Politicians across parties and ideologies are using ‘bots’ or fake followers on social media websites and are paying for them too to boost their popularity, writes Vivashwan Singh
Politicians today are fighting battles not only on the ground but also on social networking websites. Politics is about perception and the BJP, since the last few years, has been successful in setting the perception that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is India’s most popular political leader. This perception was created in light of the fact that Modi has the maximum number of followers on Twitter among all Indian leaders.
These days most politicians usually turn to social media to attract young voters. All major political parties like the BJP, Congress, AAP, and even CPI(M) which was in fierce opposition to Rajiv Gandhi’s vision of a computerised India, have their Twitter and Facebook accounts. Every political party is recognising the potential of social media.
However, this sudden craze of social media has been doing more harm than good as various Twitter handles started using ‘bots’ (fake followers) to boost their popularity and political strength. For those who are new to the term, a bot, also called Internet bot, is a content that runs automated tasks over the Internet. It is intended to perform repetitive tasks in a haste and on a vast scale. A client purchases this service by paying a premium and gets likes for Facebook posts, retweets on Twitter or followers on Instagram. These ‘followers’ are not people, but rather computerised programs.
Narendra Modi started using Twitter in 2009 and attracted one lakh followers by 2010. He had four lakh followers in 2011 and his following on Twitter kept increasing exponentially. Modi, who is often accused by Congress leaders of misleading people with figures, had around 50 per cent of his Twitter followers as fake as per an article in The Economic Times in 2012. Furthermore, the prime minister’s followers more than doubled in 2014, followed by a meteoric rise of 12.1 million followers in May 2015. This suspicious rise in fan following of a person clearly indicates that his followers are not real but ‘bots’. If you are wondering how this works then there are many Indian and foreign-based companies such as flymesocial.com that use such accounts to follow people. Websites such as Fiverr.com will sell you 1,000 Twitter followers for as low as USD 5.That’s the reason why you can see many common followers between the most uncommon people.
According to a report by Anu Raghunathan in Forbes magazine, Narendra Modi’s account added 2,80,000 followers in a single day on 7th April 2015. It might not be unusual for global leaders to have a surge of followers on one single day, if a historic event does occur. But, there was nothing special about that day. Modi’s tweets for that day were on a music festival and World Health Day. Twitter’s unconvincing rhetoric on this sudden surge on April 7 was that it happened because Modi’s off-line followers had been added to his online following. (The offline followers were following Modi via text through their mobile phones.)
The Hindu reported that followers of Modi’s handle included names like lutfije istrefi, Michaele Brocious, Shantelle Enterline and Marlana Holstrom. One of them had a username comprising random characters: @Gwinhnfdh. Another equally shocking report published in The Indian Express prior to the 2014 general elections, which went unnoticed, claimed that Modi had a whopping 62 per cent fake followers. An analysis of Twitter handles in the past has shown that there are some signs of suspected bot accounts. Firstly, fake Twitter handles will have several random numbers which an ordinary person would struggle to remember. For example, accounts such as @9560580341 @9561415109 @9574880779@9601436788@9631013051 @9647413363 @9649553815 just follow one handle which is none other than that of Narendra Modi. Likewise, @lingyi8763693 , @Rajan68299541 or @7c6f54bbc3564d7 are zero-tweet handles following DMK leader Kanimozhi on Twitter, three among the many similar ones of her over one million followers. Fake followers don’t have a profile photograph, a large portion of them have egg photograph which is the default picture for new Twitter accounts. Furthermore, these accounts don’t have any followers and don’t tweet anything since they signed up. Most of our prime minister’s online followers meet all these criteria. During a random check, on 1st October 2013, 4:31 pm, the 10 latest followers on his Twitter account had zero tweets (except one who had three) and 0-7 followers. There have been instances when Narendra Modi was in the middle of touring Afghanistan, Qatar, Switzerland, USA and Mexico and his followers were trending his hashtags from Suhan Buri, a state in central Thailand.
Pratik Sinha, the founder of fake news buster AltNews.in had developed a software known as TW followers tool in order to analyse the suspicious fan following of politicians, celebrities and journalists. While analysing 2.5 million twitter followers of PM Modi, he claimed that 45.73 per cent followers didn’t have any profile picture, 36.82 per cent had never tweeted, and 28.25 per cent had no followers themselves. Isn’t that a little odd? Let’s assume there might be some people who are ardent Modi fans and have signed up just to follow him, and being private persons some of them don’t want to have a profile picture. But 46 per cent percent followers without profile pictures is definitely strange. It’s a known fact that quantity isn’t quality but nobody needs to miss the mark in the Twitter wars since the politicians think that more attention will be paid to them if they have the numbers.
News agency ANI recently released a story suggesting that a chunk of Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s Twitter followers are automated handles from places such as Kazakhstan, Russia and Indonesia. ANI praised the ‘resurgence’ of Rahul Gandhi on social media to a news report claiming that the Congress had roped in Big Data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica for a more rigorous social media campaign to attract voters. Fake followers and bots can potentially play a role in affecting public opinion close to elections. The Cambridge Analytica was previously in the news during the last US Presidential election for advising Donald Trump in precision voter targeting based on online habits of voters in different states. Which ever party plays the game better will win the minds of the electorate ahead of the crucial Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat polls. But the fact remains that bots are used across party lines, and no one can claim to be better than the other.
Twitter Audit is a US based tool which assesses whether a user’s followers are phoney or genuine by investigating the number of tweets, date of the last tweet, and proportion of followers to friends. This tool might not be immaculate, but it is a decent approach to tell if handles with millions of followers have probably expanded their fan base by fraudulent or deceptive means. It was cofounded by David Caplan, who refers to himself as a hacker, scientist and a startup addict.
The Telegraph had run an audit on the US presidential candidates using Twitter Audit to find out which candidate had the most number of fake followers. In the article appearing on 11th February, 2016 it was revealed that Hillary Clinton had 41 percent fake followers while Trump had 36 percent fake followers. The Twitter audit of PM Modi’s personal account and Rahul Gandhi’s accounts revealed that while Gandhi’s audit score is 51 percent (meaning 49 percent fake followers) Modi stands at 37 percent with 63 percent fake followers i.e, 22,003,269 suspicious accounts following him.
Even official handle of PMO India has shocking 61 percent fake following. The handles of other prominent BJP leaders such as Rajnath Singh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Amit Shah have more than 60 percent fake followers. The account of CPI (M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury, the most visible face of the Left, has a score of 93 per cent which is negligible in contrast, but still has 7 percent fake followers.
Its a bitter truth that instead of using social media for interaction with real people, a few politicians including the prime minister and home minister of the world’s largest democracy are using it to just fake their popularity. Bots are nothing more than a dishonest form of using social media, observing the given stats and methods, it is quite clear that politicians want their presence felt on Twitter, but are not following the right path to achieve it. All that glitters is not gold but all that twitters is definitely not gold.
The writer is a contributor to Tehelka and the views expressed are his own.