6 July 2015

How do you solve a problem like Modi? (& his Twitter followers)

Our prime minister is the master of social media. Don’t just take my word for it—he’s been lauded as a “social media genius” all across the world. Every single word that he types into his phone and sends—or does he get an aide to type it for him?—is viral gold, the stuff media marketers would kill for.

In several ways, this is an excellent thing---instead of waiting for dreary news reports from his press office, we get instant 140-character updates on what he’s thinking, his foreign policy and even sometimes his trending hashtags. (And it goes without saying that whatever hashtag the PM sends out into the world will trend.) We get to travel with Modi as he jaunts around the world, shaking people’s hands, examining old artifacts, we get to join him in wishing the Indian cricket team good luck, we get to watch him pushing a broom half heartedly across a street, his face as delighted as Harry Potter’s during his first game of Quidditch. Modi has his own personal account and an official one, and he uses both quite regularly, but the tweets differ.

For example the latest tweet on the @PMOIndia handle said: “PM extends his deepest condolences to the families of the deceased & prays for the speedy recovery of the injured. [who died in the Khandwa region].” While the handle @narendramodi said blithely, “Am rather late but here's wishing all doctors & CAs on Doctor's Day & CA Day respectively. Both have key role to play in societal wellbeing.” The second tweet sounds like it could be your dad, or uncle or someone, his tone is that of a benign person that you already know and perhaps that is what makes him so popular with 13.4 million followers on his personal account, a number that a story in WSJ pointed out was “more than Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan,who has 6.3 million followers. Pope Francis has 6 million followers in English and nearly 9 million for his Spanish account.”

Of course, the WSJ story also took into account that India is a large country, with many digitally savvy people, but the official PMO account is second only to Barack Obama’s. And it’s not surprising.

In a four-room “digital operations center” inside the headquarters of Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, 20 young men and women tap away at keyboards on desks cluttered with backpacks and bicycle helmets. Hashtags are scrawled on a giant whiteboard,” the story said, going on to add, “Another important job: studying online sentiment. Indu Shekhar, 35 years old, spends his days tracking how netizens are reacting to Mr. Modi’s initiatives and speeches.”

If you are at all on the internet, then you will have seen the #SelfieWithDaughter campaign. Inspired by a Haryana village that held a contest to increase awareness around the girl child, Modi and his team decided to take it nation-wide. In many ways, it was a good idea: sweet photos of people with their kids rolled in and it turned into a sort of love fest of daddys with daughters. It was nice—until it wasn’t.
I dunno, which user do you think we should abuse next?


If you have such a large Twitter following and social media footprint, then you’ve got to be ready for some criticism as well. AIPWA secretary and general women’s right activist Kavita Krishnan tweeted a reference to Modi’s former “snoopgate” story (about how he allegedly had a young woman stalked.) It was one tweet, and it could have been lost in the shuffle, but there are also an army of Modi Trolls (who one hopes are not officially affialiated with his social media team) who seem to scour the internet for any reference of their hero and brutally lash out at anyone who dares to criticise with both abuses and, in some cases, threats. Krishnan’s tweet went about as viral as the campaign, and the discourse turned from loving your daughter to hating on anyone who hated Modi.

Which is the problem with being a presence in and of yourself. If a PM is so popular as a personality, not just as a world leader, this is somewhat to the detriment of his causes. Gentle political discourse, the normal flow of people agreeing or disagreeing with him, is all derailed because he is built up to be greater than great, hero to the people and so on and so forth.

Meanwhile I hope the trolls don’t overthrow something that could be used in several fantastic ways to further democracy. 

(A version of this appeared as my column on mydigitalfc.com)

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