Measuring the polarity of Indian journalists under surveillance in the 2021 Pegasus Issue

Shehla Shora, Dibyendu Mishra, Joyojeet Pal

Cite: Shora, S., Mishra, D., Pal, J. (2021) Measuring the polarity of Indian journalists under surveillance in the 2021 Pegasus Issue.  Link:


We looked at the Twitter profiles of Indian journalists and activists whose phone numbers have been found in the leaked database that is believed to be a list of potential targets of the Pegasus spyware, and obtained their polarity scores based on who their followers are. For this, we first listed the Twitter handles, wherever available, for journalists and activists identified in media reports as of 19th July, 2021 1:30 p.m. IST. 


We sampled the social media followers of all the accounts that were listed as being spied upon, and also those of several accounts that are not, to provide comparison. In addition, we capture the Twitter following behavior of about 40,000 Indian politicians, to map various influencers based on how followed they are among members of one party versus another. Using this method, we assign a polarity score to each account, the magnitude of the score represents the chi square test statistic of dependence between the number of politicians that follow an account and the party they belong to. We choose to keep only the scores significant at p<.005 and set the rest at neutral i.e. 0. The scores are signed based on the party that follows an account more (+ve for NDA or -ve for non-NDA). Thus, each journalist on this list, for instance, either has a polarity score that is statistically defensible, or is marked neutral.


We find that the overwhelming majority of those known to be targeted do have a higher polarity away from, than towards the ruling party. We visualize the journalists from the list of released names of those being spied upon, for comparison, we also visualize a number of journalists who are not known to be spied on, but have a significant online following that can be examined for polarization. We find that from among those on the lists, at least two journalists are known to be polarized towards the government: Manoranjana Gupta and J Gopikrishnan are generally followed by, and engage with pro-government (or anti-opposition) content on social media. Two journalists, Sandeep Unnithan and Devirupa Mitra are marked as neutral since they could not be statistically confirmed as more polarized in favour of or against the government. The remainder of the known released accounts range from moderately to highly polarized, against the government. 

Figure 1: The y axis indicates the total tweeting activity which is measured as the log scaled magnitude of the total number of tweets posted by the account. The size of the bubbles indicates the followers count of the account. The x axis indicates the polarity score (+ve for NDA and -ve for non-NDA) as described earlier. 


Out of the journalists targeted so far, we see a few patterns. First, a number of journalists who cover international and domestic security or diplomatic affairs, including Saikat Datta, Rahul Singh, Devirupa Mitra, Prem Shankar Jha, Manoj Gupta, Sushant Singh, Sandeep Unnithan, Vijaita Singh, and Smita Sharma. Second, we see an over-representation of journalists who have covered parts of the country that have seen protests and political strife in recent years on account of policy moves those who currently or in the recent past reported on Punjab such as Bhupinder Singh Sajjan and Jaspal Singh Heran, and Kashmir, such as Muzamil Jaleel, Iftikhar Gilani, Sushant Singh, Shabir Hussein Buchh. Aurangzeb Naqshbandi, a Kashmiri journalist who covers INC for Hindustan Times is also on the list. Third, we see that the current and past writers with two organizations – The Wire and Hindustan Times – are overrepresented in the initial list of journalists snooped on. A noticeable trend is that none of the journalists snooped on were anchors. The targets are overwhelmingly editors or journalists actively reporting from the field. 


Another noticeable trend, similar to that seen with the issue of the Rihanna tweeting incident that drove viral engagement in February 2021, is that while the first day of the incident saw a lot of anti-government tweeting, the next day saw a number of influencers mobilized on the side of the government. Two lines of messaging have been seen so far. The first, proposing a foreign conspiracy, was mobilized by Zee News editor Sudhir Chaudhury who used the hashtag #SayNoToForeignConspiracies. This found support from a small number of journalists including Aman Chopra, Aditi Tyagi, and Priyanka Sharma, but they are mainly from the same organization as Chaudhury. We also see in figure 2 that Zee News went out of its way to promote the story as foreign doing by trending the conspiracy hashtag.


Figure 2: A Tweet from Zee New English official handle on a hashtag it promoted


The theory of the Pegasus story being a foreign implant was also pushed by pro-Government media outlet OpIndia, which published a story featuring a picture of billionaire investor George Soros, and proposed a conspiracy behind the leak involving both Soros and the Omidyar network. 


A second line of pro-government messaging has proposed that the story is blown out of proportion and is a damp squib. This was put forth by Republic TV’s Arnab Goswami who used the hashtag #PegasusFlopShow both suggesting the theories of hacking and surveillance are unfounded, as well as by ANI. The ANI’s messaging on the issue suggested that the snooping was a non-issue and it used a statement from the Ashwini Vaishnaw, who holds the ministry portfolios of Electronics and Information Technology as well as Communications, and who ironically, had one of the numbers being snooped on. 

Figure 3: ANI tweeting out a message suggesting the Pegasus leaks are excessive allegations


While a small number of journalists including TimesNow’s Rahul Shivashankar, brought whataboutery into the discussion by proposing that the UPA was also complicit, on the whole, we do not see the same level of influencer-led pushback that was seen during the Farmer’s protests. In fact, we see at least one parliamentarian from the BJP, Subramanian Swamy, openly break ranks to call out the snooping. 

Figure 4: Tweet from Subramanian Swamy breaking rank with the BJP on the issue