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How India's Political Parties Hijacked Twitter's Trending Column For Partisan Bickering

A BuzzFeed News analysis found that the popularity of at least 10 political hashtags that trended on Twitter in India during the last two months was influenced by organised campaigns.

On August 30, the Reserve Bank of India announced that 99% of demonetised currency had been returned to banks. This was the clearest indication yet that demonetisation had failed in its primary objective of eliminating black money. The next day, #DemonetisationSuccess was India’s top trend on Twitter for over 10 hours.

In addition to a large number of relatively unknown accounts, handles belonging to prominent BJP leaders and sympathisers, and even official government agencies and ministers collectively used the hashtag to spin demonetisation as a success story despite the data indicating otherwise.

Many tweets contributing to the hashtag’s popularity were identical and the bulk of those tweets seem to have appeared in a very narrow time-frame.

Pratik Sinha, founder of the fact-checking website Alt News, took a closer look at the hashtag and discovered some glaring irregularities. Foremost among these was the fact that many tweets contributing to the hashtag’s popularity, from both official verified accounts and smaller accounts of BJP supporters, were identical. Additionally, the bulk of the tweets seem to have appeared in a very narrow time-frame, beginning at 4:30pm.

Three days later, Sinha uncovered a Google spreadsheet being passed around on Twitter, which laid out instructions to trend #DemonetisationSuccess at 4:30pm on August 31. The document included templates for tweets in both Hindi and English, containing the hashtag. Those templates matched word-for-word with thousands of tweets contributing to the hashtag’s top-trend status.

The document seemed to have been spread by a man named Yogesh Malik, who describes himself as a member of BJP’s IT cell. His banner photo is one of him standing beside Narendra Modi.

A BuzzFeed News analysis found that at least 10 political hashtags that appeared in the top 10 in Twitter’s trends column 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.

Spamming Twitter with duplicate tweets is a violation of Twitter’s rules, which say that 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 campaigns spreading political propaganda from trending in India.

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 Sinha. “Twitter is where the most important people in India’s politics and media are.”

Twitter is facing serious scrutiny in the United States over revelations that Russian state-linked trolls exploited the platform to sow discord in American politics. In the US, as a result, Twitter is making attempts to be more transparent about promoted tweets. But in India, Twitter’s fastest growing market, the company seems to be turning a blind eye to politically-motivated hijacking of the trending column through targeted campaigns.

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 is 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”. He uses a custom Python script to collect tweets from Twitter’s API for data that he then collates using spreadsheets in order to spot organised hashtag campaigns. BuzzFeed News used some of @trollabhakt’s data in its analysis.

Overwhelming Twitter’s trending topics algorithm to create a trend on demand isn’t new. It’s the same trick that the notorious internet forum 4chan used back in 2009 to flood Twitter with the decidedly NSFW #gorillapenis hashtag by creating fake Twitter accounts that used it in thousands of tweets to make it trend. 4chan called the project “Operation Shitter” and posted a detailed list of instructions to make a hashtag trend – similar to the the document that Sinha found. Twitter manually removed #gorillapenis hashtag from its trending column, but tweets with the hashtag are still visible.

Earlier this year, trolls used similar tactics to orchestrate a harassment campaign against Dhanya Rajendran, the editor of an Indian news website, by flooding the platform with the hashtag #PublicityBeepDhanya and getting it to trend. Twitter manually removed the trend only after Rajendran called people at the company who she knew personally.

“Getting something to trend in this way is just people being clever with using Twitter’s own tools — and Twitter just sitting around doing nothing as usual.”

And it’s the same method that digital marketing agencies in India use to orchestrate marketing campaigns — paying thousands of influencers to help brands trend on Twitter in India, according to a report the Indian business publication Mint published last year. “No matter what your brand is, we can make it trend, guaranteed,” the head of a Mumbai-based digital marketing agency who wished to remain anonymous told BuzzFeed News. “Our clients see getting into Twitter’s trends as something impactful. It’s the best kind of marketing for relatively little money.”

Another Mint report published in 2016 speculated that digital marketers had collectively made more money gaming Twitter than Twitter itself had made in India in the last few years. Twitter did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ query about this.

“Twitter is basically where [all this] goes down,” Sinha told BuzzFeed News. “There’s no other place to get something like this to instantly snowball.”

The document detailing the plans for to make #DemonitisationSuccess trend was taken down after Sinha wrote about it on his website, but eventually, more spreadsheets meant to promote other propagandistic hashtags surfaced, such as this one with instructions and templated tweets for making a hashtag called #MyNewIndia — a hashtag glorifying Modi — trend.

“If you keep aside the moral and ethical implications of doing this, it’s marketing 101,” Karthik Srinivasan, National Lead at Social@Ogilvy, the social media arm of advertising firm Ogilvy and Mather, told BuzzFeed News. “Most things, like Twitter’s retweet feature, were created by Twitter users before Twitter baked them into its product. So getting something to trend in this way is just people being clever with using Twitter’s own tools — and Twitter just sitting around doing nothing as usual.”