Is Tweeting in Indian Languages Helping Politicians Widen Their Reach?

Indian politicians are increasingly tweeting in Hindi and other regional languages. The article finds that Hindi language tweets are more likely to be retweeted and favourited than tweets in English. Politicians in power use multilingual tweeting to offer positive messages such as greetings, whereas politicians in opposition use language strategically to use campaign-style wordplay to attack their opponents.

Lalu Prasad Yadav’s tweet on 12 December 2017 did not only go viral online, but also found mention in print news. The tweet did not have an outwardly political message. It quite simply asked people to retweet. But it was a quintessential Lalu performance. The code-mixed tweet stood on its sardonic lyricism—it worked best when one imagined Lalu quip it out. It also cannot be translated without losing its essential character.


Figure 1: Tweet by Lalu Prasad Yadav (@laluprasadrjd) on 12 December 2017

 

Four years ago, during the 2014 general elections, the immediate recipients of Narendra Modi’s social media outreach efforts were largely urban, English-speaking elites. The landscape on social media has evolved much since then. During the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) first Parliamentary meeting in March 2018, party leaders chose social media outreach as a central point of discussion. Parliamentarians who were not on social media as well as those who were but had not invested in expanding their presence, were enumerated. The prime minister set a threshold of social media followers for the first time—each parliamentarian would need to have at least 3,00,000 followers on social media, irrespective of what constituency they were from (Zee News 2018).

Modi’s call to arms has been accompanied by a significant investment in social media by parties across the political spectrum. While the BJP still leads significantly in terms of social media following[1] largely driven by a strong top-down push from the centre, the recognised role of social media in political outreach has now spread across parties at both the national and regional levels.

Parties as well as individual politicians now have dedicated teams working on social media, appealing to a range of electoral constituents and forming mixed scope clusters of followings online (Anand and Agnihotri 2018).

The Study

To better understand the importance of these clusters, we first aggregated a total of 274 politicians and political accounts.

The list was generated based on two attributes:

(i) The individual politicians’ status as party leaders,such as being an elected representative or having an official post in the party machinery, and

(ii) Significant following online, typically 50,000 followers or more. We then used the Twitter Application Programming Interface (API) to mine tweets of each handle, and generated the corresponding median retweet count for each account.[2]

As seen in Figure 2, at least 66 verified political accounts have over 1 million followers on Twitter. Unsurprisingly, these accounts also get significant online throughput as measured by the retweet rate for their tweets. Although Modi leads significantly in online following, and the majority of the most followed politicians on Twitter are from the BJP, leaders from a number of other political parties (significant of those being Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav) have attracted followers and have received high throughput for their messaging.[3] In fact, between January and April 2018, the median retweet count of Rahul Gandhi’s tweets consistently outscored the median retweet count of other Indian politicians’, including the Prime Minister, who has over five times as many followers.[4]


Figure 2: Indian Politicians’ Median Monthly Retweet Rate by Number of Twitter followers: January – April 2018
Source: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1MPVmq-n9v34Y833D-4adMKYj2fmZDfK_T5tPVM1k2SY/edit?usp=sharing

 

Tweeting in Regional Languages

A key to the growing popularity of a number of politicians’ messaging online has been the use of regional languages. Of the fifteen most retweeted messages by Indian politicians in the last year, eleven have used Hindi. All fifteen of these messages are from the prime minister. Eight of the fifteen tweets happen to be congratulations on an event (recently, it has been common for tweets with greetings to be written in two languages). Modi’s own gradual move to using more of regional languages in his tweets has coincided with the increasing presence of such practices on social media.

Individual politicians’ use of language is also spread across a range. Table 1 shows the percentage of English-language tweeting by various Indian politicians. Two trends emerge from this. While language use on social media does not map onto the language of preference of a politician’s electoral constituents, it can serve as an indicator of who a politician speaks to online. The social media accounts of a few politicians are largely aimed at populations other than their voting constituents. For instance, unelected politicians like P Chidambaram, Subramanian Swamy, and Kiran Bedi have a higher proportion of English language tweets, whereas Sushil Modi, Raghubar Das, or Yogi Adityanath[5] actively use social media as means of outreach to the press and citizenry by using more regional languages.

Table 1: Key Indian Politicians and the Percentage of their Tweets in English (Roman Script) between 10/2013 to 04/2018

 

Politician

Percent Tweets in English

P Chidambaram

99.9%

Kiran Bedi

99.8%

Manohar Parrikar

99.0%

Subramanian Swamy

99.0%

Shashi Tharoor

97.8%

Smriti Irani

86.8%

Akhilesh Yadav

82.7%

Narendra Modi

73.7%

Arvind Kejriwal

72.9%

Sharad Pawar

68.7%

Rahul Gandhi

68.0%

Piyush Goyal

65.6%

Vasundhara Raje

57.9%

Oommen Chandy

53.0%

Jyotiraditya Scindia

51.6%

Amit Shah

48.7%

Shivraj Chouhan

43.4%

Lalu Prasad Yadav

40.8%

Kumar Vishvas

37.6%

Raj Babbar

36.6%

Sushil Modi

30.8%

Raghubar Das

24.2%

Yogi Adityanath

8.0%

 

Although the net impact of language is still difficult to definitively quantify, we see a few initial trends. For both the Congress and the BJP, tweeting in English tends to get fewer responses from followers, as measured through “favourite count” (equivalent to the number of times users clicked the “Like” button).The median monthly favourites for tweets in all the Congress and BJP accounts from our sample show a gradual increase in favourite count for non-English tweets; particularly from mid-2015 and onward, the upward trend has been fairly consistent., For the BJP, however, we do not find a significant difference when measuring follower response using retweet count (equivalent to the number of times users clicked the “share” button on Facebook).

 


Figure 3(a): Median Monthly Favouriting of Tweets by Sample Politicians in the BJP.


Figure 3(b): Median Monthly Favouriting of Tweets by Sample Politicians in the Indian National Congress (INC).

 


Figure 3(c): Median Monthly Favouriting of Tweets by Sample Politicians in Regional Parties


 

Language and Political Style

Two trends pertaining to language and political party tweets emerge from Figure 3. First, Hindi language tweets perform better for the BJP, Congress, as well as regional parties post 2016. Second, non-Hindi regional language tweets do not perform as well as either Hindi or English.

While Figure 3 would suggest a much more significant engagement of the public with tweets from Congress politicians as compared to BJP politicians, particularly in the last six months, this is partly due to the impact of Rahul Gandhi’s Hindi-language tweets, which have been widely retweeted. A look at Rahul Gandhi’s tweets in Hindi offers unique perspective on the discourse of Hindi language political tweeting.

A latecomer to Twitter, starting only in mid-2015, Rahul Gandhi’s following and the reach of his tweets increased dramatically in late 2017, as seen in Figure 4. While Modi still remains, by far, the most dominant political figure in terms of aggregated monthly engagement through retweeting or favouriting, Rahul Gandhi’s messaging has taken on an aggressive style of confrontation that has aided the popularity of his messaging.

Part of this has been the adaptation of campaign-style sloganeering by using one-liners, wordplay, and rhymes, and often doing so in regional languages. A look at some of his most favourited Hindi-language tweets shows the use of wordplay and campaign style rhetoric.

Table 2: Most Favourited Messages from October and November 2017, a Period of Key Growth of Rahul Gandhi’s Online Appeal, Arranged by Number of ‘Favourites’

 

Date

Favourites

Tweet Text

11/2017

36907

चेहरे पर शिकन, माथे पर पसीना डरे-डरे से साहेब नज़र आते हैं शाह-जादा, राफेल के सवालों पर जाने क्यूँ इनके होंठ सिल जाते हैं

10/2017

33740

Congress GST= Genuine Simple Tax Modi ji's GST= Gabbar Singh Tax =''ये कमाई मुझे दे दे"

11/2017

33526

महंगी गैस, महंगा राशन बंद करो खोखला भाषणदाम बांधो, काम दो वर्ना खाली करो सिंहासन

10/2017

25193

मित्रों, शाह-जादे के बारे में ना बोलूंगा, ना बोलने दूंगा

10/2017

24743

मोदीजी, जय शाह- 'जादा'  खा गया|आप चौकीदार थे या भागीदार? कुछ तो बोलिए

11/2017

23289

न खाऊंगा, न खाने दूंगा की कहानी शाह-जादा, शौर्य और अब विजय रूपाणी

 

Unlike politicians like Yogi Adityanath or Raghubar Das who conduct the vast majority of their communications in regional languages, the use of Hindi by leaders who use multiple languages or code-switch ( use two or more languages in a single message) is made further interesting by its selective nature. While Modi uses Hindi primarily for greetings, relying on English for the vast majority of his regular tweeting, politicians like Rahul Gandhi or Lalu Prasad Yadav use Hindi with emphasis. As we see in Table 2, all of Rahul Gandhi’s most favourited tweets from Late 2017 are either forms of rhyme, turn of phrase, or sarcasm. One interesting example is the repeated use of the multivocal “Shah Zade” to refer to Jay Shah, Amit Shah’s son. Shahzade, ironically, was a term used by Modi in his 2013 tweets to derisively refer to Rahul Gandhi.

A look at how Modi and Rahul Gandhi perform in terms of message favouriting underlines the apparent success of the attack strategy in Figure 5. While the retweeting of Modi’s messages is relatively flat, and consistently higher pre-2017, the phase of more attacking messaging and particularly the use of Hindi, appears to have much better throughput for Rahul Gandhi.


Figure 4: Median Monthly Retweets of Hindi-language tweets by Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi

 

Conclusions

The use of Hindi and regional languages on social media, in the native script of the languages, is growing. This trend is likely to expand the centrality of online spaces in political discussions in the coming elections by broadening the social media consumption base beyond tech savvy elites. Additionally, the migration of certain politicians to communicating solely using regional languages is an important sign of how political communication is evolving. This has consequences for information veracity, opinion diversity, and the role of professional news media. We are moving even closer to an era in which politicians across the political spectrum can actively switch to communicating with their constituents directly through social media,  bypassing traditional print news altogether. This has important implications for the watchdogs’ ability to force politicians to respond to important issues. It also has consequences for the development and enablement of an informed citizenry, particularly as more people move to getting their news solely or primarily online.

Finally, the increasing use of Hindi and regional languages online has moved towards breaking notions of social media as a form of elite outreach. In addition to the dominant use of regional languages by some politicians, the selective use of language for affective purposes such as insults, sarcasm, or humour, brings to fore the role of street-style sloganeering and rough and tumble politics as it plays out on social media. If the evidence is to be believed, politicians are actively embracing this style, and finding its resonance among followers.

 

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