Kolkata: Ahead of the crucial West Bengal assembly elections next year, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on Friday appointed its IT cell chief, Amit Malviya, as the co-mentor to oversee party affairs in the state.
Soon after his appointment, Malviya tweeted thanking the party’s central leadership and said, “Bengal is an important state for the BJP. To be appointed co-incharge for this critical state is an honour for me.”
Bengal is an important state for the BJP. To be appointed co-incharge for this critical state is an honour for me. I am grateful to Shri @JPNadda for this opportunity. Under the leadership of PM @NarendraModi and guidance of Shri @AmitShah and Shri @BLSanthosh, I will do my best.
— Amit Malviya (@amitmalviya) November 14, 2020
Many political experts see his appointment as an indication of the saffron party’s dependence on social media.
Professor Maidul Islam, who teaches political science at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata, said, “Amit Malviya’s appointment as a co-mentor for West Bengal is broadly because of two points. One, Bengal is a known turf for him as he has given the BJP a good result here in 2019. Second, he will ensure more disinformation campaigns are launched on social media before the 2021 election. Social media is one of BJP’s greatest strengths.”
Veteran Trinamool Congress leader and MP Sougata Roy told The Wire, “Amit Malviya is neither an elected representative nor a grassroots worker for the BJP. The sole reason for his appointment in Bengal is to spearhead a disinformation campaign. He’s only good at that. Hence, we will see a barrage of fake news peddling from the BJP social media handles.”
Roy also pointed out that BJP’s recent appointments clearly indicate no confidence in the party’s Bengal leadership. “BJP is parachuting its Delhi leaders in to control Bengal. This clearly shows they [central leadership] don’t trust their Bengal leaders,” Roy said.
A senior BJP leader from Bengal, who did not want to be named, told The Wire, “Amit ji (Malviya) gave us the much-needed boost during the 2019 general election. His appointment to Bengal is well thought out and will strengthen the party’s social media operations in Bengal.”
Amit Malviya and disinformation
Malviya, who has been heading the saffron party’s IT cell department for over five years, has a long history of spreading disinformation. Many times, his tweets and posts on social media were called out by fact-checking publications. According to Alt News, Malviya spreads disinformation in order to discredit individuals, communities, opposition parties, leaders and social movements.
Another investigation by Alt News has listed 16 such incidents where Malviya used false or misleading information. Many top BJP leaders, without verifying the claims, amplify Malviya’s tweets or posts, thereby giving rise to large-scale misinformation campaigns.
On January 15, Malviya shared a video on Twitter where a group of people claimed that the women of Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh are being paid to protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.
Many news outlets carried out the information tweeted by Malviya; some news channels even conducted primetime debates on this. However, a joint investigation by NewsLaundry and Alt News found that three people in a corner of Delhi made unproven claims about a protest eight kilometres away, one of them filmed it, and the BJP then used its social media machinery to spread these claims. Some TV channels and online portals too contributed to building this false narrative.
In another instance, during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Malviya tweeted an alleged ‘first-person’ account of a student of Vidyasagar College about the violence that erupted in the campus during then BJP chief Amit Shah’s rally in North Kolkata. The ‘student’ blamed the TMC for vandalising a bust of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar inside the varsity campus.
However, the same message was shared by numerous other individuals in the first person. One of the Twitter users sarcastically wrote, “Today, the entire Facebook is ‘I am a Vidyasagar student’.”
Social media war
By every yardstick, the BJP is ahead of all other parties in India in terms of social media presence. Even in Bengal, BJP’s social media is highly functional and one of the crucial tools for the party to counter Mamata Banerjee’s TMC.
In fact, the party was worried about Bengal, since it couldn’t achieve a party presence in all polling stations in the state. Hence, the party is heavily invested in the social media department in Bengal.
Thirty-nine-year old London-return Ujjwal Pareek is the convenor of Bengal BJP’s social media cell. He tracks over 70,000 WhatsApp groups along with a host of other social media platforms, The Wire has learnt.
“It is Ujjwal and his team who made Mamata’s video viral – the one in which she gets angry when some people chanted ‘Jai Shri Ram’. That particular viral video helped BJP a lot in last year’s Lok Sabha election,” said another BJP leader from Bengal.
After the BJP secured 18 seats in the 2019 parliamentary election, the highest ever tally for the saffron party in the state, TMC engaged the professional services of Prashant Kishor and I-PAC, a political advocacy group. Since then, things started changing for the TMC as the party is fast catching up with the BJP’s social media presence.
I-PAC’s first brainchild was ‘Didi Ke Bolo’, a public outreach drive by the TMC, in which common people can lodge their complaints and share suggestions over the phone or through a dedicated website.
Another TMC campaign, ‘Banglar Gorbo Mamata’, too received a good response on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. More than 25 lakh people have so far followed the campaign on its Facebook page, while over 92,000 followed it on Twitter.
Recently, another TMC campaign called ‘Mark Yourself Safe From BJP’ received quite a favourable response. As of Wednesday midnight, over 10 lakh people have marked themselves “safe from the BJP”. The Facebook group for the campaign also has more than 93.5k members so far.