India’s Instagrab: Modi’s re-election bid weaponizes social media influencers

As more than 900 million Indian voters head to the polls, influencers on Instagram, X and other platforms have become key pawns in the ruling BJP’s bid for a third term in power.   © Nikkei montage

KANIKA GUPTA and ADNAN BHAT, contributing writersMAY 15, 2024 06:00 JST

NEW DELHI — Veer Sharma and Parul Ahirwar play India’s favorite henpecked boyfriend and henpecking girlfriend in viral videos that often feature Ahirwal wielding a frying pan or broom and Sharma running in terror.

Friends in real life, the two 29-year-olds have vaulted to superstardom on social media platform Instagram with their slapstick videos mocking gender stereotypes, or just as frequently playing to them wholeheartedly. Whatever the formula is, it works: Sharma has 1.5 million followers, while Ahirwar has 2.4 million.

But lately, as India heads toward elections that look set to return Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a third term next month, their Instagram feeds have begun to feature something else: politics.

Sharma’s most popular video, with more than 30 million views, features Sharma and Ahirwar palling around with Shivraj Chouhan, the former chief minister of Sharma’s home state of Madhya Pradesh, who hails from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. In another video, Sharma can be seen enjoying a cricket match between India and Australia with Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia last year.

Instagrammers Veer Sharma, left, and Parul Ahirwar are among the many influencers in India teaming up with politicians from the ruling BJP in this year’s elections. (Photo by Shinya Sawai)

Veer is candid about how this happened, telling Nikkei Asia his viral videos caught the eye of a prominent BJP politician who enlisted him to produce content for a successful state election bid. That led to more offers and finally an invitation to the home of Chouhan, who was then the BJP’s chief minister, a post he held until December. “He said that they needed influencers like us to support the government’s schemes,” Sharma told Nikkei.

“[Chouhan] went on to explain all the schemes to us and asked me to make some videos,” said Sharma, adding that a package of five to six videos earned him 1.2 million rupees ($1,400).

But it wasn’t all about the profit motive, he said.

“My family has always supported BJP and I personally admire Modi ji a lot, so I agreed to campaign for them,” he said, using a term of reverence for Modi.

Win-win

Sharma is one of a growing army of online bloggers, livestreamers and viral video creators who have found a niche in Indian politics as Modi and his BJP appear set for an electoral victory that will give the prime minister a third term and reinforce his party’s hegemony and its Hindu nationalist ideology.

Voting began last month and will run for six weeks until the results are announced on June 4. The election has focused attention on the outsized role played by internet influencers like Sharma. With over 800 million people online and the world’s largest Facebook and Instagram userbases, India’s political parties have strategically leveraged social media influencers to amplify their messaging and bolster their public images, particularly aimed at the over 200 million voters under the age of 30.

The BJP has left nothing to chance in a political campaign that has invited accusations of authoritarian tactics. Government agencies have frozen the bank accounts of the main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, according to the party. Meanwhile, the leaders of two opposition-run states have been jailed, though one was released this month on bail.

While most domestic news media and broadcasters support the BJP, the internet remains the last competitive space for politics to play out. There, the BJP is nonetheless trying to tilt the game in its favor by recruiting popular influencers to mobilize the all-important youth vote while simultaneously using any tools at its disposal to suppress pro-opposition views.

Opponents of the government have felt the chill of online censorship. In January, for example, Raqib Hameed Naik, the founder of Hindutva Watch, an online hate tracker, received a notice that its X account would be blocked following a legal demand from the government of India.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during a campaign rally in Agra on April 25. He looks set to win a third term in power.  (Photo by Shinya Sawai)

“They have come after me and the platform I run. They have blocked both websites, with the ministry sending me notices,” said Naik, who spoke to Nikkei on the phone from the U.S. “‘Curbing’ is a very light word in terms of what the government has been doing from day one,” he said. The press office of X could not be reached for comment, sending Nikkei an automated response that read: “Busy now, please check back later.”

According to a report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism published this month, some videos uploaded on global sites such as YouTube featuring content critical of the government have been blocked or prevented from earning revenue from s this year.

“What we will see going forward is widespread censorship on social media, where people who are critical will get demonetized,” said Pratik Sinha, co-founder and editor of Alt News, a non-profit fact-checking website.

In February, Mahesh Choudhary, the media coordinator for a movement of farmers protesting the government’s agricultural policies, said he had to play cat and mouse with censors who blocked the group’s internet platforms with legal orders. “Our main social media accounts were barred by the government,” he told Nikkei. “So we had to create new accounts every day that got subsequently blocked. They were blocking our accounts faster than we could create them.”

Influencer Veer Sharma checks his Instagram feed in Indore, India, on April 24. Sharma works with the ruling BJP party, but many influencers seen as critical of the government have seen their accounts suspended in recent months. (Photo by Shinya Sawai) 

India’s Union Minister of State for Electronics and Information Technology Rajeev Chandrasekhar recently revealed that more than 36,800 URLs were blocked by the IT Ministry from 2018 to 2023 under a law that allows the government to issue such orders if the content is deemed a threat to the national security, integrity or sovereignty of India.

Popular BJP critic Dhruv Rathee, a 29-year-old YouTuber, often posts content critical of the government, including a viral video with 25 million views saying India is moving toward dictatorship. He has never been blocked but realizes the possibility exists.

“That risk is always there,” Rathee told Nikkei, “but I try not to think about it and focus on the work that I am currently doing.”

For pro-BJP influencers, however, the rewards are great. India’s top-performing influencers feature appearances with more BJP leaders than opposition leaders, according to a recent paper by Joyojeet Pal, an associate professor at the University of Michigan who researches political media.

Rohit Upadhyay, in charge of social media for the BJP in New Delhi, told Nikkei that the party has galvanized over 10,000 so-called social media “volunteers” for the coming parliamentary election in the city. “This includes our team, influencers that have been sharing our content in the past,” he told Nikkei. “And the third and biggest are micro-influencers we have identified through our online initiatives. They usually have anywhere between 500 to 5,000 followers.”

Upadhyay believes 500 followers on social media can translate to at least one vote. “It’s most likely that those 500 followers are people from the same area or people that they know. And if they make content on local issues, it resonates better with the audience,” he explained.

Shudeep Majumdar, CEO of Delhi-based Zefmo, an influencer marketing agency, said that micro-influencers with a few thousand followers are highly sought after ahead of elections. Smaller influencers, he said, are willing to share politically explicit content, while big influencers hesitate to take a clear position on political issues. “Typically, we pay a micro-influencer with 4,000 to 10,000 followers, 10,000 rupees ($125) for sending out five to 10 tweets,” he said. “Or three to four Instagram reels, or it could just be a long video on YouTube.”

While influencers’ loyalty is often secured with monetary rewards, plenty are eager to join the fray for free, as it is a shortcut to more engagement and followers, researcher Pal said, explaining the nexus between a politician and an influencer. “At the end of the day,” he said, “that is the only game that influencers are in this for, eyeballs.”

Smartphones are the most popular devices for accessing news and political information in India, especially among young voters. (Photo by Shinya Sawai)

For an influencer, even mild engagement with a political party can attract more views and engagement — in India, a 50% to 70% increase in views across various platforms — according to research conducted by Tech Global Institute, a nonprofit policy organization.

Sharma, the henpecked Instagrammer, for example, said that pivoting into politics won him fans and new business. “The first video I made with the [chief minister] got around 50-60 million views, after which I was recognized all over [Madhya Pradesh]. Everyone started respecting me, and I got much more work after that,” he said, adding he has also been offered money by the opposition Congress party but turned it down.

Pal, the University of Michigan researcher, pointed out that influencers can serve another purpose for politicians, particularly in interviews when they shy away from asking tough questions, thereby reducing public accountability.

“So, after watching a politician’s interview with an influencer, viewers may think, ‘Wow, this person covered everything!’ because they seemingly answered all the questions. However, what they don’t realize is that only a subset of questions were posed to the politician. This could be due to the interview being pre-planned or because the interviewer lacked the ability to ask the right questions,” Pal said.

Level playing field

Despite lopsided traffic favoring the BJP, online media is still a fairer platform than the mainstream media, according to the Congress party, who like their opponents, have based their media strategy around influencers and online news.

Ruchira Chaturvedi, the Congress party’s national convener for social media and digital communications, said the party now relies more on digital media, which helps it get around what he called biased and disproportionately low coverage in the national media.

“More and more people are turning to platforms like YouTube and Instagram for news and information,” she said. “Our party operates on a volunteer model, where our leaders and volunteers serve as our influencers. Since it is largely [volunteer] driven, there is no monetary transaction involved.”

When questioned about Sharma’s assertion that the Congress party offered to pay him to promote their policies, Chaturvedi said that such offers do not occur at the official level but “perhaps at the candidate level.”

“Our party has limited resources,” Chaturvedi said, referring to the partially frozen bank accounts due to an income tax dispute that the Congress party claims is politically motivated to hinder it in the ongoing elections. “As you can see, influencers have become a big industry, many provide content for free, while there are others who charge a fee. You can tell them what content to post and [influencers] will charge a fee for it. [The BJP] may do that, but we don’t.”

Supporters attend Modi’s campaign rally in Agra, India on April 25. His party is the favorite to win this year’s general election, the results of which will be announced in early June. (Photo by Shinya Sawai)

A BJP source insisted that the party was “not really paying” social media influencers or agencies to promote government policies. “These people who are endorsing those schemes have millions of followers,” the source said, “and it is not difficult for them to monetize their social media handles.

“Besides, there are people supporting the government who may be [monetarily] helping these influencers. We [in the government] don’t do that.”

According to Sinha, the Alt News co-founder, the problem lies in the monetization of content creation.

“Social media influencers are there for what purpose? They are there to create content. Why are they creating content? To make money,” Sinha said. “To make more money, they need more content. And the election is the biggest content right now. So, they will create content around elections.”

Sinha added that the content creation process, which he calls perverse gamification, is also problematic because it aims to keep viewers hooked to their mobile screens.

“Social media is a game and everyone is playing that game,” Sinha said. “So one cannot selectively say these influencers cannot do it and someone else can. … It is not an issue of the people who are creating the content. For them, it is a livelihood.”

Vague and opaque

Ahirwar and Sharma have also been commissioned to produce promotional videos for government projects, such as a government-funded temple with a .gov website. As part of a five-video package released on her Instagram feed for which she was compensated, Ahirwar discusses the temple’s construction and features. However, these posts lack clear labeling as promotional or advertising material.

Facebook and Instagram actively prohibit government entities, officials, political candidates and parties from running “partnership ads,” which are a form of paid promotions. However, this restriction solely targets the accounts of political parties and candidates, leaving a gap that allows influencers to exploit partnership ads without such limitations.

Female voters wait in a line at a polling station in Jaipur on April 19. Over 950 million Indians are registered to vote in this year’s elections. (Photo by Shinya Sawai)

When asked why she did not label the temple video package as paid promotional material, Ahirwar told Nikkei she is not always able to explicitly state when she has been paid to create content. Nevertheless, she insists that social media audiences are “educated” and can recognize the difference between paid and unpaid content.

“Sometimes, when we work with the government, yes, we might get paid. But honesty is everything to us,” Ahirwar said. “So, if someone asks us, especially during live sessions where we talk to our followers, we’re honest. We’ll say if something was paid for. It’s important to us that our audience knows what’s going on.”

Political analyst Amitabh Tiwari agrees that most social media users are aware of these dynamics.

“The viewers who are watching are also young,” Tiwari said. “They are quite aware, even if the influencer is not saying that some of this is promotional. Most influencers today are labeled as either right-wing or left-wing. Ultimately, the consumers are well aware of this.”

Prateek Waghre, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, explains that while these platforms ask for disclosures that show content is paid for by a third party, these policies rely on the goodwill of the influencers.

“While platforms have the authority to enforce policies, including disclosure requirements and guidelines on hate speech, they sometimes fall short in addressing these issues effectively,” he said.

To uphold transparency and accountability in political messaging on digital platforms, the Election Commission of India says it is closely monitoring social media influencers and individuals engaging in indirect promotion of political parties and candidates.

However, when asked about regulating the digital space for greater transparency, experts seemed skeptical. Waghre highlighted the challenge of crafting laws targeting misinformation without potentially infringing on freedom of speech or being selectively enforced by those in power against opposition figures.

Sinha brought up an example of a recent video which criticized India’s electronic voting system. After publication, the creators were demonetized (blocked from earning ad revenue) by a global social media platform. “You cannot be critical,” Sinha said. “You cannot say that this is not a transparent process. So, then you are financially disincentivizing anybody who is creating critical content. This is the first step. The next step will be complete censorship.”

source : asia.nikkei



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