Policy debates in the post-truth political era are held and won over social media and WhatsApp. And in India, the Bharatiya Janata Party is often considered the master of such tools with a large team of cyber warriors, as mentioned in several media reports. From playing a part in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's historic successive election wins, to mobilising support for some of the party's boldest policy ventures such as outlawing instant triple talaq and stripping Jammu and Kashmir of its special status, the BJP's IT cell machinery was credited for many of party's achievements.
However, the social media machinery appears to have developed a few glitches recently, especially in the wake of nationwide mobilisation against Citizenship Amendment Bill and the subsequent attack on Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).
The anti-CAA protests across the nation and the Twitter war — with anti-CAA hashtags dominating trends since weeks before the BJP IT cell could manage to get pro-government phrases to trend within close quarters of the former — got even pro-government sections talking that the government was 'caught napping' on the issue. What resulted from a hurriedly whipped out outreach programme was a less-than-perfect strategy with loopholes and moves that were flawed.
Not only were the party leaders forced to twist themselves into knots to underplay the intent and impact of a law that for the first time makes religion the test of citizenship in India, but BJP leaders were also found prevaricating.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah said on the floor of Rajya Sabha on 20 November that the NRC process would be carried out across India. Later, in an interview to ANI, he defended Prime Minister Narendra Modi's earlier comment that no discussion had taken place about NRC "either in Cabinet or Parliament". This led to several biting memes circulating online, and the IT cell was left to defend its party.
Furthermore, the IT cell members and several known pro-BJP handles were called out time and again for trying to lure voters with payoffs in order to get them to support Citizenship Amendment Bill. The BJP launched a hotline number, 8866288662, on 2 January on which people were supposed to give a missed call to pledge support to CAA. However, it did not take long for this to go awry, with BJP supporters trying to get more missed calls on various pretexts. Some of the ruses included posting a mass appeal to call up on a Twitter user's 'lost phone' to help them locate it; adds and invites for sex chats; free Netflix subscriptions; and job postings.
Netflix even issued a clarification:
This is absolutely fake. If you want free Netflix please use someone else's account like the rest of us. https://t.co/PHhwdA3sEI
— Netflix India (@NetflixIndia) January 4, 2020
Most media channels carried reports covering the campaign. On 6 January the party chief said that the number received 52.7 lakh 'verified' missed calls in a span of two days. He said in total, the toll-free number received 68 lakh calls.
Then, the JNU attacks took place. Screenshots of masked attackers juxtaposed with other pictures and videos of known ABVP activists caused JNU students to blame the right-wing organisation squarely for launching an unprovoked attack on the varsity campus. The ABVP and the BJP aren't officially related, but hold affiliation to the RSS.
The party released its own version of events, with various BJP supporters seeking to counter the JNU students' claim by calling it a staged attack of Left-leaning students.
The ‘masked revolution’ of JNU ‘unmasked’!
These students affiliated to Left unions blocked the main server room of JNU and today they went on rampage.
Remember a few days ago there were tutorials by Left on how to use masks to avoid facial recognition? pic.twitter.com/ECvfTiYj5i
— Amit Malviya (@amitmalviya) January 5, 2020
This is after several people on Twitter identified at least three ABVP activists armed with rods and sticks around the campus, while ABVP's Delhi joint secretary Anima Sonkar admitted on national television that ABVP activists were armed. During a panel discussion on Times Now, Sonkar, however, said the duo were carrying rods in "self-defence". Seeking to explain the videos that emerged following the Sunday night attack on JNU students and teachers on campus, Sonkar said they were "asked on WhatsApp groups" to be armed before stepping out.
"In all the WhatsApp groups, so much panic was spread... whenever you are stepping out, step out in groups, step out while you have rods... whatever you get handy, pepper spray, somebody has acid. I have not even heard or seen any case of acid attack or something (sic)," Sonkar said during the televised debate.
Asked by the anchor whether she was admitting that the men on the video were from the ABVP, Sonkar said, “Yes, Vikas Patel is our activist. I am not disowning… It's self-defence, complete self-defence."
Later, members affiliated to the ABVP circulated a video of what they said was the 'trigger behind JNU violence'. The footage, as they claimed, showed a Leftist group attacking an ABVP activist as he was helping other students enrol for exam and hostel rooms against JNUSU's call for a total boycott of the procedure until a fee hike is rolled back completely.
The video went viral with various BJP functionaries tweeting the clip. State-run Prasar Bharati News Services too tweeted it out.
Video bears witness to #JNU VC @mamidala90's statement that those opposing registration for Winter session of #JNU are behind violence to scuttle the academic process of varsity. pic.twitter.com/JWr4n81GbW
— Prasar Bharati News Services (@PBNS_India) January 6, 2020
However, Alt News ran a fact check and found the situation to be quite different: the person being assaulted was in fact, an AISA activist, Vivek Pandey. The man in the red shirt, seen assaulting the former, was ABVP member Sharvender. Sharvender has now deleted/deactivated his social media accounts.
Even today, hours after actor Deepika Padukone attended JNU protests as mark of solidarity against the students, a dedicated campaign was being run by some BJP supporters to boycott her upcoming film Chhapaak. #BoycottChhapaak was trending on Twitter with pro-BJP handles abusing the actor for standing alongside the 'tukde tukde gang' and 'anti-nationals'. Some people tweeted pictures showing that they cancelled their tickets for the film. However, several Twitter users pointed out that several of these boycotters appeared to have booked the same seats to the movie. It also transpired that they had all subsequently cancelled these tickets.
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Updated Date: Jan 08, 2020 19:07:36 IST