Freedom of press and social media partisanship in India

Dibyendu Mishra, Joyojeet Pal

(cite: Mishra, D., Pal, J (2020) “Freedom of press and social media partisanship in India: A visualization of tweets around the 2020 FIR against The Wire”


Following the statement by 3500 public figures including jurists and artists in opposition to the FIR by the Yogi Adityanath government against the editor of The Wire, Siddharth Varadarajan, we examined tweets by public figures, politicians, and journalists in support of, or opposition to the editor and the publication in this case.

We took all tweets that were posted between March 29, 2020 and April 14, 2020 from 2000 politicians and 1250 public figures from entertainment, sports and business and 1899 journalists. For more details on the methodology of shortlisting journalists see here.

The visualization of the tweets offers some insight into the divisions in media today. As we see in figure 1, the majority of persons publicly tweeting about the issue are generally on the left of the spectrum (as measured by the engagement of their content by BJP or non-BJP politicians, methodology here and here).

Journalists and public figures with over 25,000 followers who have tweeted about @TheWire_in or @svaradarajan in the context of the UP FIR between March 29, 2020 and April 13, 2020

Journalists and public figures with over 25,000 followers who have tweeted about @TheWire_in or @svaradarajan in the context of the UP FIR between March 29, 2020 and April 13, 2020

While the basic issue of press freedom is arguably one that is bi-partisan, The Wire, as a news source is not preferred by the BJP or its supporters, as we have shown here. Although a number of journalists wrote an open letter, supporting The Wire, the list excluded a vast number of the journalists with the most influence online, as measured by followers.

In short, most journalists likely to support on the issue were likely to be on the same end of the political spectrum, irrespective of whether they agreed or disagreed with the basic principle of press freedom. Thus many of the journalists typically preferred by BJP politicians (even if their organizations are subscribed to across the viewer spectrum) did not comment on the issue.

A second trend, which has also reflected in other data on Indian celebrities is that generally, the more widely followed a celebrity in India, the less likely they are to engage with a cause that is politically sensitive, the general exception being celebrities who have already taken an open ideological position or formal alignment with a political party.

Thus a small number of highly followed online influencers including Farah Khan tweeted in favour of The Wire (till the date studied) whereas businessman TV Mohandas Pai was the main widely followed influencer to speak in support of the UP government. The only senior politicians to engage with the issue were P Chidambaram and Shashi Tharoor.

The implications of this are potentially serious. Indeed, this may be an outcome of the times and the widespread existential panic over COVID, suggesting journalists and celebrities are preoccupied with other issues. However, the lack of support from politicians aligned with the government is to be expected, the lack of support from celebrities and a large section of the journalist community underlines that in conflicts with the state, the main recourse that the media has is the law.