Twitter bots distort democratic discourse

Twitter bots distort democratic discourse

Twitter is a medium of instant eyeballs.   One's popularity is measured by how many likes or re-tweets one gets. Starting with the United States, politicians in democratic countries the world over have started using this medium to enhance their popular appeal. In India, the use of Twitter and other social media platforms for political propaganda was pioneered by the Narendra Modi-led BJP as a key campaign tool in the 2014 election to great effect. According to a study, top leaders of National Democratic Alliance (NDA) posted about 2.5 million tweets during that campaign, while leaders of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) could manage only a million. Recent media reports about Congress leader Rahul Gandhi's  growing presence on social media have, however, prompted BJP campaign managers to claim that it was driven by fake accounts.

The allegation is as true of Prime Minister Modi's Twitter followership, too. A report by data analytics website Twitter Audit reveals that it is true, in fact, for most Indian politicians. Cutting across party lines, these politicians generate popularity on social media using bots, or automated software that was created to make the platform more dynamic, engaging for users and brands alike. Bots have now gone beyond their original purpose and are being misused for a variety of purposes, ranging from manipulating a conversation to creating a mirage of someone's popularity. Most of them, which pose as real users, have the potential to mislead people. Prime Minister Modi, for instance, has two personal twitter handles: @narendramodi and @narendramodi_in. The first is reported to have 3.5 crore followers, of which only 1.3 crore are authentic; the second has 5.99 lakh authentic followers, and 8.01 lakh are marked as bots. In the case of Rahul Gandhi, 19.73 lakh of his followers are authentic and 18.51 lakh are said to be fake.

This is cheating, and it is shameful that more and more Indian politicians, including those at the top, are indulging in it. Bots and their cousins - botnets, bot armies, sockpuppets, fake accounts, sybils, automated trolls, influence networks - are a distorting force in public discourse that is being used for even such purposes as threatening activists and to swing elections. They have no place in a democracy. Politicians who use fake twitter accounts as a tool for political propaganda are, in fact, subverting the democratic process. It is time the political class in India returned to democratic discourse. Since the companies owning these social networking platforms have shown little inclination to check their misuse, the politicians themselves and civil society must step in. Prime Minister Modi and his party started the ugly trend. They must lead the way back.

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