The role of media hooks in India’s political disinformation networks
In this article, I write about the interpretation of media hooks by right wing political leaders in India as an overarching strategy in the propagation of political disinformation on Twitter. This strategy immunizes political leaders from claims of fabrication, allows them to exploit followers’ labour of digital interaction in furthering their political agendas, and increases the legitimacy of disinformation narratives.
Here’s the idea: Political leaders rarely produce independently fabricated claims on social media. Instead, they produce coordinated, agenda-driven interpretations of existing media hooks.
The sourcing of these media hooks — including pictures, videos, news articles, events, and government and legal documents — is ideology-agnostic and truth-agnostic. They may be produced by either side of the political spectrum, and may be factual or fictitious. When produced by the Right Wing — for example, articles from hyperpartisan platforms like OpIndia — they are interpreted as credible sources; when produced by the Left Wing — for example, clips from protest speeches — they are disinterpreted as being based on an anti-India agenda (here, ‘anti-government’ and ‘anti-India’ are conflated).
Take for example a media hook from the time of anti-CAA protests — a questionably sourced video shot at Kusmi Telecom Center, 8km away from Shaheen Bagh, alleging that Shaheen Bagh protestors are funded by Congress. Political leaders including Amit Malviya, BJP IT Cell National convener, Harsh Sanghvi, BJP Gujarat MLA, Priti Gandhi, BJP Mahila Morcha, and Punit Agarwal, BJP Delhi IT cell head tweeted the video out as proof of sponsored protests at the Shaheen Bagh site. This resulted in an online disinformation campaign where #शाहीन_बाग_की_बिकाऊ_औरते trended #5 in India. Political leaders used different hashtags, including #ShaheenBaghCracks, #ShaheenBaghScam, #ShaheenBaghExposed, #शाहिनबाग_का_भंडाफोड़, #ProPakShaheenBagh, and #TauheenBagh, and multiple posters, a morphed image, and a video falsely attributed video were generated by the public. AltNews and Newslaundry launched a joint investigation into the video, and labelled it as misinformation. Several related misinformation narratives consequently emerged — false reports on Shaheen Bagh being empty, separate claims of used condoms, pornographic videos, and drug-distribution emerging from the Shaheen Bagh protest site, and claims to delegitimize the 2020 farmers protests by linking them to Shaheen Bagh.
Neither these resulting narratives, nor the singular trending hashtag, can be traced back to right wing political leaders or their initial set of tweets unless a temporal analysis proving coordination and intent is performed. This is not a flaw in the system, it’s part of the plan. If you look back at major disinformation narratives in India — a protest poster misinterpreted as religious antagonism, a clipped news byte made viral years after it first surfaced, a morphed image from an unidentifiable source — an obvious, consistent pattern makes itself clear.
This strategy provides political leaders with authority over the truth, because what is truth if not perception, and what is perception if not interpretation? It lifts the onus of fabrication — in other words, that of the production of disinformation — off of political leaders. It instead places the responsibility of intent on media hooks and the people who produce them. The targeted nature of this disinformation becomes covert rather than overt, because its otherwise obvious intentionality of divisiveness is obscured.
In this manner, political leaders immunize themselves from being labelled as untrustworthy fabricators. Conspiratorial interpretations, which exploit the fear of a threatened nation and religion, position them as enlighteners, whistleblowers, and guardians of the truth. This works because it is easy to refute the truthfulness of a fact, but far more difficult to refute an interpretation of material reality. Leaders’ authority over information and its legitimacy is further reinforced through titles of importance such as ‘National Spokesperson’ and ‘General Secretary’ — repeat offenders within the BJP disinformation ecosystem all hold high offices.
The outcome of this strategy is intentional and clear. Followers — a word used in the senses of both social media and political devotion — bear the brunt of the labour of spreading disinformation. Disinformation tweets from BJP leaders generate high engagement and in turn high percolation of target narratives, which can be noted through a rise in publicly-generated tweets posted close in time to the original tweet. BJP leaders produce DISinformation (qualified as such because of its intentional nature), but as false narratives spread, they may sometimes take on qualities of misinformation — followers may not be uniformly equipped to discern their intentionality, believing them to be true.
When the dissemination of such content becomes nebulous and dispersed, it begins to be perceived as a socially accepted fact rather than a single, overt, independent, or fabricated claim. This increases its legitimacy as the truth, and ultimately serves to further political agendas.