Sheyril Agarwal, Joyojeet Pal
(to cite: Agarwal, S.and Pal, J. (2022) BoycottBollywood: A Study of Twitter Networks Calling for Cancelling the Hindi Film Industry. Available Online at https://joyojeet.people.si.umich.edu/boycottbollywood
The messaging asking for netizens to boycott Brahmastra is part of an ongoing campaign to get people to boycott films coming out of the mainstream Hindi cinema industry, popularly known as Bollywood. The reasons for these have been written on widely by various commentators, our goal here is to examine the discourse around the boycott on Twitter. The BoycottBollywood campaigns have been widely covered both in the mainstream news, digital news, as well as in the international press for its growing footprint online.
In this article, we describe the network characteristics and mechanics of the organized anti-Bollywood activity on Twitter. We describe the key actors, targets, overlaps, and timelines of activity to help understand their strategy for coordinated attacks.
We built a dataset of tweets that included the #BoycottBollywood hashtag by using the Twitter Streaming API, for the dates between August 1, 2022 and September 12, 2022. We found that 167,989 accounts had at least once used the #BoycottBollywood hashtag. This yielded us a total of 1,438,221 tweets, of which 212,428 were original tweets, while the remainder were retweets, quoted tweets or replies to tweets from the original set.
Of the entire set of 167,989 accounts that at least once used the hashtag, 336 accounts had over 1000 tweets that used the #BoycottBollywood hashtag in just the 42 days covered by study.
We plotted the daily post frequency for all the tweets and retweets in our dataset and annotated the peaks in the plot (see Figure 1). We were able to account for some peaks by mapping them to relevant events and looking at the tweet content for that day.
The first peak is seen on August 3, 2022, just prior to the release of Jasmeet Reen’s Hindi film Darlings on August 5. The film starred Alia Bhatt, who is commonly at the center of anti-Bollywood tweeting.
The period also coincides with an increased hashtagging activity in anticipation of the release of Advait Chandan’s Laal Singh Chaddha, starring Aamir Khan and Kareena Kapoor. Both stars, like Alia Bhatt, are frequently targets of anti-Bollywood tweeting. We see in Figure 1 a peak around August 11, which coincides with the release date of Laal Singh Chaddha and Aanand Rai’s Raksha Bandhan, starring Akshay Kumar.
The next peak we see is on August 18, the first counter-pattern when several actors and actresses tweeted in support of Laal Singh Chaddha to counter the backlash it was receiving on Twitter. This peak was also a day before the release of Anurag Kashyap’s Dobaara. Kashyap is also a heavily trolled filmmaker. The next few peaks from August 20-23 are attributed to the continuing discussions around Laal Singh Chaddha as well as on Telugu film Liger, which was set to release on 25th August. While there are some non-Hindi films that get attacked online, the consistent pattern we see is mainly Hindi films getting attacked aggressively.
The second counter-pattern was around Aug 28-29, when we see a high number of tweets related to twitter user @GemsofBollywood, an account that was first exposed as being a business enterprise that benefited from anti-Bollywood messaging. The activity post August 28 moved away from Laal Singh Chaddha and focused mainly on Brahmastra Ayan Mukerji’s Brahmastra, starring Alia Bhatt and Ranbir Kapoor. This set off a new round of engagements.
This last peak we see was around attempts to trend a boycott based on Brahmastra. The pattern on September 7, when the proportion of original tweets to retweets rises – suggesting a relative declining engagement, where the average tweet proposing the boycott has to work harder per retweet. We attribute this to a shift in the case of Brahmastra to tweets that use #BoycottBollywood less and move to #BoycottBrahmastra. Thus while the number of tweets appears to fade away, that is a combination of the data collection, and the move to more pinpointed hashtagging around the film instead of the industry.
Figure 1: Daily timeline of the number of #BoycottBollywood tweets (Link to interactive plot: https://plotly.com/~sheyril/53/)
The majority of attacks are timed around the releases of new films. This makes sense from a virality perspective because the film is newsworthy. This is reflected in which films get attacked. While the sample is too small for a clear correlation, we see that the bigger budget films like Brahmastra, Laal Singh Chaddha, and Raksha Bandhan get more sustained attacks than relatively smaller budget films Darlings and Dobaara.
While every big-budget Hindi movie was attacked as well as the major South Indian film releases. In Figure 2, we see that the film that received by far the most calls for a boycott was Laal Singh Chaddha. Four films followed, with nearly the same range of boycott calls – Brahmastra, Pathan, Raksha Bandhan and Liger – the last being a Telugu film. We found that there was a boycott call on every single day of the sampled period for the movie Brahmastra. Likewise Dobara, Vikram Vedha, and Dobara each had boycott messaging for over 10 days in the sampled period. Interestingly, several of the films being attacked online had not even been released – including Pathan, Vikram Vedha, and Kisi ka Bhai Kisi ki Jaan.
Figure 2: The most attacked films on Twitter in the study period (Link to interactive plot: https://plotly.com/~sheyril/51/)
Below, we see four of the films that were trolled in the sampled time period. On looking at the engagement with these films online, we see a similar pattern of extreme opinions where films are aggressively voted down. A good indicator of this is the mismatch between the ratings of a film on Rotten Tomatoes and the ratings by the general public on a platform like google or IMDB. Typically films do have a gap between a critic rating and a general public rating, but that tends to be within a reasonable range. The cases we see here have significant differences between the two numbers. While Raksha Bandhan does badly across the table – Dobara has extremely low public ratings, despite very high critic ratings. Likewise the film with the highest critic ratings – Darling – also has relatively modest public voting down.
Figure 3: Difference in Critic rating and Public rating for heavily attacked films
Interestingly, there is no comparable boycott effort for south Indian films that originate from within the South with the exception of a small number of films, where the sparring is mainly between fan clubs of competing stars. The boycott of Liger is also somewhat unique, because unlike some of the other South film stars who have active fan clubs that immediately swing into action against anyone who attacks their preferred star, Devarakonda does not belong to an established film clan, and also has a fair share of those that explicitly dislike his cinema.
We found that a very significant proportion of the accounts that tweeted the BoycottBollywood hashtag were in fact ghost accounts with no social media following. A total of 12,889 out of the 167,989 accounts that at least once used the hashtag had 0 followers. This suggests collusive behavior, since an account with no followers has no real incentive to flood social media with messaging.
We visualize their tweeting behavior in figure 3, where x axis represents the log value of the number of tweets of a ghost account, while y axis represents the total number of #BoycottBollywood related tweets from these accounts.
There are two inferences that can be drawn from this scatter plot, which should be seen in conjunction with figure 4. First, that a vast number of these ghost accounts have over 100 tweets in the study period alone, and a small number have tens of thousands of tweets. Most of these accounts do not tweet primarily about #BoycottBollywood (as we see in the percentage breakdown in figure 4), therefore the inference here is that these accounts are employed for a range of topics.
The second conclusion, specific to #BoycottBollywood is that a small, but significant number of accounts are heavily engaged in the hashtag despite no direct audience for these accounts (as they have no followers).
Figure. 4: Scatterplot of the ghost accounts (with 0 followers) based on the n of tweets (link to interactive plot: https://plotly.com/~sheyril/55/ )
Figure 5: Scatterplot visualization of the ghost accounts and the percentage of their tweets that have #BoycottBollywood in their text
We see above that the majority of ghost accounts are in the left bottom corner of the graph. This means that the account does not follow too many other accounts, and also that only a small percentage of its tweets are BoycottBollywood related. We can then infer that the objective of these accounts, given that they do not appear in the timelines of friends etc, is primarily to pad numbers in terms of retweets, trending etc. We also find that ghost accounts are significantly more likely to use hashtags in tweets, or retweet messages with hashtags than non-ghost accounts. This further supports the hypothesis that the ghost accounts mainly play a role of accelerating a certain narrative online.
We turn to the creation date of the ghost accounts to explain the presence and activity of these accounts.
First, we see that every account, except one, that solely tweets out BoycottBollywood content has been created in the last two years.
Figure 6: Scatterplot visualization of the ghost accounts by the time they were created on Twitter and the percentage of their tweets that have #BoycottBollywood in their text
We see a spike of new users, just created in August 2022, which are putting out #BoycottBollywood tweets. There are two interpretations for this. First, that there is an actual escalation of the number of accounts that are opposed to the Hindi film industry on-boarding onto Twitter as the months go by, and that as soon as these accounts join, they start tweeting with the #BoycottBollywood hashtag.
The second interpretation is that the increasing number is not an actual increase, but rather, a decrease in previous months by virtue of accounts being de-platformed or suspended. We found evidence of both. Of the 167,989 accounts that had at least one #BoycottBollywood tweet, we found that 1950 had been suspended or banned by the end of the study period. We examined the differences in tweet content between the accounts that were banned and those that remained active, and found very little significant difference. We are making the top hashtags of both sets public here.
We see evidence that the accounts engaging in #BoycottBollywood are relatively recent even outside of the ghost accounts. Figure 7 shows that there is a significant uptick in accounts using the #BoycottBollywood hashtag that have just been created within the last month.
Figure 7: Date of account creation from among those that use #BoycottBollywood between January and August 2022 (Link to interactive plot: https://plotly.com/~sheyril/61/)
#BoycottBollywood use: Influencers and Engagement
This log-scaled graph of high-impact accounts shows the pattern of social media output and its related engagement around #BoycottBollywood. In a nutshell, a few extremely high following accounts tweet the hashtags – typically just once (Sadhvi_Pragya, StringReveals) followed by a small number of mid-range influencers (ErayCr, KreatelyMedia). We find that among known journalists, the only organization that appears multiple times is Sudarshan TV whose editor and chief as well as other widely followed accounts have made calls to Boycott Bollywood.
Figure 8: Accounts using the #BoycottBollywood hashtag that had a relatively high impact in terms of engagements and reach (Link to interactive plot: https://plotly.com/~sheyril/47/)
In general, mainstream politicians eschewed the issue – at least in terms of explicit use of the hashtag, and only a handful of low-level politicians engaged the subject. Besides Sadhvi Prachi, a member of the VHP who frequently courts controversy, two other politicians with some repute – UP state minister Dinesh Pratap Singh and Andhra BJP Gen Sec Vishnu Vardhan Reddy, Delhi BJP State Secretary Vaishali Poddar were among those who tweeted in apparent favor of a boycott.
Figure 9: Tweets by politicians in support of Bollywood boycotts
The more important support for the cause came from influencers who have a great deal of purchase in the right including Vivek Agnihotri, Anand Ranganathan, ISKCON Spokesperson Radharamn Das, businessman Arun Pudur, who Forbes ran an exclusive on for fraudulent income claim, and venture capitalist Asha Motwani. These influencers wield greater authority in right wing circles, and do not carry the negative baggage of some of the more hardened Sushant Singh Rajput fans (also known as SSRians).
Figure 10: Right-leaning influencers tweeting against Bollywood in the study period
Another category of influencers who typically tweet in favor of right wing causes are a small number of accounts belonging to, or claiming to belong to non-Indian persons. Some of these are identified, verified individuals, while others mainly act as propaganda channels for the ruling dispensation. The four highlighted here are Zainab Khan (an unidentified account claiming to be Pakistani), Francois Gautier, Renee Lynn, and Melissa Kapoor. The message forwarded by Melissa Kapoor, who goes by @english_bahen is from @GemsofBollywood a Twitter account that mainly publishes anti-Bollywood content.
Figure 11: Tweets on boycotting Bollywood from accounts that belong to foreigners that claim to support Hindu rights
While there is a mix of accounts that play a part in promoting the anti-Bollywood content, two that stand out are @KreatelyMedia and @ErayCr. While Kreately Media has been in the news for its divisive content, Eray Cather was formerly employed in the media industry including with some of the mainstream Bollywood productions, and gained online following by being one of the core actors in the Sushant Singh Rajput movement. A pattern we see in anti-Bollywood tweeting here is the use of specific individuals or films as a starting point for critique – thus here we see films like Haider, My Name is Khan, and filmmakers Anurag Kashyap and actors Taapsee Pannu and Karishma Kapoor, all known for being relatively supportive of secular causes. This strategy allows the tweets to build hate off individuals rather than an abstract notion of a film industry.
Figure 12: Tweets on boycotting Bollywood which highlight an individual or film as a focal point of the message
In our data, we find that influencers in the boycott Bollywood movement took an aggressive anti-Muslim tone, rather than turn to innuendo. As with in other cases, such aggressive language is rarely used by influencers who have political positions, but rather by individuals who make a reputation for themselves for being outspoken or abusive. In this case, both the influencers were key participants in the Sushant Rajput case. Thakkar who was jailed for offensive tweets against Aditya Thackeray, and Bhandari, who has since become a common face on right-leaning television news were both direct in their messaging as we see in figure 13 below.
Figure 13: Directly-phrased anti-Muslim tweets from influencers
The BoycottBollywood movement also sees a confluence of hate speech with misinformation. While there is hate speech, particularly around notions of ‘Love Jihad’ – aimed at a number of male Muslim actors who are or have been married to Hindu women – including Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, and Saif Khan. The attacks on Aamir Khan were particularly pronounced, both because he was topical, on account of the release of Laal Singh Chaddha, but also because of a past statement in which he criticized growing intolerance in India. Each of these accounts below in figure 14 is a relatively influential account, the message in these is distinctly anti-Muslim. Unlike in the past where Bollywood boycotts were presented as being related to nepotism or bullying, in this round we see a much more direct aim not only at Muslim stars, but at the idea of secularism.
Figure 14: The case for boycotts of films presented through the vilification of individual stars
The SSR case is absolutely central to the current round of Boycott Bollywood messaging. Several of the key characters in the SSR social media messaging, including ringleaders accounts such as @nilotpalm3 and @sushantify have very high volume messaging in the data we gathered. We also see that Priyanka Singh, the sister of Sushant Rajput, who has kept some of the twitter action going, features in this sample, and the @GemsOfBollywood, another key account in moving the boycott Bollywood discourse, also gives a shout out to SSR.
Figure 15: Tweets connecting the Sushant Singh Rajput case with the current round of Bollywood Boycotts
We also found a number of cases of misinformation, often spread by key accounts with significant online followingImportantly, these accounts do not remove the misinformation, even after it is debunked. Right wing influencer Rishi Bagree here makes an unsubstantiated and debunked claim that bollywood stars got a monthly fee from the UP government, while other pieces of misinformation doing their rounds were around Hindi film stars donating funds to Pakistan, as well as a Pakistani businessman’s relationships to terror, and to the Hindi film industry.
Figure 16: Tweets with misinformation on Bollywood actors and their relationship with opposition politicians and with Pakistan.
Perhaps the most unique facet of the boycott Bollywood engagement is the use of a distinction between the Hindi film industry and the South Indian film industry, particularly following the phenomenal success of films like Bahubali, RRR, KGF, and Pushpa in recent years.
We see a series of images and memes presenting differences between both the narratives and individual stars in Bollywood and in the south. We see in figure 17, a mix of images – one which presents South stars as being more patriotic by changing their Twitter images, in another, there are pictures of film stars celebrating Independence day with or without shoes on, presenting that as a matter of respect. Another set of images that were turned into memes and went viral on multiple platforms compared pictures of Bollywood actors who posed with baby bumps when pregnant alongside images of south Indian actresses in traditional dress with their husbands. The main thrust of most such images is to present Bollywood as degenerate and separated culturally from the rest of India, while the South Indian film industry retains “traditional” values.
Figure 17: Tweets that depict the south Indian film industry as patriotic and traditional in contrast to the bollywood film industry
Films from the south receive a lot less organized negative attention on Twitter, despite the problems of nepotism or indeed elements of narrative which are often comparable with Hindi cinema. The south films that gain attention in the Hindi industry tend to be the ones that have more traditionalist plotlines or characterizations, or those that end up remade in Hindi. Also, unlike in the Hindi film industry where a number of Muslim stars are major lead actors and have a powerful standing in the industry, this is largely not the case in the south, with the exception of the Kerala film industry where there are a number of lead actors and filmmakers who are Muslim.
In terms of the Twitter boycott, an exception is that of Liger, which was trolled in a systematic fashion, in much the same way as many of the Bollywood films, and more interestingly, by many of the same accounts. This raises questions around the backlash – and whether these had to do with the star, the filmmaker, or the producer. In the two films shown here, Cobra is being boycotted by Kannada nationalists for not being inclusive – as the directors of the Tamil version did not also produce a Kannada dubbed version, whereas Telugu film Sita Raman is being trolled for having the names of the Hindu gods in its title.
Figure 18: Boycott calls around two South Indian films – Cobra (Tamil) and Sita Raman (Telugu)
Finally, there was one unusual pattern we found, that of individuals seeking to use Boycott hashtags as a means of direct financial value. We find several accounts that use boycott hashtags solely to increase footfalls to their Twitter accounts, which can in turn be monetized in various ways, as we see in Figure 19 below.
Figure 19: An account using the #BoycottBollywood hashtag to attract eyeballs, and hope to direct them to purchase products on Amazon for a commission
High Frequency Messaging
The BoycottBollywood campaign works on two levels. The first, which involves high-recognition influencers that rely on reaching out to the core supporters of the ideology, but also beyond that to the general public. This part of the campaign has players like Vivek Agnihotri, Anand Ranganathan etc, who command significant respect on the right. The second level is the work that is focused on “trending” #BoycottBollywood and a host of other related hashtags. This part of the campaign operates much like a political or brand management campaign which seeks to reach the top of daily trending through high numbers.
A look at the high frequency accounts however shows that the grunt work of trending #BoycottBollywood is largely done by accounts with insignificant following. However, as we also see with the ghost accounts, the real work of trending these hashtags is done by foot soldier accounts. Many of these tweeted several hundred times in the study period, as well as retweeted messages from other accounts. Only two accounts had any significant following – one @AlkeshAmin912 belonged to an anonymous SSR activist, while the other, @mrvikaspandey belonged to an individual who was connected on social media to several key BJP leaders’ accounts.
We searched the database for the accounts that most frequently tweeted on boycotting bollywood and came up with a list of accounts that had a high frequency of both original tweets and retweets of other individuals’ tweets. We then pulled all their tweets, both related to Bollywood and other subjects posted by these accounts during the study period. First, we plotted the most common hashtags, by collapsing hashtags based on spelling variation (i.e., Brahmastra + Brahamastra etc). The resulting visualization shows what is the likely smoking gun on what drives the trending hashtags – Sushant Singh Rajput.
Figure 20: Most used hashtags entities (excluding terms “Boycott” and “Bollywood”)
We turn here to the most called out handles in the anti-bollywood tweets, and find broadly that these are overwhelmingly dominated by the SSR community – practically all of the top ten most mentioned accounts belong to SSR-related handles, with only @gemsofbollywood and @republic being exceptions at the top of that list. For instance, @itsSSR belongs to the late actor, and it is typical for tweets about SSR to mention his handle. We see that the other key accounts mentioned here include @withoutthemind, the handle of the late star’s sister, @manisha_1604 is one of the accounts that most aggressively posts content related to SSR, with almost 400,000 tweets in the last two years. The main anti-Bollywood handle that garners much attention is that of @GemsOfBollywood.
Figure 21: Most mentioned accounts by high frequency tweeters
Below, we look at the most retweeted accounts from within the community of people in the BoycottBollywood movement. In essence, this means a retweeted account may or may not be saying anything about the movement itself, but that the account mentioned is important in their timelines. We see here that @KreatelyMedia is an incredibly important account in this space, with a very large footprint in the BoycottBollywood community, despite a fairly small follower base. We see that PM @narendramodi is the second most retweeted, and while he eschews any discussion on Bollywood, his importance is by virtue of the space he occupies in timelines of these accounts. The other key accounts that are constantly retweeted by those who wish to see Bollywood boycotted include Twitter handles of media outlets associated with the right including @OpIndia_com and OpIndia_in, @epanchjanya and @kumaarSaagar. We also see a number of right-leaning figures or influencers including @kapilmishra_IND, @AskAnshul, @YogiDevnath2 etc.
Figure 22: Most retweeted accounts by high frequency tweeters
When we look at the high frequency accounts – i.e., those that had the most direct individual activity in spreading the #BoycottBollywood hashtags and messages, we find again that they are overwhelmingly dominated by SSRians, who did the bulk of the work of putting out the messages, getting them to go viral and hit the Twitter daily trending messages etc. In figure 23, we also see that most of these high frequency accounts have a similar range of accounts following them with the exception of @mrvikaspandey, a highly followed account.
Figure 23: Accounts using the #BoycottBollywood hashtag that had a relatively high frequency of tweeting (Link to interactive plot: https://plotly.com/~sheyril/45/)
We also create a similar visualization for all accounts present in our dataset. Here, we see some crowding in the bottom left corner, indicating low engagement and low frequency actors. While there is no definitive pattern in the tweeting activity, we also observe a few outliers with high engagement and high frequency of tweeting.
Figure 24: All accounts using the #BoycottBollywood hashtag (Link to interactive plot: https://plotly.com/~sheyril/49/)