New Delhi: In a humiliating setback for the Bharatiya Janata Party, a May 18 tweet by its chief spokesperson Sambit Patra that contains screenshots of a purported Congress ‘toolkit’ to corner Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his handling of the pandemic has been flagged as “manipulated media” by Twitter.
Twitter in its policies section says, “…we may label Tweets that include media (videos, audio, and images) that have been deceptively altered or fabricated. In addition, you may not share deceptively altered media on Twitter in ways that mislead or deceive people about the media’s authenticity where threats to physical safety or other serious harm may result.”
Twitter frequently used similar warnings in the waning days of the Trump administration in the United States as outgoing president Donald Trump used his personal handle to spread misinformation about voter fraud having cost him the November 2020 election. Eventually, Trump was permanently suspended from the social media platform despite having millions of followers.
The decision to flag Patra’s tweet came late on Thursday evening after the Congress complained to Twitter that the ensemble of pages, circulated as the party’s ‘toolkit’ by top BJP leaders, was fake. Earlier, the respected fact-checking website AltNews published a comprehensive report establishing that the document which the BJP’s top leadership has been disseminating on social media was created on a forged Congress letterhead.
On Tuesday, a political tussle ensued after a number of top BJP and RSS leaders posted the alleged toolkit to attack the Congress on social media with the tag #CongressToolKitExposed. The document contained a range of purported social media directives for party workers to use to attack the prime minister for his disastrous handling of the current wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Citing the document’s contents, the BJP alleged that the Congress’s relief efforts for patients in need of held – which won the party and its leaders widespread appreciation on social media – were nothing but a cynical public relations exercise that involved, inter alia, “blocking” hospital beds so that they could be released when the Congress high command was approached for help.
The BJP also said that since the ‘toolkit’ attempted to singularly blame the pilgrims who attended the Kumbh Mela for being super-spreaders, and absolve those who attended Eid gatherings, this proved the Congress’s ‘anti-Hindu’ bias and intent to cause communal disharmony and civil unrest in the country.
Among the other top BJP leaders who amplified the hashtag #CongressToolKitExposed were party president J.P. Nadda, Union ministers Smriti Irani, Piyush Goyal, Hardeep Singh Puri, Kiren Rijiju, Anurag Thakur and Pralhad Joshi, Uttarahand chief minister Tirath Singh Rawat, Manipur chief minister N. Biren Singh, MPs Rajyavardhan Rathore, Tejasvi Surya, Rahul Kaswan, P.C. Mohan, Shobha Karandlaje, Manoj Kotak and Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, and BJP national general secretary B.L. Santhosh.
The Congress immediately described the alleged toolkit as a fabrication and filed an FIR at the Tughlak Road police station against all the BJP leaders for fraud and forgery. It had also said that the fraudulent act was done by the BJP “to divert the attention from the Modi government’s mammoth failure in providing necessary aid to the people of India, amidst the current pandemic.”
It also wrote to Twitter, demanding the social media giant remove those tweets and permanently suspend the accounts of those who shared the fake toolkit. The letter said that top BJP functionaries had used Twitter as a platform to disseminate “false information” which could “cause social unrest in the country, amidst the current pandemic.”
“…the said persons (BJP leaders including its president J.P.Nadda) are habitual of manufacturing forged content and misusing the Twitter platform for disseminating the same,” the letter written by the head of Congress’ research team Rajeev Gowda and its social media team’s chief Rohan Gupta said.
Twitter’s decision to officially flag Patra’s tweet as “manipulated media” is being considered a major victory by Congress leaders. “The BJP accused us of playing with people’s sorrows at a time when the party has been making an all-out effort to ramp up its relief efforts. Only a party like BJP can stoop so low,” a Congress social media team member told The Wire.
The BJP and its IT cell has often been in the line of attack for manufacturing and perpetuating false information to polarise and score immediate political brownie points. Most of its leaders and members who share fake news often remain unpunished, and as a result work with a sense of impunity.
Against such a backdrop, Twitter tagging Patra’s tweet as “manipulated” is being seen as a setback for the party, which has already been facing widespread criticism over its handling of the pandemic. Coming soon after AltNews’s analysis of the ‘toolkit’, it has exposed the BJP to the charge of resorting to a crude forgery – presumably as a tactic to divert attention from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s shambolic handling of the Covid wave that has left lakhs of people struggling to access basic health facilities across India.
At the time of publication, Patra is the only high profile Sangh parivar personality to have his or her tweet tagged as manipulated. It is not clear if this is the start of a process that will see similar tweets – including by prominent ministers – labelled with the same health warning. Or if Twitter’s action will be confined to ‘low hanging fruit’ like Patra and others who do not hold ministerial office. The social media company has come under pressure from the Modi government in the past for not implementing official diktats like blocking Twitter handles flagged by the ministry of information and technology.