Actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death in June has set off a bizarre wave of conspiracy theories that have played out on Indian news channels, social media networks and even in the world of politics. The controversy has churned up a dizzying array of topics: the perceived nepotism of Bollywood families, Bengalis as black magic practitioners, claims of widespread recreational drug use by filmstars and the allegedly obstructive role of the Mumbai police.
On Saturday, this was brought to an end as the All India Institute of Medical Sciences backed up what the Mumbai Police had said till now: Sushant Singh Rajput died by suicide. All theories of murder were ruled out.
How then did these rumours come to occupy such a major part of Indian public life over the past three months? On Tuesday, the Mumbai Police registered two first information reports under the Information Technology Act alleging that over 80,000 fake social media accounts had been used to “derail” the investigation.
As it turns out, a study of social media content on Sushant Singh Rajput between June 14 and September 12 led by Joyojeet Pal, an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan and a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research India, charted out how the conspiracy narrative was pushed.
The researchers studied “YouTube pages of mainstream television news channels, Twitter trending hashtags, and tweets from politicians, influencers, journalists, and media houses in India, and an archive of debunked misinformation stories compiled from factcheckers operational in India”.
Much of the push has a distinct political edge, with the Bharatiya Janata Party using it to attack the Shiv Sena-led Maharashtra state government.
However, the news itself generated intense public engagement, with news consumers backing journalists who reported outlandish theories about Rajput’s death.
How BJP pushed conspiracy angle
While initial news reports tended to highlight that Rajput had died due to suicide, this narrative soon shifted towards conspiracy theories that claimed that the actor had actually been murdered. The BJP has a distinct role to play in this, found the study.
As the data shows, the BJP showed a strong preference to push the murder theory as compared to the Congress, which stuck with suicide. “The data strongly suggest that the BJP drove the insinuation of ‘murder’ since it was used more than ‘suicide’ in most weeks since July,” concludes the study.
Attacking Shiv Sena
Why would a political party invest effort around the death of a Bollywood actor? The answer may lie in the fact that the Sushant Singh conspiracy theories were soon used to target the Maharashtra government – run by a Shiv Sena-Congress coalition.
The study notes that along with conspiracy theories, the Mumbai police came under sharp attack. This was led primarily by the social media handles of politicians belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is in opposition in the state.
Because of the claimed inefficiency of the Mumbai Police, the police from Singh’s home state of Bihar landed up in the city and started its own investigation into the death.
Along with attacking the Mumbai Police, the social media activity around Rajput’s death specifically targeted the Shiv Sena as well as Aditya Thackeray, who is a minister and son of the chief minister. “The use of hashtags by politicians shows a systematic targeting of the Shiv Sena (#UddhavResignOrCBI4SSR, #ShameOnMahaGovt, #BabyPenguin), the last being a disparaging reference aimed at Aditya Thackeray,” noted the report. “This shows that the hashtag usage by politicians is dominated by those inimical to the present Maharashtra government, largely the BJP.”
While the BJP played a key role, there was also a great deal of general interest around the Rajput death with the media in particular eager to push conspiracy theories.
The media, especially TV channels, played a major role in demonising Rajput’s partner, Rhea Chakraborty. The study notes (see chart above) that media houses started to corner the narrative in early August by calling for Chakraborty’s arrest.
With no proof of any wrongdoing involving Rajput’s death, Chakraborty was eventually arrested by the Narcotic Control Bureau for purchasing a small quantity of marijuana for the actor. This had nothing to do with the initial conspiracy theories around Rajput’s death at all – a sign of how thoroughly news channels had managed to demonise Chakraborty.
Much of the media narrative was pushed by channels seen to be aligned with BJP. “Republic TV is the clear outlier in terms of the retweet rates it gets to its typical tweets about Sushant Singh Rajput,” said the study. “The channel gets a massive boost online from its followers on Twitter when it engages with the subject, several times that of most other channels.”
However, the study also notes that there was interest in this topic across the board: “All four major English language news channels – Republic, TimesNow, CNNNews18, and IndiaToday have a large volume of tweets about Sushant Singh Rajput, showing that across channels there is recognition of, and tapping into the value of the story.”
Why did channels pivot to this story? The answer, argues the report, lies in viewership: “That the audience has consistently rewarded news channels for following this story, for instance, through meteoric ratings for the Republic news network which has offered the most aggressive coverage, are testament to the citizenry’s complicity.”