Twitter is facing serious scrutiny in the United States over revelations that Russian state-linked trolls exploited its platform in an attempt to sow discord in American politics, and it’s making attempts to be more transparent about promoted tweets. But in India, the company’s fastest-growing market, politicians and their supporters have discovered an effective way to spread propaganda without paying Twitter a dime: hijacking the trending column with targeted hashtag campaigns.
A BuzzFeed News analysis found that at least 10 political hashtags that appeared in the top 10 in Twitter’s trends column in India during the last two months were the result of organized campaigns that gave people tweet templates and urged them to post duplicate tweets to promote the hashtags. More than 50% of the tweets containing these 10 trending hashtags had duplicates, and many seemed to be copy-pasted from these tweet templates. There were nearly two dozen other political hashtags that trended in this timeframe — but their popularity doesn’t seem to have been the result of orchestrated campaigns.
Spamming Twitter with duplicate tweets is a violation of Twitter’s rules, which say users aren’t permitted to “post multiple updates to a trending or popular topic with an intent to subvert or manipulate the topic to drive traffic or attention to unrelated accounts, products, services, or initiatives.” A Twitter spokesperson told BuzzFeed News, “Any use of automation to game Trending Topics is in violation of the Twitter Rules, and we have had measures in place to address this since the spring of 2014.” Still, that isn’t stopping these campaigns that make political propaganda trend on the platform in India.
India’s politicians take the social network seriously, and, just like their counterparts in larger markets like the US and the UK, they use it as their bullhorn for everything from official announcements to taking potshots at rivals. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has 36.5 million followers, is the world’s second-most followed political leader, trailing only Donald Trump.
Getting political propaganda to trend on Twitter is an effective way to influence the public. “Twitter is where Indian politics now happens, and where opinions are formed, and where the agenda is set,” said Pratik Sinha, founder of Alt News, a leading website that busts Indian fake news and hoaxes. “Twitter is where the most important people in India’s politics and media are.”
These political hashtag campaigns now trend so frequently on Twitter in India that websites like Sinha’s Alt News and Twitter accounts like @trollabhakt have taken it upon themselves to track the phenomenon. @trollabhakt, an anonymous user who described himself to BuzzFeed News as a techie “who is disgusted by all these fake trends, and who doesn’t support [n]or is a member of any political party,” uses a custom Python script to collect tweets from Twitter’s API. He then collates tweets participating in organized hashtag campaigns in Google spreadsheets, which he links to on his Twitter account. BuzzFeed News used some of @trollabhakt’s data in its analysis on hashtags like #ModiTransformsIndia that glorified India’s prime minister, #BJPMoneyLaunderingDay, used by BJP critics to lash out against demonetization, and #LiesAgainstShah, which circulated after a publication alleged that a company owned by the son of a prominent politician had received undue benefits from the government.
Getting a political hashtag to trend on Twitter has implications beyond the social network. At the end of August, for instance, an orchestrated campaign made the hashtag #DemonetisationSuccess the No. 1 trend on Twitter in India for over 10 hours. India’s central bank had announced only a day earlier that demonetization — Narendra Modi’s abrupt decision to ban 86% of the country’s currency bills and swap them out for new ones, ostentatiously to weed out illegal cash hoarders — had effectively failed in its objective