Shiva’s* phone is constantly buzzing due to WhatsApp forwards. He is a part of a WhatsApp group run by the Bhartiya Janata Party on which he receives daily updates from the party’s public rallies in Karnataka including videos of speeches by BJP leaders. There are also news stories criticising the opposition and its leaders appearing on the group. “I read about Siddaramaiah eating chicken and going to a holy place like Dharmasthala,” he says.
Shiva is not alone. Countless others like him are part of WhatsApp groups that constantly post stories highlighting the party’s successes and the opposition’s failures. What they don’t know is that each message they read is part of a massive campaign devised by the party’s social media cell in Bengaluru.
The groundwork for the network of BJP's WhatsApp groups was laid in August this year when the social media cell organised a conclave inviting interested party members to register for their social media outreach campaign. The first step was to collect information about volunteers from the state including basic details such as name, phone number and village. The details of 15,000 people who registered were collected.
Among them, over 3,500 volunteers from 224 constituencies attended the first conclave in Bengaluru in August where attendees were trained in the nuances of using Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp. These volunteers effectively became footsoldiers for the party’s WhatsApp army in the state “We taught people how to create groups on WhatsApp and also explained them how it works and how they can add more people to it. We also discussed about who should be added. We want a group of like-minded people working actively,” Balaji Srinivas, Convenor of the BJP Social Media Cell told TNM.
The social media cell, led by Prashant Maknur who is state in-charge for the mission, then repeated this exercise across the state meticulously organising training sessions for thousands of volunteers on how to use WhatsApp. Prashant and his team travelled all 30 districts, mobilising cadres on the ground while also forming WhatsApp groups in each assembly. So far, the social media cell has managed to create 7,000 WhatsApp groups with an aim of creating over 50,000 WhatsApp groups, one for each booth in the state, before the state assembly elections in Karnataka next year.
With around 100-150 users in each group, the number of people in these groups has already crossed 7 lakh people. In the 2013 elections, 4.18 crore people turned out to vote in Karnataka and the IT cell is optimistic that smartphone penetration in the state has risen to 2 crore people by now.
“Due to cheap data plans, even rural people are now increasingly using WhatsApp. While it remains a challenge for us in areas like Chamarajanagar, Davangere and Chitradurga because smartphone penetration is less but it is still increasing everyday. Even if people don’t know to type, they know enough to open and see the videos we send on the groups,” said Maknur, who has personally covered 18 districts so far.
The divisions and curated messages
The social media cell divided the state into 36 district units (administratively, there are 30 districts) which were further divided into assembly level and booth level units. Each of these teams at the state, district and assembly level has 15 office bearers.
Messages broadcasted to these groups are curated specifically for each region. For instance, information about droughts are directed to North Karnataka “There are office bearers who are responsible for 2 or 3 districts. Likewise, one person from the district team is in charge for an assembly in that district,” explains Srinivas.
The messages posted on the groups are continuously monitored by the persons in-charge, who also send information back up the grapevine that may help the party. “This is not just a messaging platform to disseminate party messages. It helps us to read people’s sentiments on the ground and since this is a completely volunteer-driven system, we often get bits of information and observations coming our way too and we then act upon them,” said a source in the social media cell who did not wish to be named.
The network of WhatsApp groups also actively debunks certain news stories and propogates the BJP line. When news organisations published a story about BJP chief ministerial candidate BS Yeddyurappa ordering food from a hotel on his visit to a Dalit household in Chitradurga, the social media cell decided to go live on the Karnataka Facebook account in an attempt to dispel the story. “We now have to keep an eye out for such news articles and we use the WhatsApp groups to send across the 'right' information,” said Maknur.
The tactic of building a massive WhatsApp network in the state is a textbook strategy of the BJP that helped the party win the 2017 Legislative Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh. The model was subsequently used in four other state elections.
The decentralised network however is mushrooming beyond their control having netted an unprecedented number of smartphone users in the state. “We have just created the groups in order to send party messages but it is the volunteers who are active and post on the groups, No one can control what is posted on these groups,” said an official working in the social media cell who did not wish to be named.
*Name changed on request