Bengal Poll: How Twitter Trends Are Being Used to Spread Fake News
We investigate how disinformation is being used by the BJP to push a narrative through a trending hashtag.
In the era of post-truth, mis/disinformation has been rapidly taking over the world, especially in the digital age. Major events like elections in India have seen a surge in disinformation aimed to influence the narrative and further an agenda. Similar is the case with the upcoming 2021 West Bengal Elections.
In part one of our study, we had analysed how the West Bengal BJP’s social media machinery works ranging from their ‘toolkits’ to the well-devised tactics that go behind creating a viral narrative. In this part of the study, these reporters explore and provide evidence to show how fake news and misinformation is being propagated through the same process.
They studied some of the trending hashtags between December and February before a speech/rally in the state and noticed a trend that demonstrated how the saffron party was propagating misinformation.
In the subsequent parts of this story, we will take you through some trends which were used to spread disinformation targeting the ruling party – Trinamool Congress (TMC).
How Misinformation Trends on Social Media
One of the key issues which the BJP has been using to attack the West Bengal government is the lack of job opportunities in the state. They have often criticized the ruling party by saying that the locals are migrating to other states in search of jobs.
First, we came across the hashtag #PishiMuktoBanglaChai, which when analysed on Getdaytrends, a tool used to study Twitter trends, revealed that nearly 380.5k tweets were made using this hashtag on 5 January.
Upon investigating the hashtag using digital investigator Benjamin Strick’s method, we came across the link to a Google Drive that contained text packets for users to tweet.
One of the text packets talked about unemployment in the state. It read:
“Just like an elephant has a different set of teeth for show and a different set for service, @mamataofficial has a self-appreciating report card for show, while the raging cries of the youth of Bengal crippled with unemployment is her real service. Happy, Didi? #PishiMuktoBanglaChai”
Copy-pasting this text on Twitter revealed multiple users who used the text to target Mamata Banerjee whilst the hashtag was trending.
We noticed a very similar trend on 11 February, when Union Home Minister Amit Shah was in West Bengal to flag off a ‘Poriborton Yatra’ (March for change) from Cooch Behar.
A narrative, yet again, was woven around the state of employment in the state. We noticed #PoribortonInBengal (Change in Bengal) started trending on Twitter.
According to s, nearly 44.1k tweets used this hashtag. We studied this trend and again noticed a copy-paste operation.
This time, the following text was used:
শিল্প নেই বাংলায়, রোজগারও যে নেই। পশ্চিমবঙ্গের এই দুর্দশার বিরুদ্ধে রুখে দাঁড়াতে আসছেন কেন্দ্রীয় স্বরাষ্ট্রমন্ত্রী শ্রী অমিত শাহ। ১১ ই ফেব্রুয়ারি করবেন পরিবর্তন যাত্রার উদ্বোধন । #PoribortonInBengal
(Translation: There is no culture or employment left in Bengal. The Union Home Minister Amit Shah is coming to stand up against this condition of West Bengal. He will inaugurate the ‘Poriborton Yatra’ on 11 February)
The aforementioned text packet was not only tweeted using the hashtag #PoribortoninBengal but also using #PoribortonYatra, in separate instances.
It must be noted that the above mentioned hashtags weren’t just used to spread misinformation, but by the end there were multiple tweets about lack of employment and lack of opportunities for the youth in the state.
However, these claims lack evidence.
According to December 2020’s Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) data, Bengal’s unemployment rate actually went down from 6.2 percent in December 2019 to 6 percent in December 2020.
It must be noted that during the months of April-May 2020 or during peak lockdown the unemployment rate stood at 17.4 percent.
During December 2020, Bengal’s rate of employment (6%) was below the national average at 7.6 percent.
Meanwhile, Uttar Pradesh (states with highest level of unemployment) saw an increase from 9.4 percent in December 2019 to 14.9 percent in December 2020, and Assam from 0.9 to 7.6 percent in the same time period.
So, despite, the allegation being false, it was still there in the document, and was copy-pasted across Twitter while the respective hashtags were trending, to further a narrative, especially one which the saffron party themselves are pushing about there being no jobs in Bengal.
Who Were The Accounts Tweeting About it?
Upon analysing two of these accounts, we found that the accounts shared traits like what Strick found in his study (exhibiting bot-like behaviour). Some of the common characteristics shared by them included a particular time-period when there is high tweet activity, a high retweet to like ratio of pro-BJP content, the mention of BJP or Bharatiya Janata Party in the twitter name or description.
When these accounts tweeted natively, they primarily copy-pasted text packets provided in the ‘toolkits’.
But Wait! There Are More Such Examples
In mid-December, shortly after the TMC had launched their 10-year report card, the BJP devised a trend with the Hashtag #TMCFailCard. This toolkit too, by fashion, contained a time and the link to a Google Drive.
While this hashtag was trending with 1,28,000 tweets on 14 December, several users tweeted a graphic in Bengali along with a text packet claiming that according to the 2018 NCRB report, the highest number of rapes happened in West Bengal.
This tweet and graphic were replicated across several accounts in yet another copy-pasta campaign, including members of the BJP’s West Bengal IT Cell.
Upon investigating, while The Quint couldn’t get access to the Google Drive as it was deleted, the text packet and the graphic (which also bears the Bengal BJP logo) were very similar to the graphics created for other such hashtag campaigns.
Based on the learnings from our previous instances, it is likely that the text packet and the graphic was present in the now-deleted Google drive file which was picked by users on Twitter, but we haven’t found any proof for it.
Disinformation Spread From BJP Bengal’s Twitter Account
The second method through which disinformation was spread was through West Bengal BJP’s very own Twitter handle. The respective tweets from the BJP4Bengal Twitter were then copy-pasted by users, which they tweeted natively in a classic copy-pasta campaign.
However, it must be noted that in these instances we could not find any trace of Google documents in use, as almost all the documents that we have investigated so far were created before a big rally. The following instances of fake news originated during the rally.
PM Modi’s Claim About Vande Mataram Bhavan
PM Modi while addressing a rally in Hooghly on 22 February talked about how the Vande Mataram Bhavan, the house of novelist Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay was in “a very bad state.” He accused the TMC of neglecting the heritage building and playing “vote-bank politics”.
This was tweeted with the Hashtag #ModirSatheBangla, which was one of the top trending hashtags of the day with approximately five lakh tweets. The same text, along with the video, was tweeted natively by a few users which also included verified accounts including former union minister Shiv Pratap Shukla and Adesh Gupta.
But news website, The Wire, visited the ground and found the reality to be very different.
“The building, in reality, is well-maintained. Painted in white, it has a bust of the author in front. Even the riverbank along the building has been beautified,” the report mentioned.
However, it must also be noted that in both these text packets were not as widespread as their regular copy-pasta campaigns and was only copy-pasted a handful of times. But some of those tweets did exhibit a high retweet to like ratio, like what we have seen before.
Mamata Recites Islamic Prayer
The second instance of disinformation came shortly after Netaji’s birth anniversary celebrations where West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was greeted with chants of ‘Jai Shree Ram’ as she went up on the dais to speak at the event in which PM Modi was also present. She refused give a speech after that.
The following day, the BJP’s West Bengal twitter account posted a video of her reciting an Islamic verse and accused her of appeasement politics.
This text packet, although tweeted without a hashtag by the BJP account, but several users who copy-pasted that text packet used the hashtag #MamataBanerjeekoJaiShriRam.
While the BJP4Bengal account saw over 2,000 retweets on the post, the accounts which copy-pasted the text hardly saw any engagement.
The Quint’s WebQoof team debunked this false claim and found that the video was a clipped one. The longer version of the video showed Banerjee not just reciting as Islamic verse but verses of other religions also. Further the video was from 2018.
We noticed a clear pattern that showed how certain trending hashtags are used to also push misinformation and false narratives. In most of these cases, the hashtags which were trending were used to spread misinformation.
These trends appear to be in violation of Twitter’s Platform manipulation and spam policy. The third part of this article will look into the platform’s policies and if there is a clear violation.
The Quint has tried reaching out to the BJP’s IT cell for a comment about the aforementioned findings. The story will be updated as and when we receive a response.
(This article is the second of a three-part series exploring the Bharatiya Janata party’s social media operations in Bengal. The third article will shed more light on some of the policies that the operations might be violating or the grey area they might be operating in. Stay tuned!)
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