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How tweets with hashtag #CongressToolkit gained momentum: Research

What triggered the hashtag #CongressToolkit event, who gave it momentum, and how much of a role did influencers play in this event are some of the key questions Joyojeet Pal, Associate Professor at the University of Michigan, and Rynaa Grover, research intern, answer based on their research. Pal and Grover analysed the engagement of tweets with #CongressToolkit between May 18 – May 22 by studying the tweets of politicians and influencers that used the hashtag.

Last week tweets with an image allegedly claimed to be Congress’s toolkit to misrepresent the government’s pandemic efforts were doing the rounds on Twitter with many prominent BJP politicians tweeting about it. Things took a turn when Twitter labelled these tweets as “manipulated media.” The government asked Twitter to remove this tag and the Delhi Police sent a notice to the social media platform asking it to share information that it had in this regard.

This research studied the first phase of this incident when the tweets were initially shared on the platform. In total, 1609 unique tweets, which were cumulatively retweeted over 1.95 million times in the 5 day period formed the dataset. Here are some of the key findings.

Note: Their analysis is not based on Indian standard time (IST)

Peak activity on the first half of May 18, fell significantly after fact check

The first recorded tweet on the toolkit from an influential account came from @PMOIndia_RC  on the morning of May 18. During the first half of the day, ten major BJP politicians, each with more than 500k followers engaged with the subject.

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Going into May 19, the number of tweets with the hashtag from BJP influencers started falling. They fell down significantly in the second half of the day after AltNews fact-checked the story. The hashtag once again saw an uptick on May 21, after Twitter tagged Sambit Patra’s tweet as “manipulated media.”

Image: Timeline of tweeting about #CongressToolkit, number of original tweets from influencer accounts

Karnataka MP Tejasvi Surya had the highest number of retweets on the issue

Following the first use of the hashtag #CongressToolkit, there were 64 instances of a BJP leader with over 500k followers tweeting about the toolkit within the first 10 hours. Although Sambit Patra got a lot of attention for his tweet, it was Karnataka MP Tejasvi Surya who had the most influence in terms of overall engagement with this subject. His five tweets on the subject had 29151 retweets. This was followed by BJP’s Priti Gandhi whose seventeen tweets had 24525 retweets.

Image: Most engaged politicians on #CongressToolkit

Impact of fan accounts and second layer influencers

Pal and Grover also analysed tweets by influencers who are “not top-shelf politicians, but who nonetheless exert much power over the prevalent political discourse.” These accounts include fan accounts, accounts of BJP workers, and that of independent citizens. The research identified 1100 original tweets from such accounts on May 18. The research also identified ten handles with over 15,000 followers, all of which were followed by the official handle of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which tweeted out the most messages on this subject.

Image: Twitter handles that tweeted out the most messages on #CongressToolkit

“This gives us a sense of the scope of the machinery and its ability to aggressively and successfully promote an idea.” – Pal and Grover

Creating a virtual enemy to target

The first network to report on this subject was News Nation TV, which reported within two hours of the first tweet on this issue. News 24 was the channel that most engaged the content after its anchor Manak Gupta amplified the #CongressToolkit hashtag. But otherwises news coverage on this issue “remained spotty”, the research stated.

As there was little mainstream news coverage of this subject, the event started being associated with individual persons, Pal and Grover noted. “This led to the doxing of Saumya Varma, an official at former Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Gowda’s office, who was outed in a coordinated fashion starting at in the morning of May 19 by multiple accounts, as the brain behind the toolkit,” the research revealed. Journalist Sonia Faleiro was another individual who was targeted systematically. “This is typically a useful engagement technique for viral messaging since it creates a virtual enemy that social media users can focus on,” Pal and Grover said.

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