A recent study by researchers at University of Michigan, published in the Economic and Political Weekly, provides insights into how Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s online image was constructed and evolved over time. By analysing data from @narendramodi Twitter handle – official account of Modi – researchers found that a combination of carefully crafted tweets and strategic followbacks to other Twitter accounts helped Modi build a powerful online brand.
Whom did Modi follow till the general election?
As of May 2014, Modi followed 1043 Twitter accounts, which were categorised under different heads based on public information provided in their account description. It was found that the largest category belonged to laypersons, which constituted 41 per cent of the accounts. Such a behavior is an exception to the rule as most politicians use Twitter as a one-way tool for broadcasting information following only public figures and news media. According to the authors, Modi’s reciprocity to the layperson and BJP Karyakartas (12 per cent) means a call to action. The most common adjectives in these laypersons account descriptions were ”proud”, “nationalist”, “Hindu” and “patriotic”. 14 per cent of accounts being followed were of BJP politicians. A number of celebrity accounts were also followed by Modi.
Speaking with The Hindu, Arvind Gupta, Head of BJP’s IT Cell, said - “In my personal opinion, the Prime Minister does not view social media as a one-way broadcast medium. He uses this to listen, get feedback, engage and get a sense of the mood of the youth and wide diversity of Indians who have taken to social media in a big way. The Prime Minister's follow back list is merely a reflection on getting a sense of the mood on social media across a cross-section of voices.”
How has Modi’s social media message changed over time?
Tweets analysed over four time periods
Number of Tweets
1 February 2009 to 21 January 2012
3 August 2012 to 30 January 2013
Tweets leading into 2012 Gujarat elections
13 April 2014 to 17 May 2014
Tweets leading into 2014 general elections
15 December 2014 to 18 February 2015
Tweets as PM
Analysis of the content of tweets from four phases between February 2009 and February 2015 sheds light on how Modi’s social media message has changed over time. Youth and Development were consistent themes in all phases. Hinduism theme – referring to “Hindutva” or Hindu greetings, practices, festival and Gods – was dominant in the first two phases but drops off significantly leading to 2014 general elections. In terms of word count, mention of “Gujarat” declines after the first two phases, signifying Modi’s transition from a regional politician to a national one. In the third phase, election rallies and political confrontation dominate.
Retweets and Favourites of Modi’s messages
Consistent growth of retweeting and favoriting of Modi’s tweets was observed between 2009 and 2015. Though retweeting was higher until February 2014, favoriting overtook retweeting – as is of most celebrity accounts – with increase in Modi’s online following. This analysis shows evidence of consistent activity in pre-election retweeting by Modi’s followers.
In an email conversation with The Hindu, Professor Joyojeet Pal, one of the researchers, said: “Higher retweet rate is typically a sign that someone is trying to propagate your message – your followers or supporters, for instance. A higher favourite rate, on the other hand, is more indicative of either a kind of ‘fandom’ or some form of casual acknowledgement”.
The significance of retweets becomes amply clear by comparing accounts of Rahul Gandhi and Shashi Tharoor, Prof. Pal told The Hindu. He observed that even though Tharoor’s follower count is eight times compared to that of Rahul, tweets of the latter, on an average, get retweeted several times more, which is an evidence that there is a support base retweeting Rahul’s content. He further added that tweets that are carefully crafted having persuasive messages – as are of Rahul and Modi – have much better potential for retweeting compared to Tharoor’s casual citizenry style of tweeting.
According to Mr. Gupta, the Prime Minister was one of the earliest adopters of social media and his understanding of the power of the medium comes from a personal, hands-on experience. “It is but natural that his use of Twitter has evolved keeping in mind the gravitas of the Office he is currently holding. What is being referred to as ‘measured evolution’ and ‘crafted quotes’ is merely a reflection of this evolution. There is nothing more to be read into it. Of course, given his busy schedule he leverages the support of an extended team from time to time as the situation may demand, but he continues to be hands on with technology, keeping up the with the latest in medium through the day.”, Mr. Gupta said.