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Stop The Steal, West Bengal Style: Disinfo Narratives Around Political Violence

Stop The Steal, West Bengal Style: Disinfo Narratives Around Political Violence

By Priyam Nayak, Joe Ondrak, Ishaana Aiyanna and Ilma Hasan

On May 2, 2021, the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) led by Mamata Banerjee registered a decisive victory in the West Bengal Assembly elections. Contrary to the predictions of opinion and exit polls, the party swept to a total of 213 seats in the 294-member Assembly, thus triumphing over Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in a high-stakes electoral battle.

Soon after the election results were declared on May 2, violence broke out in various places in the state. Both parties accused the other of targeting their workers. On May 6, Banerjee said 16 people had died since May 3, in the that followed the Assembly elections. Other parties, including the BJP, have alleged that the numbers are higher and that at least 20 people have died, the Wire reported. According to the families of the deceased, nine from BJP and eight from the TMC are reported to have lost kin in the violence. A member of the Left-Congress-ISF alliance was also reportedly killed. As per a Hindustan Times report, some of the alleged murders pointed at either suicide or unnatural death and as such the actual number of casualties remains inconclusive. 

As the day unfolded, social media filled with videos and photos allegedly showing BJP supporters being attacked. Fact checking organizations found that most of these images and videos were either doctored or old photos of unrest that happened elsewhere accompanied by false claims that they were from the recent violence in Bengal. The Bengal official Twitter handle and other BJP leaders also shared viral tweets allegedly reporting the gang rape of a BJP worker. The Birbhum police later clarified that the news was fake.

On Twitter, some groups used the discourse around the violence to exacerbate existing divisions between communities. While the violence is not one-sided and TMC also has a record of resorting to violent and brutal tactics against its opponents in the past, it was primarily pro-BJP accounts that were at the forefront of pushing misinformation and disinformation after the Bengal assembly election results. 

Pro-BJP accounts attempted to create three interlinked narratives. The first — the pushing of old and unrelated videos and images of political violence as fresh instances of sectarian unrest — was possibly aimed at maligning the competency of Banerjee’s party and to create the illusion that TMC is a pro-Muslim and an anti-Hindu party, a theory that the BJP had tried to peddle even before the elections. The second narrative involved a deluge of fake news on post-poll violence being used as a rationale for demanding president’s rule to be imposed in the state which would effectively place the state under the control of the center. The third narrative centered on false claims that the election was illegitimate.

The last narrative in particular might indicate that, despite the BJP having made significant inroads into the state since 2019, the party still needs to do a lot of work in establishing a loyal support base at the grassroots level without the crutch of anti-incumbency sentiments if it wants to expand its presence in Bengal. 

Putting the clashes in context

Election-related violence has historically been prevalent in West Bengal, even decades before the BJP’s rise there in 2018. Not only does data indicate that casualties were reported from both the TMC and the BJP in these state elections, experts say Bengal’s system of “party-society” makes this violence about politics, not religion. The state has experienced violence since the 1960s, when colonial-era feudal structures crumbled, paving way for a new form of organization — political parties — that instigated cadre-driven politics that often led to clashes. 

While the BJP gaining clout in the state has led to significant poll-related violence between its workers and the ruling party, the TMC shared a similar rivalry with the Left Front earlier. And before that, the Left shared one with the Indian National Congress.

National Crime Records Bureau data on past elections and annual records also show poll-violence and elections in West Bengal go hand-in-hand. An article in the Indian Express reported that former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee had issued a statement in 1997 that  28,000 political murders had been committed in the state between 1977 and 1996. 76 people across political parties had died in the 2003 panchayat elections, 39 in 2013, and 29 in 2018 elections. The state also had the highest number of political murders in the country in 2018, according to NCRB data. Figures for 2019 are unavailable because the state government refused to share data with the union home ministry, which runs NCRB. The state witnessed 20 political murders every year on an average between 1999 and 2016, India Today reported.

Calls for intervention

As swathes of fake images and videos of the violence gained traction on social media, hashtags such as #PresidentsRuleInBengal, #BengalBurning and #ArrestMamataBanerjee trended on Twitter. The flood of misinformation and disinformation amplified by pro-BJP handles appears carefully crafted and co-ordinated to portray the state’s grip on law and order as lacking, and hence justifying the invocation of the President’s rule in the state. 

A selection of the most popular hashtags following the West Bengal results. images: Twitter/Priyam Nayak

In fact, a Chennai-based NGO named Indic Collective Trust moved the Supreme Court seeking deployment of central forces in post-poll violence-hit districts in the state. The President’s Rule refers to the suspension of a state government and the imposition of direct rule of the Centre. The central government takes direct control of the state in question and the Governor becomes its constitutional head. Article 356 of the Constitution of India gives the President of India the power to impose this rule on a state on the advice of the Union Council of Ministers.

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We found another unusual trend with ample instances of co-ordinated inauthentic behavior. Lower level BJP karyakartas seemed to be disappointed and angry with the top party brass, predominantly because of the perceived lack of aggressive action to quell the violence. Many pro-BJP accounts continue to circulate fake images and videos to push the theory that the grassroots workers are under threat and that senior leadership should act. It is important to remember that the BJP only recently emerged as a major contender in Bengal’s political landscape, and a chunk of the BJP’s current leadership in Bengal are made up of defections from TMC’s cadre.

The hashtag #SpinelessBJP started trending on May 3 and soon became one of the top trending hashtags on Twitter. We noticed replicated tweets and attempts to hammer the hashtags to make them trend. However, it remains unclear whether the campaign is a genuine expression of  disappointment and anger among the party workers or if external agents played a role in pushing it, given that the Modi government is already reeling from an image crisis because of its mishandling of the second COVID-19 wave in the country.

Twitter users pushed the #SpinelessBJP hashtag relentlessly. images: Twitter/Priyam Nayak

Translation: It is a horrible situation there. The center should immediately implement the president's rule and take control over the state and deploy central forces. Have they simply left the karyakartas to die there?

Many of the #SpinelessBJP posts also featured copy pasta, suggesting a highly co-ordinated campaign. images: Twitter/Priyam Nayak 

We spotted that #SpinelessBJP had gone viral when we tried a Gephi live pull of Twitter activity using other trending hashtags related to the Bengal violence. Different colors indicate different “clusters” of conversation and the largest node label shows the most connected and used hashtag. #SpinelessBJP was used so frequently that, regardless of what other hashtags or terms we searched for, it still ended up dominating the network graph.

image: Gephi/Joe Ondrak

The ‘Stop the Steal’ playbook

Another reason the #SpinelessBJP hashtag found greater resonance was because BJP supporters claimed that the Election Commission had adopted fraudulent practices, and that the TMC’s victory was illegitimate. These claims are unsubstantiated, and recounts rarely upset the results of an election. However, the situation resembles what happened in the  U.S. following former President Donald Trump’s loss. In both instances, party allies made unsubstantiated claims of election fraud and irregularities. Changes in voting protocol and patterns amid the COVID-19 pandemic were often confusing, and created opportunities to portray new patterns as corrupt or illegitimate. Similar to how the American election was predicted to be close in several states, in West Bengal, several polls had overestimated a saffron wave, predicting the BJP had a fair shot to dethrone Banerjee — but when it fell significantly short of that number, the state party workers made accusations of foul play. The assertion was that a recount would set the record straight and prove that the voters of Bengal had chosen the BJP to form the government. The hashtags #WeWantRecounting and #RecountingForBengal were trending since May 3 and have been used to amplify various theories of voter fraud on Twitter and pro-BJP private groups on Facebook.

A phone number was also circulated with the claim that it belonged to Dilip Ghosh and that people should send WhatsApp messages on that and request him to appeal for recounting in the Supreme Court.

Translation: I don’t know your position in the party but I am a first polling officer. This is the last phase of voting and I have been a member of the party since its inception. I cannot share this with anyone else. I am already in serious trouble. Towards the end of this year, I will have to submit my papers for pension. In no constituency has Trinamool won as many votes as is being reported. There has been unprecedented fraud in the counting process. Ask Dilip Da (Dilip Ghosh) to appeal for a recounting of votes in the Supreme Court and under the directives of the Supreme Court, people from other states should be made to count the votes again. I have been involved in the counting process twice during the era of CPI(M). I know the fraudulent practices that are employed in the counting of votes. Suvendu Adhikari also knows this. Prashant Kishor’s strategies have paved the way for exchange of thousands of crores of rupees. A recounting will bring to light all of these malpractices. Trinamool in reality will not be able to cross more than 150 votes. Once the results are declared, things will reach a point of no return. The case will have to be filed immediately.

Translation: If a TMC member is a counting agent then it is obvious that TMC will win the elections even if they have won less votes.

Translation: Didi (Banerjee) has cheated her way to victory. All the candidates are claiming that EVMs were hacked. This is unreal that even after getting 2.29 crore votes the BJP only got 77 seats while the TMC got 2.8 crore votes. We need recounting. Where are the Intelligence Bureau, the CBI and the RAW? By giving free entry to Bangladeshi Muslims, the state is becoming a Muslim majority area and you all are just being mute spectators? Whenever there has been a recount, the BJP has won. Even the executives of the Election Commission have said this – that the EVMs which initially had 99 percent charge and showed less than 60 percent charge after being run for ten hours registered wins for the BJP and those which had 99 percent charge all throughout registered wins for TMC. We have got proof that TMC leaders kept EVMs in their homes but why is India supporting this? Why is no action being taken?

images: Twitter/Facebook/Priyam Nayak

On May 10, the Times of India reported that police in Bengal had deleted more than 500 fake posts of post-poll violence and Hindu genocide in Bengal and that a chunk of them were photos from Brazil, Venezuela and Bangladesh that were passed off as those from Bengal. While the situation in Bengal has been brought under control and the disinformation wave related to it has ebbed, it is highly possible that these narratives may be resuscitated in future election discourses in the country to create the impression among the electorate of non-BJP parties being inept with a penchant for minority appeasement. Should that happen, revisiting our understanding of the dynamics of such disinformation campaigns may help us better in tackling such resurgences.

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