On May 2, 2015, a photo of a blushing, red-headed woman wearing nothing but a gold chain, about to begin fellatio on a man lying down was re-tweeted onto Narendra Modi’s Twitter feed. It was a ‘POV’ porn shot, one taken by amateurs, judging by the tan lines on her hips.
Beyond that, there’s nothing to judge. The sex looked consensual and the photo wasn’t awful. ‘Pavan’, the mechanical engineer and BJP worker whose account the prime minister still follows, probably didn’t mean to RT it. The originating account has since been suspended for spamming its followers’ feeds. But Pavan did have to be following it in the first place – and Modi had to be following him.
Modi is admired as a pioneer of social-media campaigning in India. He signed onto Twitter in 2009, and by the 2014 election, had a following large enough to prompt the question of whether social media might tip the result. On Facebook, by the time of voting, nearly one in six of all Indian users followed his account. Today, Modi’s Twitter following is the largest of any head of state.
This isn’t just one-way traffic, though. Modi also follows others. “It’s a mechanical process now for me to reach out for my iPad,” he told the British journalist Lance Price in 2014, “Within the first four to five minutes after I wake.” What is remarkable is how little attention we pay to what the prime minister sees on his personal feed – especially since anybody can recreate it, by setting up a Twitter feed that follows the same users.
We know that, if he happened to be browsing his timeline at half past noon on May 2, 2015, the prime minister would be privy to an amateur couple’s enjoyment of third base. Three months later, in August 2015, the government attempted to block access to 857 porn websites, allegedly ‘to protect social decency’.
Only then was it interesting that the prime minister was just two degrees of separation from major porn stars: He followed a number of BJP fans, karyakartas and local leaders who in turn follow Jenna Jameson, Nina Mercedez, Mia Khalifa. If you don’t know who they are, don’t Google it at work. Other accounts followed by the prime minister follow porn bots and aggregators. Here’s looking at you, ‘Swadeshi Vichaar’.
Again, there is no reason to judge. This is just a bracing reminder of the diversity of attitudes within the BJP towards porn (not to mention favourite porn stars). What should give the prime minister pause are the other habits of people he favours on Twitter – their rape- and death-wishes, hate speech and incitement, extremism and blatant disinformation.
In a speech to the Rajya Sabha on February 2, Derek O’Brien of the Trinamool Congress accused Modi of encouraging online hatred and harassment through his choice of whom to follow. “Twenty-six Twitter handles that give out rape threats, communal threats, are followed by the prime minister of India,” O’Brien claimed, and two of those accounts, he said, had been suspended by Twitter administrators. “And these Twitter trolls…,” O’Brien added, referring to Modi’s reception for 150 social media influencers in 2015, “They are invited to the prime minister’s house for a nice social-media party.”
O’Brien took a cheap shot when he read out the personal name of one of those users, leading that user to claim victimisation – a vituperative volley typical of Twitter itself. But it did not detract from his main point: Our leaders, the prime minister especially, are ‘mainstreaming hate’ through their choices on social media.
On May 2, 2015, on the same day of Pavan’s porno RT, right-wing Twitter was working to trend the hashtag #GodhraAgain, portraying a rail roko protest in the town of Shamli as a Muslim mob attacking a passenger train. Several accounts followed by the prime minister used the hashtag, but one of them, @AmiteshSinghBJP, stood out for its intensity:
“#GodhraAgain #FilthyIslam showing its colors. Kill at least 3,000 Muslims tomorrow.”
The user, Amitesh Singh, claimed to be a Pune office-holder of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha. Facing blowback and possible criminal charges, Singh apologised and deleted his account. He was disowned by local chapters of the BJP and BJYM. But evidence remains that he was one of fewer than 2,000 Indians followed by Modi and in any case, his wasn’t the only account the prime minister favoured which invoked #GodhraAgain.
Other users on the prime minister’s timeline have tweeted rape- and death-wishes, most of them now deleted, though screenshots remain. The tone of Modi’s personal feed has softened since the summer of 2015. His 1,641 ‘follows’ include numerous BJP officials and Sangh parivar members, and a growing number of foreign diplomats and heads of state, Indian athletes and the accounts for national agencies and campaigns like the Swasth Chetna Abhiyaan.
Yet Modi’s feed is still in part a torrent of rancour and wilful distortion. One example from this January. Modi’s timeline reflected the death of actor Om Puri with tweets saying: ‘my condolences with #Pakistan! You lost a SOLDIER!’
In another typical tweet, from January 28, when an old, dud mortar shell was found by ragpickers in Delhi, one user followed by the prime minister shared the news as a “plan to attack PM Modi” who was “addressing just 200mts away”. The prime minister’s rally that morning was 12 km away, inside the Delhi Cantonment. But this alt-reality account, endorsed by the prime minister, was retweeted hundreds of times – more than any of the newspapers tweeting about the dud shell.
There’s no question that a follow from the prime minister is a huge endorsement for a Twitter user and a signal about how Modi wants the right to make its presence felt on social media. (Most users he follows proudly advertise the fact.) Before 2014, the mobilisation of right-wing partisans helped the BJP to undercut and undermine the professional news industry, especially any part of it critical of Modi.
On Twitter, Modi’s party could tack strategically between aggressive Hindutva and a more inclusive platform. His devoted online network got their cues directly from him and other leaders. Think of General V.K. Singh, a minister of state, launching the word ‘presstitute’: now the preferred weapon for attacking professional journalists.
In the real world, aggressive and intimidating cadre can turn from an asset into a liability once you’ve won power, especially once you’re leading a national government. With online trolls, however, a new shadow politics arises. The government can continue to control and deploy networks while denying any responsibility for vicious trolls.
Except when they are followed by Modi.
There is as much to learn from what the prime minister reads on Twitter as as there is from what he writes on it. His personal feed ends up a reminder of the fundamental nature and origins of Moditva. As the mainstream media averts its attention from these details, it is the trolls, in this one sense, who reflect the facts. They are the facts.
That is troubling enough. But again, this isn’t one-way traffic. What is more troubling, as we begin to grasp the distortive power of online ‘echo chambers’, is the reminder that the prime minister is in an echo chamber of his own. Modi’s follows give affirmation to trolls, but they also return trollish affirmation to the prime minister.
As the year 2016 taught both major parties in the US, online echo chambers have political costs. They can even cost elections – which is another reason the prime minister should re-evaluate whom he follows on social media. Eventually, Twitter can throw up worse surprises than strangers having sex.