Joyojeet Pal, Rynaa Grover
(Cite Grover, Rynaa, Pal, Joyojeet. 2021. #CongressToolkit on Twitter, an examination Online at http://joyojeet.people.si.umich.edu/congresstoolkit)
We examined the engagement with #CongressToolkit for 5 days between May 18 – May 22 by pulling the tweets of politicians and influencers that used the hashtag. The resultant dataset included 1609 unique tweets, cumulatively retweeted over 1.95 million times in that period. We present an analysis of some of the key themes.
The first day the toolkit was did its rounds on Twitter as a Congress conspiracy, in the days that followed, in the aftermath of a factchecked report, the story took new angles. A second twist came following Twitter’s marking of one of the key tweets as ‘manipulated.’
We primarily examined the first phase of discussion around the toolkit.
Frequency and Timing
First, we look at the frequency of tweets about the CongressToolkit. The pattern here is fairly clear, the peak of activity happened in the early half of the day on May 18. While BJP politician Sambit Patra was credited in the news as being the early driver of the story, the first recorded tweet from an influential account came from account @PMOIndia_RC at on the morning of May 18.
The core phase of activity came in the early half of May 18, when ten major BJP politicians, each with 500k or more followers engaged with the subject. A look at the spread of tweets about the toolkit shows a large amount of engagement in the early half of May 18.
Figure 1: Timeline of tweeting about #CongressToolkit, number of original tweets from influencer accounts (minimum 5000 followers)
We see that while the story remains in the news into May 19, the number of tweets on the issue from BJP influencers dropped. Looking at the public reaction (as measured through retweets) we find that the core engagement around the issue dropped dramatically by the second half of May 19, suggesting that the AltNews factchecked story (on May 19) impacted the uptake for the issue. We see only one spike in engagement on the toolkit, during the second half of May 21, mainly in the aftermath of the Twitter tagging of Sambit Patra’s tweet as manipulated media by Twitter.
Figure 2: Engagement of tweets about #CongressToolkit, measured through retweets
When we look at who engaged the material, we see a pattern of several key BJP leaders amplifying the tweets in a very short period of time. The first network to break the story was News Nation TV, within two hours of the first messages on the issue, but mainstream news did not break the story till much later.
Key Accounts Amplifying CongressToolkit
There were a whopping 64 instances of a BJP leader with over 500k followers tweeting about the toolkit in the first 10-hour period following the first use of the #CongressToolkit hashtag. Table 1 shows us the most influential Twitter handles in the #CongressToolkit tweeting between May 18-21. We see that while Sambit Patra got a lot of attention for his first tweet and its flagging as false, Karnataka MP Tejasvi Surya was the most influential in terms of overall engagement with the issue. Ironically, the only major politician who retweeted a message against the toolkit was Subramanian Swamy who attacked the ‘low-lives of BJP IT Cell’ for trending #CongressToolkit.
Table 1: Most engaged (retweets) politicians on #CongressToolkit
|Handle||Tweets about #CongressToolkit||Total Retweets to their messages on #CongressToolkit|
However, the more interesting action may be in a second layer of influencers, who are not top-shelf politicians, but who nonetheless exert much power over the prevalent political discourse. On May 18, we recorded over 1100 original tweets, not counting retweets, by Twitter handles that had more than 10,000 followers, using the term #CongressToolkit. This gives us a sense of the scope of the machinery and its ability to aggressively and successfully promote an idea. Incredibly, we find that all ten handles were followed by the official handle of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Table 2: Twitter handles that tweeted out the most messages on #CongressToolkit (>15k followers)
|Twitter Handle||Account Type||Tweets about #CongressToolkit||Whether Followed by Narendra Modi||Followers|
|Sootradhar||Unnamed Fan Account||59||Yes||64265|
|ibhagwa_n||Unnamed Fan Account||50||Yes||134012|
|ModiBharosa||Unnamed Fan Account||40||Yes||62131|
|bhav2406||Independent Citizen Account||40||Yes||17766|
|bjpsamvad||BJP Official Account||34||Yes||315877|
|Prafullaketkar||Editor of RSS Weekly Organiser||33||Yes||38968|
|NavroopSingh_||Independent Citizen Account||25||Yes||33255|
|upma23||Independent Citizen Account||24||Yes||141507|
We find that overall, media engagement with the issue remained spotty. While News Nation TV first broke the story, the channel that most engaged the content was News 24, with its anchor Manak Gupta who amplifying the #CongressToolkit hashtag. Indeed, as BJP-aligned influencer Shefali Vaidya pointed out on May 19, “Not one word in today’s newspapers about the #CongressToolKit. Tells you the hold @INCIndia has on traditional media still.”
Listed on Table 3 are the most retweeted messages about the issue, and can be examined for the textual patterns. One important tactic is also worth noting. By late on May 18, there was little mainstream news coverage, at which point the event was associated to individual persons.
This led to the doxing of Saumya Varma, an official at former Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Gowda’s office, who was outed in a coordinated fashion starting at in the morning of May 19 by multiple accounts (including @ModiBharosa, @upma23, bhav2406, who are among the most aggressive engagers on the hashtag), as the brain behind the toolkit. This messaging was not just done by the influencers, but also by senior BJP leaders Suresh Nakhua and Amit Malviya, all within two hours of the initial outing. This is typically a useful engagement technique for viral messaging, since it creates a virtual enemy that social media users can focus on. Another individual targeted systematically, by multiple accounts, was journalist Sonia Faleiro.
Table 3: Timeline of 20 most retweeted messages, arranged by date and time
|May 18 5:35||Friends look at the #CongressToolKit in extending help to the needy during the Pandemic!
More of a PR exercise with the help of “Friendly Journalists” & “Influencers” than a soulful endeavour.
Read for yourselves the agenda of the Congress:
|May 18 8:11||They day after I exposed hospital bed allocation irregularities in Bengaluru, every Congress leader personally attacked me, supported by ecosystem media.
More than 60k tweets spewing hatred were tweeted in 24 hrs.
All of this was executed as per #CongressToolkitExposed.
|May 18 8:19||It’s disgusting that Congress & it’s ecosystem are using biggest pandemic in last century to score political points against PM Modi.
Rejoicing deaths, defaming county by international publications & deliberately spreading misinformation – is criminal.
|May 18 8:20||राहुल गांधी और कांग्रेस सत्ता के लिए किस हद्द तक गिर सकते है और इसमें केजरीवाल जैसे परजीवी कितना जहर घोल सकते है वो सब सामने आ गया
देश के खिलाफ लगातार साजिश शर्मनाक हैं , घटिया है
|May 18 8:24||– Assist foreign journalists with sightings of funerals & dead bodies. Facilitate journalists who use ‘dramatic’ pictures, make sure their reporting is magnified.
– Use words ‘Indian strain’ & ‘Modi strain’.
– Block hospital beds.
This is pure evil!!
|May 18 8:50||The #CongressToolkitExposed clearly instructs cadre & ecosystem to block beds in hospitals to create artificial scarcity.
No wonder entire ecosystem pounced on me with fake propaganda from the minute I exposed bed allocation irregularities in Bengaluru.
|May 18 9:04||Congress has mastered art of political vulturism.
For their politics to flourish, they want India to suffer & bleed.
In Bharat’s defeat, they seek their political revival.
#Congresstoolkitexposed shows their toxic & deplorable existence. https://t.co/03O8M6A1IU
|May 18 9:30||ये हैं राहुल गांधी और कांग्रेस का सच
हिन्दू धर्म को बदनाम करो , कुम्भ को गाली और ईद की महान बताओ
कोरोना को पूरी दुनिया में भारत से फैली बीमारी बताओ
विदेशी पत्रकारों को लाशों के ढेर दिखाओ
देश और मोदी को गाली दो
|May 18 9:35||“Respond to help only if a person tags the IYC handle” … understandable when ‘death’ becomes a vote bank.
|May 18 9:52||‘Shame Hindu, Blame Hindu’ tactic of “provisional” Janeudhari Rahul Gandhi … blame Kumbh to shame Hindus …
बिल्ली भी कुछ घर छोड़ के मुँह मारती है … अपनी दादी का धर्म तो बख्श देते जनाब।
|May 18 10:04||Dividing society and spewing venom against others….Congress is a master at this. India is seeing Congress’ antics, while the nation is fighting COVID-19. I would urge Congress to go beyond ’Toolkit Models’ and do something constructive. #CongressToolkitExposed||5267||JPNadda|
|May 18 10:11||Dividing India & attempting to fracture the Indian social fabric with communal hatred is Congress’s second nature.
Disgraceful to see the Congress party & its leaders engaging in political deception to mislead citizens & create roadblocks for the Nation.
|May 18 10:40||My country, our country is at war with a virus. I can understand the opposition would want to attack the Govt. But to singularly commercialise it as a political opportunity & deal in death; I never imagined Congress was capable of such a low. #CongressToolkitExposed||3990||smritiirani|
|May 18 11:40||Sonia Faleiro daughter of Cong MP Eduardo Falerio labels variant as “Indian Variant & Modi variant” #CongressToolkitExposed https://t.co/6I3EnKCK57||4723||TajinderBagga|
|May 18 15:15||We all can have differences of ideology, opinions & faiths!
BUTWhy is Congress party so desperate to use the word ‘Indian’ Strain?Why anti India stands each and every time?#CongressToolkitExposed
|May 18 16:38||सबसे बड़ा सवाल उन दो कौड़ी के बिकाऊं पत्रकारों पर जो कांग्रेस की टूल किट के हिसाब से ट्वीट कर रहे थे
|May 18 17:20||Once a traitor always a traitor
|May 18 17:41||Indian citizens after reading #CongressToolKit :
INC – Indian National CONgress ❌
|May 19 2:43||Rahul Gandhi’s former business partner’s wife @SoniaFaleiro was amongst the first to use the term “Modi Variant”.
Sonia is wife of Ulrik McKnight, @RahulGandhi’s business partner in Backops, consulting firm he founded in 2003.
|May 19 3:40||Not one word in today’s newspapers about the #CongressToolKit. Tells you the hold @INCIndia has on traditional media still. #CongressToolkitExposed||4604||ShefVaidya|