On Twitter, following a leader to understand image crafting

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Twitter activities may have been followed a little more closely than he expected.

Three UMSI researchers—assistant professor Joyojeet Pal, PhD candidate Priyank Chandra and assistant professor VG Vinod Vydiswaran—tracked the leader’s tweets from 2009 to 2015 to learn more about how he has built his brand and overcome his problematic past. They noted among other things that pop culture tweets—in particular those about cricket and celebrities—became his most popular theme on Twitter once he assumed his current role.

Modi, who has been called India’s “first social media prime minister” by the Financial Times, came to power on the national stage in 2014 as the representative of the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Previously, as a politician in the state of Gujarat, he was indicted but not convicted for his role in the deadly 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots there, which he failed to denounce, leading to international condemnation and a complicated relationship with the Indian news media. However, he continued to win Gujarati, then national elections. 

Pal and his co-authors looked at how Modi and his agents used his Twitter handle @narendramodi to consolidate support among his base and gather new followers. To do this, they analyzed the content and reach of his tweets during four periods: early tweets, tweets preceding the 2012 elections in Gujarat, tweets leading up to the nationwide election in 2014 and tweets from after his victory. They also ranked tweets from each period for popularity based on their number of retweets.

In the first phase, the handle’s most popular tweets related to development and nationalism, often with a regional focus. The second phase showed a shift toward national issues, while the third phase was characterized by major increase in reach. In the fourth stage, after his election victory, with more than 10 million followers, political tweets dropped off: cricket was the topic of five of the top ten. 

They also found that accounts followed by Modi’s handle overwhelmingly belonged to laypeople and BJP-related entities, with very little attention given to international handles.

“Modi’s Twitter campaign exemplifies the power of social media in shaping the citizenry’s imagination of its political leader,” the authors said. “It is the best proof we have that Twitter can craft great leaders.”

The study was published in the Economic and Political Weekly in February.  

Posted on March 10, 2016