Since April 2011, a Twitter account with the handle @AjayPandey_ has tweeted over 874,000 times — an average of over 270 posts per day, for nearly nine years.
The content of most of these posts is political — either expressing support for the Central government or attacking political rivals. As is fairly evident, there is more to these astounding numbers than just an individual unhealthily obsessed with social media.
This account, like thousands of others, acts as a nodal point for the systematic dissemination of pro-BJP propaganda on Twitter, an analysis by a coder, who shared his findings on the condition of anonymity, has found. In an earlier interview on 15 January, the coder (identified by the pseudonym Rajesh) described the role of bots in disseminating political propaganda, and recounted his campaign to delete around 1.6 lakh such bots so as to create a “level playing field”.
In a more recent analytical report, Rajesh has described in detail the distinct mechanisms through which the “IT cells” of the BJP and Congress appear to operate.
According to him, while the IT cells of both the BJP and Congress engage in coordinated activity on Twitter, the former has a much larger and more complex structure than the latter. However, what is common to both is a set of nodal or seed accounts that act as the source of political content.
Describing the typical properties of these accounts, Rajesh said, “I zeroed in on these accounts by identifying certain particular traits. These accounts are unverified, put out content at an abnormally high rate, and were mostly created during a specific period of 2013-14. These are the accounts which start trends on Twitter, and post images or videos that are then shared widely.”
The seed accounts affiliated to both the BJP and Congress tweet at a breakneck speed, with all such accounts cumulatively posting an average of 30 tweets per hour — or one tweet every two minutes.
How the BJP’s IT cell works
In his report, Rajesh identified 17,779 accounts that fit the description of being “seed” accounts. All of them were followed by BJP ministers or office-bearers. At the time that Rajesh released his findings, as many as 76 percent of them had the same cover image — the one seen on the profile of @AjayPandey_, mentioned earlier in the article. As many as 87 percent of these accounts were created in 2013-14, and none of them existed before 2011.
Rajesh’s report also revealed that under each “seed” account, there are on an average 80 accounts from the second rung that share and amplify the content that originates from the former category. Most of the second rung accounts have been tweeting since 2016-2017 and have between 30,000 to 200,000 posts. The report estimates that in total, the network of BJP-affiliated users has more than 1.4 million accounts.
Rajesh said, “The average rate at which these accounts post tweets indicate that a significant portion of this activity is driven by automated behaviour or bots. Such bots appear to be used for retweeting content at a mass scale.”
The report was also able to identify 67 clusters into which these accounts appeared to be divided, with each cluster representing one geographical region. Most of the accounts state that they are based in Delhi, Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh or Gujarat. However, Rajesh clarified that he did not analyse accounts from south India due to the language barrier.
But creating and sharing content on a large scale is only a part of the strategy. How do these accounts coordinate with each other?
Rajesh replied, “A lesser-known feature of Twitter — lists — is used for this purpose. The second rung accounts that I identified all belong to some Twitter list or another. These lists help to track the activities of these accounts, and make it easier to retweet content on a mass scale.”
How the Congress’ IT cell works
To identify accounts that appeared to part of the Congress’ IT cell, Rajesh identified users who mention phrases like “INC supporter” in their respective bios, and users who are consistently retweeted by Congress leaders or official party handles.
Like accounts that appear to be affiliated to the BJP, the Congress’ social media war room also appears to have a core group from where its content originates. Most of these accounts have been in existence for six to seven years. However, this core group is much smaller that that of the BJP — only 0.1 percent of the total network, as against seven percent for the saffron party.
A significant difference between the BJP and Congress units appears to be that leaders or state-level ministers of the latter party do not follow these unofficial accounts. Also, the Congress’ IT cell is more centralised and does not seem to be divided into clusters like the BJP.
Rajesh noted, “There seems to be a key difference between the working style of the Congress and BJP IT cells. The activity of the Congress’ war room is largely aimed at trending certain hashtags or topics at specific times — say, when a rally is taking place. On the other hand, BJP-affiliated handles keep tweeting in high volumes even at times when nothing particular is happening, by posting low-effort content. This is aimed at ensuring that when one searches for a particular topic, pro-BJP voices show up more often.”