know how to operate Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat please come forward and contact us,” Sandhu announced on the microphone in between stirring speeches by protesting farmers.
A few hours before the announcement, heads of 37 farmer unions protesting against the three contentious farms laws had held an urgent meeting to discuss ways to tackle the narratives on television channels, social media and WhatsApp discrediting the protest and “demonising” the farmers as anti-nationals and Khalistanis.
“And luckily, by the grace of God, we found good technical people from among the crowd itself who understood these social media platform,” said Sandhu, who is also the vice-president of the Majha Kisan Committee and has been at Singhu since 26 November.
“That’s how the Kisan Ekta Morcha IT cell was born,” added Sandhu, who heads the cell.
Birth of a Counter IT Cell
The protesting farmers, at various points outside the capital’s borders, now have their own official social media platforms under the banner of Kisan Ekta Morcha to directly reach out to the masses and put forward their points, explained Ashutosh, spokesperson for the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC).
The agenda is simple – to be able to effectively communicate their message and counter the waves of misinformation floating in sections of mainstream media and “by the government’s massive propaganda machinery” Ashutosh said.
On Wednesday, 16 December, the KEM Facebook page was up and soon, a YouTube channel, as well as Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat accounts were up and running.
The core team of the KEM IT team comprises five people headed by Sandhu and includes a 16-year-old from Punjab who has been camping at Singhu with his whole family. “He is an expert in Snapchat and uploads stories of the protest for us,” Sandhu told The Quint.
In merely a week’s time, the Kisan Ekta Morcha YouTube has raked up over 1.09 million followers on YouTube, 239,000 on Facebook and 129,000 on Instagram.
Among the narratives put forth by sections of the government has been an attempt to portray the protests as a Punjab-centric movement. The KEM IT team’s composition itself stands out as a counter to this view. Among the five full-time team members, two hail from Punjab, two from Haryana and one from Rajasthan.
Social Media Strategy & Content
Ashutosh, spokesperson for AIKSCC, explained that in order to draw a strategy it’s important to understand what they see themselves being up against.
“What we are facing is a dangerous two-faced IT machinery of the government. On one hand, the government is saying they want to talk to us but simultaneously they’re also demonising us constantly,” he said, adding “even BJP MPs have openly said disgusting things about us.”
BJP MP from South Delhi, Ramesh Bidhuri, had recently lashed out against the protesting farmers at a public meeting, accusing them of being funded by Khalistani separatists from Canada.
The other issue that the KEM social media strategy seeks to address is a single source of information related to the core demands and all the related developments that occur daily.
Sandhu also added that farmer leaders were having to say the same things over and over again to various media channels and having a Facebook and Twitter account helps them disseminate information in a streamlined manner.
“Then the question arose about forming a team for this. We couldn’t trust an external marketing company because they could be hijacked by the government and be pressurised or bought,” Sandhu said.
Speaking to The Quint, he emphasised that it is important to have a platform run entirely by the protestors. The content comprises primarily of Live videos, press conferences, addresses by individual farmer leaders.
“Our strategy is simple. As the movement progresses, our work is to capture all the developments happening daily. So, as and when information comes, we keep posting them. For example, as people sat on hunger strike, our volunteers have been sitting among them and getting their voices,” Sandhu said.
Equipment & Execution
The next challenge was equipment. “We had come here to protest so did not have the equipment to run an IT setup. We then sent a few boys back to Punjab. They went back home to Punjab and came back with their laptops and dongles,” Sandhu said.
While the setup appears simple, the team says they are happy in the manner in which the posts and video have been received. The team uses their own smartphones to shoot as well as to light the faces of the speakers.
“Whoever comes to us – leaders and protestors – we make them sit on this chair with our banner at the back and go live from our phone,” Sandhu told The Quint, adding, “We have a tripod where we fit our camera and use the light from our phones to illuminate the frame. We have an Oppo phone and a Samsung phone.”
A video that the team appears particularly proud of is the one where farmer leader Jagjit Singh Dallewal takes on PM Narendra Modi’s arguments on agricultural issues point-by-point.
“The Modi vs Dallewalji video, where Modi is seen speaking and then uncle reacting, was shot on a trolley,” Sandhu explained. “If you look at it carefully, it’s on a trolley with two guys on each side holding their phone’s torch which is illuminating his face. This is the video that gave us a lot of views and following on Facebook,” he said.
AIKSCSS’s Ashutosh adds that there is no comparison between their budget and that of BJP’s IT Cell. And yet, they have managed to attain a following through makeshift ways and take on the “propaganda machinery.”
“All the following on our platforms is organic,” says Sandhu. “We have not spent a single Paisa on any platform.”
So, how did they spread their word among the people? The team said they arranged for a printer, bought a bundle of paper from a shop not far away, got about 200 printouts. The volunteers who were helping with langar distributed them among the people present.
The volunteers present at the protest site also composed WhatsApp messages and circulated them across whichever WhatsApp groups they are a part of, asking people to join. This is how it started.
“We got flex banners printed, we even got t-shirts made and some of the guys wore them and walked around 4-5 kilometre, which allowed people to scan the QR code and start following us,” Sandhu added.
“We even got a blue tick on our Instagram page, which is a big deal. In fact, when we got blocked for about two hours on Facebook on Sunday, we had 70,000 followers. Once it came back, we had 90,000 followers. After that, it galloped to 1.8 lakh by Monday evening,” Sandhu said.
On Sunday, 20 December, Facebook temporarily blocked the page of Kisan Ekta Morcha (KEM) for allegedly “going against” the social media platform’s “Community Standards on spam.”
In response to a query by The Quint, Facebook said they have restored “Kisan Ekta Morcha’s Facebook page”and they “regret the inconvenience caused.”
Network & Connectivity Problems
However, the social media operations operating from a highway outside Delhi isn’t without its connectivity issues. Farmer leaders say they have been told that the police may have set up jammers around the site which prevent the uninterrupted availability of telephone network.
“We’re facing a lot of internet connectivity issues here. We’ve been told jammers have been installed though I don’t know what they look like or where exactly they’ve been put up,” Sandhu told The Quint.
He explains how this creates a dilemma for us. “Even if we do get signal at the protest site, it’s loud here and we’re unable to speak properly. If we go a little into the inner lanes, the residents complain that because of you, our network has been affected.”
“If you see our Facebook page, for example, we upload 10-12 posts and 3-4 Lives in a span of an hour followed by 3-4 hours of no activity. The reason for this is net connectivity,” Sandhu explained.
AIKSCC’s Ashutosh, who has been interacting with the media since the protests began, said that the IT strategy may not be perfect and the team may not consist of experts “but this is the age of smartphones and communication and we must and we will use it to make our voices heard.”