Trend Alert: A Cross-Platform Organization Manipulated Twitter Trends in the Indian General Election

Authors Maurice Jakesch, Kiran Garimella, Dean Eckles, and Mor Naaman
Venue Proceedings of the ACM CSCW, 2021

Political organizations worldwide keep innovating their use of social media technologies. In the 2019 Indian general election, organizers used a network of WhatsApp groups to manipulate Twitter trends through coordinated mass postings. We joined 600 WhatsApp groups that support the Bharatiya Janata Party, the right-wing party that won the general election, to investigate these campaigns. We found evidence of 75 hashtag manipulation campaigns in the form of mobilization messages with lists of pre-written tweets. Building on this evidence, we estimate the campaigns’ size, describe their organization and determine whether they succeeded in creating controlled social media narratives. Our findings show that the campaigns produced hundreds of nationwide Twitter trends throughout the election. Centrally controlled but voluntary in participation, this hybrid configuration of technologies and organizational strategies shows how profoundly online tools transform campaign politics. Trend alerts complicate the debates over the legitimate use of digital tools for political participation and may have provided a blueprint for participatory media manipulation by a party with popular support.