One of Narendra Modi’s most controversial strategies on Twitter – his generous use of the “follow” button – may also be the key to his success on the platform.
Modi, who was sworn in on May 30 for a second term as prime minister after his Bharatiya Janata Party won a sweeping majority in India’s national election, is Twitter’s second most followed serving politician after US President Donald Trump. However, while Trump follows only 47 accounts – politicians, journalists, his children, and his own businesses – Modi follows over 2,000, many of them ordinary citizens with no direct connection to him at all.
In September, Mumbai Mirror analysed Modi’s Twitter follows and categorised around 700 of them as “laypersons,” most of whom are “die-hard supporters of the prime minister and defend him furiously online while bashing the opposition, especially Rahul Gandhi”, chief of the Indian National Congress party.
This Twitter strategy has got Modi into hot water before, with many criticising him for following “trolls”, and not unfollowing them even after they have used abusive language.
Yet, Quartz’s conversations with experts and individuals who Modi follows shows the political benefits may have outweighed any heat he draws for this.
The ‘reward follow’
A follow from the prime minister gives supporters a “major confidence boost”, said Shivam Shankar Singh, a former data analyst for the BJP, who has written a book on electoral campaign strategies. “If the prime minister follows him, then a Twitter troll will be as active as he needs to be.”
Joyojeet Pal, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, who studies politicians on Twitter, traces Modi’s history of following supporters to 2013 – the year before the election that made him prime minister for the first time. On his birthday that year, “he followed a bunch of non-celebrities – random people. All those random people were people who were actively retweeting him.” This, Pal says, was “a remarkable move because no major politician has done something like that before”.
The closest other world leader to do so, he said, was former US President Barack Obama, whose campaign team followed around 600,000 people ahead of his re-election in 2012. In the former US president’s case, Pal said, “It was basically reciprocal: You follow Barack Obama and Barack Obama follows you back.” Modi’s was more of a strategic ploy: “It was kind of a ‘reward follow’ – and that is a unique and very powerful message, because everybody who gets followed back says, ‘I’ll do anything for this person because they’ve made this public statement for me.’”
Quartz spoke with six ordinary individuals who are followed by Modi. Four of them state in their Twitter bio the fact that the prime minister follows them. “Blessed to be followed by @narendramodi” is a Twitter bio template commonly used by such persons by now, along with the celebratory tweet either announcing Modi’s gesture of following them or even merely his response to any of their tweet. None had ever met Modi in person.
All six individuals said they actively tweet about Modi and his policies, and had done so even before he thrilled them with the “follow”. “The person whom you admire the most, if he followed you back on Twitter, it’s completely an amazing thing,” said Siddharth Kapoor, a self-employed individual in Delhi who was followed by Modi on the festival of Holi earlier in March.
Like Kapoor, most others were also followed by Modi on a particular holiday or occasion – all remembered the exact day.
Monica Verma, a PhD student in international relations, said she was followed on Women’s Day last year. She was not the only woman Modi followed that day; ANI reported that the gesture was extended to around 40 women. “He chose to send a message that this party is now for women empowerment; BJP wants to closely associate with women who are working in different spheres of public policy or research,” Verma said.
Often he even makes an event out of following his rivals. On Holi in 2016, Modi followed around 150 people, some of whom were prominent political opponents, such as Indian National Congress president Rahul Gandhi and Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal.
Verma believes Modi’s strategy of following ordinary individuals is a politically savvy way for a leader to appear “that you’re a part of their normal life.” Following someone, she says, is “a very useful way of making people realise that I might be a prime minister, but see, I’m following you on Twitter and I know what you ate for lunch.”
Some followers spoke of the bump in digital prominence that a follow from Modi gave them. Abhi Athavale, a BJP member from Pune, who was followed by Modi, said, “When he retweets me, suddenly there is a gain of about 40 or 50 followers in a couple of hours.”
Athavale has been tweeting in favour of Modi for years, but got involved in door-to-door campaigning for the party around six months ago. His digital involvement helped spur him to action physically as well, he said.
Most of the individuals Quartz spoke to said Modi following them has not changed how they tweet. However, S Venugopalan, a professor of Sanskrit and Vedic studies at Sanskrit Sri Jayendra Saraswathy Ayurveda College in Chennai, said that since the fateful follow, “I’ve reduced the heat in my words when I tweet.” Venugopalan, who identifies as “pro-Hindu” and an “open bhakt”, says he has softened his words sometimes because, “Tomorrow people should not complain: You [Modi] follow this guy, look at how he tweets. You’re promoting these things.”
What troll problem?
But when asked whether Modi should unfollow individuals if they use abusive language, Venugopalan responded with a vehement no. “Why should he?” he asked. “Being a politician you cannot be soft; you should be playing hot and cold.”
Several other individuals followed by Modi said he should not be held responsible for the language of those he follows. “I think the criticism is absolutely unfair,” Verma said, as “social media is a very open forum”. Trolls exist “across the political spectrum”, she said, adding that as a right-wing woman on Twitter, she gets a fair share of abuse.
After Modi drew criticism for not unfollowing those who tweeted that a murdered journalist was a “bitch”, the BJP released a statement saying the controversy was “mischievous and contorted”. Modi, the statement said, has “never blocked or unfollowed anyone on Twitter”.
A piece by the fact-checking site Alt News says that while Modi has continued to follow many individuals despite their use of abusive language, he did unfollow certain individuals. For example, in 2014, he reportedly stopped following a handle that tweeted a morphed, sexualised image of a woman politician.
Some of the people Modi follows have also been shown to share fake news. A BBC study last year showed that up to 30 pro-BJP accounts were shown to have been the original source of specific pieces of misinformation on Twitter. Modi followed 15 of them. Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi, meanwhile, did not follow any of the accounts that had published anti-BJP fake news.
Amit Malviya, head of the BJP IT cell, did not respond to a questionnaire.
Modi’s methods of following people on Twitter seem to have percolated downward in the party hierarchy. Many right-wing supporters on Twitter, whether followed by Modi or not, proudly include lines in their bios about how they are followed by other leaders, like former foreign minister Sushma Swaraj or finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman.
Pal described this as part of a “tier structure of getting followed” within the BJP. “There are various others who are lesser [-known] celebrities within the party; there’s Tajinder Bagga [a prominent BJP spokesperson], there’s a range of people who might follow you instead of the top person following you,” he said.
The Congress, meanwhile, hasn’t shown interest in replicating this strategy. “I really think it’s a strategy the Congress and Rahul Gandhi should start following,” Singh said, adding that all party workers generally want is “respect and recognition.”
Gandhi currently follows 208 people, nearly all of whom are public figures like politicians, top journalists, or prominent businessmen.
This article first appeared on Quartz.