Celebrity or journalist? Who do Indian politicians prefer to engage

(suggested citation: Mishra, D. and Pal, J. (2020) Celebrity or journalist? Who do Indian politicians prefer to engage http://joyojeet.people.si.umich.edu/celebrity-or-journalist-who-do-indian-politicians-prefer-to-engage/)

In a nutshell, we find that Indian politicians aggressively engage with both journalists and celebrities on the whole, but that there are certain patterns by party and importance of the leader or ideology in who engages whom.

We pulled the tweets of the 1000 most followed BJP politicians and the 1000 most followed non-BJP politicians from across party lines, and examined their engagements with public figures and journalists. More details on the sampling methodology of politicians here. We pulled the tweets and handles of 1400 Indian celebrities from entertainment, sports, and business and mapped the number of times they got mentioned. Examples of past research with more methodological details are available here and here.

First we plotted parties by the extent to which they engaged with celebrities or with professional journalists — as measured through retweets and mentions. Figure 1 shows the total engagement of politicians from key parties (min threshold of 10,000 tweets by at least 10 politicians). Since the BJP is oversampled, we see that the party is high on both the x- and y-axes (log scale), but the difference in where it places is important. While the BJP is highly engaged with both celebrities and – 1.7% of all from the BJP sample had some mention of a celebrity, whereas 2.3% of all tweets had mention of a journalist.

The parties that engage the most with journalists over celebrities are the RJD, AIMIM, AAP, CPM, and Samajwadi Party. Each of these parties has significantly high engagement with journalists – either mentioning them in their tweets, or retweeting them. The parties that engage with the most journalistic content (as measured through retweets of journalists’ stories) are RJD and AIMIM- for both parties, over 15% of all the tweets of the top 10 leaders is engagement with content from professional journalists. This suggests a much stronger use of social media for relaying mainstream media content.

We also studied the median retweet rates for tweets that engaged a journalist versus tweets that engaged a celebrity. We find that most parties that have significant journalist and celebrity engagements tend to do better when retweeting a celebrity, although the AAP generally gets more retweets when it engages journalists. AAP also has the most consistent overall outreach approach, with the relatively highest number of politicians actively engaged with both the mainstream media and public figures.

Second, we turned to individual leaders to note the distinctions in the levels of engagement between celebrities and journalists. Figure 2 shows the number of times that a key politician (threshold 100k followers) has retweeted a celebrity or a journalist. This sub-sample of 70 politicians visualized are among the most followed or retweeted politicians. These descriptive statistics are helpful in hypothesis generation. We see for instance that overall, top politicians are generally more likely to engage with journalists than with celebrities, with a few important exceptions.

Some of the most followed leaders and heads of parties including Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi, Sharad Pawar, Naveen Patnaik etc do not retweet either journalists or celebrities. While the BJP has a stronger overall party-level engagement with celebs as seen in Figure 1, several INC leaders who are either part of the outreach, or have independent public following such as Khusbu Sundar, Rajiv Shukla, or Pankhuri Pathak, have high celebrity engagement, despite none of them holding elected office as we see in Figure 2. Misa Bharti of RJD is the most engaged in terms of retweeting public figures and journalists alike, while Asad Owaisi of AIMIM is the outlier in terms of very high journalist engagement but with limited celebrity engagement. Owaisi’s account has the highest proportion of replies to accounts of journalists, signaling an active attempt to engage in conversation with public commentators. He also retweets a significant number of international journalists, particularly on issues relevant to the treatment and representation of Muslims around the world. Since these are issues that celebrities

Retweets of journalists and celebrities by key Indian politicians

Figure 2: Retweets of journalists and celebrities by key Indian politicians (log scale)

A third cluster of politicians are those with the overall most balanced in terms of retweeting both journalists and public figures – these include Misa Bharti and Pankhuri Pathak who work with parties with legislative presence, but also Shehla Rashid, Yogendra Yadav and Kavita Krishnan, who are political figures with no legislative representation. This shows that politicians who are cause-driven see the importance of engagement with both the press and public figures as part of their outreach process.

Finally, we mapped mentions of journalists and celebrities by the sampled politicians. The results here are interesting, there is a significant overlap with the retweet mapping but with some important differences, as visualized in figure 3 below. First, we see two clusters – one of prominent BJP leaders – Kiren Rijiju, Gayatri Raghuraman, Tajinder Bagga, and Modi himself, who are very aggressive at engaging celebrities (though this does not tell us whether the celebrities engage them back at the same level).  On the other hand, there is a cluster of prominent opposition MPs / party leaders including Asad Owaisi, Omar Abdullah, Manoj Jha, and Mehbooba Mufti who have very high journalist engagement but low celebrity engagement.

Most engaged journalists and celebrities by key politicians throughout India

Figure 3: Key politicians by the extent to which they engage mainstream media journalists and celebrities

We see that while Narendra Modi seldom retweets the accounts of either journalists or celebrities, he mentions them more often, in highly viral tweets such as the one below. Unlike him Rahul Gandhi mostly eschew public figures altogether, and this is a key difference in their social media approaches.

As we have seen with Narendra Modi’s social media approach, public figures are employed strategically – not in explicit seeking partisan political support, but presented as citizen engagement. An example in Figure 4 is a tweet he sent to journalists Rubika Liyaquat, Anjana Kashyap, Sudhir Chaudhary, and Rahul Kanwal, asking them to raise public awareness for voter registration, an ostensibly non-partisan cause. While on one hand, Modi has no engagement with the mainstream media at all, messages such as these, suggest a strong interactive and listening relationship between the leader and the press.

This strategy of engaging journalists in fact comes from a strategy used earlier, in 2013, of similarly engaging celebrities, with apparently no-partisan requests more voter engagement support. A great example is his viral tweet engaging Akshay Kumar from just before the 2019 election, presented as an apolitical event.