Is Rahul Gandhi followed by bots on Twitter? On Saturday, the news agency ANI ran a report accusing “alleged ‘bots’ with Russian, Kazakh or Indonesia characteristics” of routinely retweeting the Congress vice president’s tweets. The Bharatiya Janata Party promptly picked up on the allegation to attack the Congress.

In a vast country of over 1.3 billion people, it is more than a bit odd that this controversy captured the news last week. But then social media is seen as an important barometer of Indian politics. Parties expend much effort on it, and the English-language media, in particular, pays close attention. So, is social media really effective in shaping public opinion and, more importantly, voter choice?

Fake followers

For what it’s worth, the ANI investigation did not reveal much. The tweet it looked at has been retweeted more than 31,000 times since it was posted by Gandhi on October 15. Of that, the ANI reported just 10 retweets by “alleged bots”.

In fact, more rigorous methods of investigation point to the BJP for generating far greater paid content on social media. The service Twitter Audit found, for example, that as many as 63% of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s followers on Twitter are fake. A data dive by the Aam Aadmi Party’s Ankit Lal found that multiple Twitter trends supporting the BJP were driven by users located in Thailand. That a trend manufactured is not difficult to spot. Often, Twitter handles trying to trend something in favour of the BJP do not even bother to change the wording of the tweets, clearly indicating they were copy-pasted from a template.

BJP success story

The use of social media for political outreach has exploded in recent years, and the BJP is the pioneer. The party employed social media as a key campaign tool in the 2014 election, to winning effect. In sheer numbers, the BJP dominated social media during the election. One study found that while top leaders of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance posted about 2.5 million tweets during that campaign, major leaders of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance only managed a million.

The BJP has kept its lead since. In this year’s Uttar Pradesh Assembly election too, as Newslaundry reported, the party keenly used social media to push its message. The BJP Information Technology Cell posted an official in each tehsil of the state to focus on spreading its message through WhatsApp. It also ran Facebook pages that published content similar to that on WhatsApp: painting the BJP as pro-Hindu and tarring the Samajwadi Party as anti-Hindu.

Pro-BJP social media users have grown so powerful that they often dictate to even the party’s senior leaders. On October 10, Union Health Minister Harsha Vardhan tweeted support to the Supreme Court’s ban on firecracker sale in Delhi. He was so harshly criticised by the right-wing on social media that he had to eventually delete his tweet.

Playing catch-up

The Congress is still far behind in this game even though, lately, it seem to be catching up. On October 18, Hindustan Times ran a story detailing the sudden popularity of Gandhi’s tweets. It showed that the average monthly retweets per tweet of the Congress leader had overtaken that of Modi. It also presented data showing that social media presence might be helpful for politicians.

But the data does not correlate well with actual political strength. The third most retweeted politician in India is Arvind Kejriwal. In 2015, after his Aam Aadmi Party won Delhi, Kejriwal was India’s most retweeted politician. All this when his party is a fairly small player in Indian politics. It has just four MPs in the Lok Sabha – 0.7% of the House’s strength.

The fact is that in India, social media still lags ground mobilisation by quite a bit. Political parties use it mostly to drive media narratives, with TV news channels and newspapers often looking to social media while selecting stories. Rahul’s rising retweet numbers might not be genuine, but they have already made it into reports in major newspapers such as The Times of India.

Online canvassing

Yet, the gap between grassroots politics and social media voter engagement seems to be narrowing fast. In the United States, social media campaigning showed itself to be as powerful as traditional canvassing in the 2016 presidential election. Donald Trump, a complete outsider in American politics, prevailed over his challengers within and outside his Republican Party using online networking. As Trump himself said after winning the election, “The fact that I have such power in terms of numbers with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc, I think it helped me win all of these races where they’re [Trump’s opponents] spending much more money than I spent.”

In India, growing internet and smartphone usage is shaping social media up as a potent tool for political campaigning. As of 2016, only 27% Indians had access to the internet, significantly behind China’s 51% and almost the same as Sri Lanka’s 28% and Sudan’s 26%. But this figure is going up precipitously – it was only 15% in 2014, when Modi was elected prime minister. By next year, India is expected to have 53 crore smartphone users, meaning that more than 40% of Indians will be able to connect to social media.