February 22, 2021
Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, has one of the most-followed Twitter accounts in the world at 65 million followers. Wedged between Kim Kardashian at number 11, and Selena Gomez at number 13, Modi is the only politician besides former U.S. president Barack Obama (and the banned Donald Trump) to break into the top 20. Modi’s popularity is a testament to the size and deeply political nature of the Indian Twittersphere — Twitter has 75 million users in India — and to the effectiveness of his party’s political machine. But after February 1, when the platform failed to permanently ban government critics at the country’s request, Indian Twitter’s days might be numbered, as the government floats a domestic knock-off: Koo, the “voice of India.”
“Sir, I think it’s time to leave Twitter Facebook & instagram!!” reads one pro-government tweet from a year ago. “Waiting desperately for Indian social media app!!! #JaiHind.”
Obama, who has the highest follower count at over 129 million, was the first major politician to grasp Twitter’s possibilities during his first presidential campaign. In 2007, Obama’s campaign hired Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes to serve as “online organizing guru,” and was able to sweep aside party favorites by using social media to capture the young vote. Modi was inspired by Obama, joining Twitter just a year after he did, in 2009. Alongside his party’s social media wing, the BJP IT cell, he launched a never-ending political campaign, one that electrified and polarized India’s youth.
Hindutva, which at the time had fallen out of fashion, reentered the popular imagination: India’s 75 million Twitter, 320 million Facebook, and 422 million WhatsApp users were flooded with promises of a return to an unspecified Hindu golden age. By hijacking hashtags and waging Twitter wars, pro-government accounts deeply influence the Twittersphere, and thus the entire country. Critics called the users bhakts — devotees of Modi — but BJP officials call them something else: yodhas, warriors.
This is how the BJP exploited Twitter and hacked Indian democracy, creating the largest campaign machine in the free world.