- NL Sena
Armed with shadow accounts and Google sheets, the EC in Madhya Pradesh is taking on political villains of the online world.
Bhopal has two Election Commissions: a Nirvachan Bhawan and a Nirvachan Sadan. During the Lok Sabha elections, the Nirvachan Bhawan seems like an abandoned site while the Nirvachan Sadan is brimming with busy bureaucrats. Those unaware that the Bhawan is the state’s Election Commission and the Sadan the national one stand a good chance of ending up at the wrong EC—just like this correspondent did.
Outside the red-bricked and sun-baked Sadan, I’m escorted to a white Swift Dzire with Sunil Verma, the head of the Madhya Pradesh EC’s social media cell. The car winds its way to the much more impressive Narmada Bhawan—a massive state-of-the-art building that stands in one corner of the city’s scenic Arera Hills. The hills are ground zero of the state government and its various institutions. The GST building, the CM’s house, the Vidhan Sabha, the Income Tax department—all stand cheek by jowl in the ascending and descending curves and slopes of hillocks that eventually make way for the city’s lakes.
I was introduced to Verma only half an hour before in the office of Mr Abhijeet Agarwal, the Joint Chief Electoral Officer (Joint CEO) of Madhya Pradesh. Verma is a stout, geeky and self-assured 31-year-old who tries to make his work speak for itself. In the non-election season, he serves as the Assistant Director of the Information and Public Relations Department (IPRD) of the MP government.
“You must’ve read the news about the notice that has been served to Pragya Thakur recently on her Babri Masjid remark,” says Verma, “that remark was first made during an interview on TV9. We received a YouTube link of it minutes after it appeared online. We flagged that interview and sent it to the Chief Electoral Officer, who sent it further up in the EC. Pragya was then handed a notice. It happened because of us.”
“When we heard that Digvijaya Singh is going to stand from Bhopal, we knew we were in for some sort of nautanki from the other side. Pragya Singh Thakur meets that criteria perfectly. The contest is a tough challenge for us in the EC,” Verma tells me.
The Madhya Pradesh EC’s social media cell operates under the office of the state’s Chief Electoral Officer. It’s located on the ground floor of Bhopal’s Narmada Bhawan. “The social media cell needs equipment and space to function. The Election Commission building is anyway too cramped, especially with all the work that is going on. So we work out of here,” says Verma.
I’m led into a tidy, air-conditioned, medium-sized room, measuring perhaps 25×30 ft, and holding 8-10 people and 10-12 computers. Unlike the dusty and antiquated spaces usually associated with government babus, this room is furnished with modernity: writing desks, office chairs, window blinds and bulletin boards—all colour-coordinated. In one corner is Verma’s chamber, with a sofa and a large desk stacked with documents.
Once inside the chamber, he switches on his computer and asks one of his colleagues to lead me through the cell’s operation. The colleague is 27-year-old Rasik Pandey, who works as a “social media analyst”.
Sunil Verma at his desk in the social media cell of MP’s Election Commission
Pandey opens a Google Drive containing excel sheets and starts the drill: “We have a dedicated excel file for all 29 constituencies in Madhya Pradesh, and multiple sheets within a file. In every constituency, there’s a handler who updates these documents 24/7. And we monitor these sheets.”
“Ruko, pehle overview dikhaiye,” a bossy Verma butts in before taking over: “What we first need to realise is that elections are going to be fought on social media this year.” He continues: “The EC knows this. So we’ve asked candidates to provide their official social media handles in their nomination papers. We watch the social media of each and every politician who has filed nominations in every Lok Sabha seat in Madhya Pradesh. First, we verify their handles, and then we observe their posts—what they post and how frequently they post. We even monitor their Facebook Live to make sure they haven’t said anything problematic.”
When I question Verma about how his team monitors the Facebook pages, he opens another Excel sheet with two columns: “username” and “password”, with 20 entries each. The social media cell has 20 shadow Facebook accounts that it uses to monitor candidates. “It’s not too much trouble tracking so many candidates,” Verma says coolly.
He opens a sheet titled “SIDHI” and adds, “For example, in the constituency of Sidhi, you have 26 candidates itching to become the Member of Parliament. But only two have social media accounts—the Congress guy and the BJP guy. So that’s not much.”
The EC’s Google Drive with 29 files—one for every constituency in Madhya Pradesh.
The task of monitoring these candidates falls in the lap of Shivani Srivastri, a soft-spoken 27-year-old. Like Pandey, Srivastri is also a social media analyst. Of the 29 constituencies in Madhya Pradesh, she has been delegated the task of overlooking and keeping track of the online profiles of all candidates in at least 14 constituencies. To show she means business, she gives me a crisp summary of the social media antics of a national political party’s state secretary within a minute. “I go through everything his pages post. I’ve even found fake and shadow accounts which rally behind him,” Srivastri reveals.
Srivastri was hired by the EC through a selection process. Before her current stint, she was a project executive at MAP IT, or the Madhya Pradesh Agency for the Promotion of Information Technology—a government society that implements the state’s IT policy. She was hired on a project-to-project basis. Once she finished her work at MAP IT, she moved on to the new opening at the EC in March.
Srivastri’s work keeps her busy. Their official timings are 11 am and 7 pm, but their work isn’t restricted to that. “There are politicians who are posting something or the other every minute on their social media, so we have to be vigilant. A five or 10-minute break here and there works, but work stretches way beyond the stated timing.”
Does she like the work, I ask her? “Haan,” she says, with a thoughtful pause. “I like doing technical things that have creative elements. I would like to do something similar after this stint. Here I can manage social media well, even though so much of this is political.” Is she apolitical? “No, mai toh balanced hun (no, I am balanced),” she says. “The media makes it hard for people to be unbiased these days. They forget the news and focus on distractions. Everything seems to be a publicity stunt when you start watching the TV. In Bhopal, they’re now focussing excessively on those asking for votes in the name of religion and calling patriots deshdrohis,” she complains.
I ask her if the job pays well. Srivastri pauses again, chuckles and blurts out a sing-song “not so much”.
Shivani Srivastri, 27, is a social media analyst at MP Election Commission’s social media cell.
The EC’s pre-certification guidelines for political advertisements ensures that every candidate running for office has to declare the funds they’ve put aside for campaigning on social media platforms.
“There are two types of creative content that politicians put out: creative graphics and creative videos,” Verma explains. “We monitor the frequency of both these types because we can then calculate an estimated amount they’ve spent on online political advertisements.” He himself is in charge of commissioning and overlooking such creative content for the MP government’s social media accounts in non-election season and therefore has a trained eye for such stuff.
In Madhya Pradesh, a candidate’s political campaign is subject to a spending cap of ₹70 lakh. “The EC has fixed a rate for every type of creative content. So if a candidate posts 10 different [types of] creative content on his social media, we simply multiply that with the rate and calculate his expenditure,” Verma says. If a candidate’s expenditure on social media crosses the budget they’ve declared, the EC just adds that to their total expenditure. “It doesn’t go unaccounted.”
Verma’s team can calculate the expenditure on creative content through fixed rates, but that’s just the money that goes into creating that content. What about the sum used to promote it on social media? This is where the EC’s alliance with social media platforms emerges.
Verma opens a BJP candidate’s social media page on Facebook and then clicks on an “Ad Library” option on the margin. This opens a page that displays the number of active advertisements and the amount of money the candidate has invested in promoting every single one of them. “Look, this guy blew about ₹2,000-5,000 in that post alone,” he chuckles, “and this is all the help we’ve gotten from Facebook and Twitter. It’s not a lot, but it is something.”
In March this year, social media giants like Facebook, Twitter and Google, along with the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), had presented a voluntary code of ethics to the EC, promising to coordinate with the institution to avoid objectionable political advertisements. “The purpose of this voluntary code is to identify the measures that participants can put in place to increase confidence in the electoral process,” the code said.
Pandey, who has been quietly watching Verma tutor me, is the only person in the cell who works on two machines. His desk holds a laptop and a PC, and when I walk up to him, he claims he has just received a complaint against a suspicious Facebook page.
What is so suspicious, I ask him. “Come sit, I’ll show you,” he says.
“First, this page promotes the BJP in Madhya Pradesh’s Pushprajgarh in all its posts. The BJP has officially sent us a clarification saying this is not their page. Second, the sophisticated graphics they put out must cost money, and they’ve easily posted more than 1,000 such graphics over a month. This is what makes it suspicious.”
Oscillating between solemnity and sarcasm, a seemingly busy Pandey describes himself as a search engine and social media optimiser with an experience of three years. “I used to work as an expert in a marketing firm. Vermaji found me on naukri.com. Unko main achha laga toh mujhe rakh liya (he liked me so he kept me),” he says with a smile. Pandey says the work is quite different from his previous jobs. “Earlier, I used to work to promote a product online. Now I keep an eye on those who promote themselves online. Rishta vahi, soch nayi,” he quips.
Pandey, who keeps an eye on a sheet dedicated to Digvijaya Singh and Pragya Singh Thakur’s social media, claims he has cracked politics during his time at the social media cell. “From outside, things look so different. People actually appreciate the difference between political parties—they say we’ll vote for this or that party. It seems decent from a distance. But here you see how distasteful things can get: the connections and the powerplay. I saw the structure of how things work. Wahi dekh kar maza aata hai (I see it and I enjoy it).”
He adds: “But all this politics doesn’t affect my work. I don’t have political views, and I think it has to do with my Army background.”
Pandey says that most of the problematic content that pops up on social media is usually pro-BJP. “See, the BJP is spending the most amount of money online. But regional parties are not far behind. The BJP and Congress have heavy national expenditure, but regional parties spend a lot of effort on the ground here.”
When it comes to strategy, Pandey thinks that Pragya Thakur’s social media game is tough to grasp. “She has multiple accounts which have a good following, but none of them are official. But she is clever in that she’s active. Her managers know that it’s more important to seem active even if you’re not doing anything.”
Rasik Pandey, 27, is a social media analyst at the social media cell.
A typical Excel document of the social media cell has multiple sheets within it, with titles like “overview”, “political advertising” and “posts”. While suspicious posts are listed in the “posts” sheet, “political advertising” lists all the online posts that the individual has promoted. “Overview” contains information such as a candidate’s page likes. “In the overview section, we update the number of followers and likes regularly. If there’s a jump in either, we know that there has been some sort of paid promotion by the individual,” Verma explains.
However, candidates often use loopholes to circumvent the EC guidelines. According to Verma, when a candidate’s actual, calculated budget exceeds the declared budget, they tend to claim that they’ve hired someone at a fixed rate to produce a disproportionate amount of content. So 10 creative videos don’t actually cost ₹1 lakh rupees (if the EC’s rate is ₹10,000 per creative video, for example), but all of them have been made by a person who has been hired for ₹30,000 a month.
Verma adds: “They also get the political party to make and share videos for themselves, or sometimes have a post go viral via ghost accounts. It’s quite a loophole and Facebook and Twitter should do something about this.” It’s important to note here that political parties do not have a spending cap for election campaigning.
A screenshot of different Twitter streams that Verma personally keeps a close eye on.
Verma and Pandey recently troubleshooted two complaints. The first was about a government employee campaigning for the Samajwadi Party online. It turned out that the government employee had retired from his official position. Verma’s team had dug deep into his social media, found the department in which he worked, and skimmed through the department’s directory. His name was absent—so he’s in the clear.
The second complaint was over an image uploaded by a BJP candidate showing campaign material with pictures and symbols of the Army, including Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman. The team did some digging but did not find the problematic material on the BJP candidate’s social media. The complaint itself was made on social media, so Verma says it was probably a photoshopped image meant to mislead his team. “Fake news,” he smiles.
Verma himself is adept at steering clear of false news, and has trained his team in steering clear of it too. I ask him for some tips. He returns to his computer and opens a Powerpoint presentation he’s prepared on the subject. “Whenever we go meet other teams and professionals, even while working at the IPRD, this presentation comes very handy,” he says.
First of all, he tells me, one has to be very clear about the source of any information on the web. “Check if the site is reputable and well known. Many fake websites try to pass off as reputable by using confusing domain names. So if one is not careful, one can end up believing something published by thehindu.cc instead of thehindu.com.” If the website is not terribly reputable, then check the history of both the website and the author who has written the piece. Google to find out what other news sites have reported on the subject. Additionally, Verma says, if the article contains an image, then run a reverse image search to see where else the image has appeared.
Finally, Verma’s presentation recommends websites one can follow to check the veracity of news: factchecker.in, altnews.in, smhoaxslayer.com, factcheck.org, snopes.com and politifact.com.
But Verma’s work isn’t only about political advertisements and debunking fake news. The social media cell also manages the online accounts of Madhya Pradesh’s Chief Electoral Officer. This account is used to post audio-visual content on election awareness, receive online complaints and urge voters to cast their vote.
The task of managing the cell’s online complaints falls to 25-year old Itika Agarwal. A graduate of Bhopal’s reputed Makhanlal University, her daily reports keep the cell abreast of everything that might be going wrong online.
“Bohot sahi lagta hai mujhe ye kaam (I really like this work),” she tells me. “I maintain a record of all the grievances, queries and complaints on the social media of MP’s CEO VL Kantha Rao—be it Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.” A Google Doc is open on her computer—a welcome change from the rest of her colleagues, who seem buried in Excel sheets, though she confesses to being an Excel person as well.
Agarwal opens an Excel sheet to show me a sample daily report that she prepares and submits at 11 pm every day. It includes the impressions and followers earned by the MP CEO’s online handles. There’s another list with the URLs of queries and complaints, and even obscenities tagged with the CEO’s handles.
Agarwal also monitors political parties on Instagram, mainly the BJP and Congress. “One might think it would not attract as much crowd as Facebook and Twitter but it surely does. Almost every content that a political party uploads on Facebook and Twitter also goes on Instagram. Although Instagram has a fewer number of political profiles.”
According to Agarwal, the prize for the most active social media feed in Madhya Pradesh goes to the Congress. “Digvijaya Singh’s accounts are hyperactive. So is Pragya’s, but she has her work divided between several unofficial accounts on Twitter.”
When I ask her if she’s interested in politics, Agarwal takes my question seriously. “No, I don’t. My background is in marketing and advertising.” Once I clarify that I did not mean it as a career option, she tells me that sticking to social media all day has indeed ignited a degree of interest. “But even then it’s an interest only in the type of content they post, not their policies.”
Itika Agarwal, 25, is a social media analyst at the social media cell.
If there’s one thing Verma takes immense pride in, it is the MP CEO’s engagement in the online space. He compares it to the social media handles of the CEOs of other states to show how he manages greater engagement while having fewer followers. “The CEO Maharashtra has way more followers than the CEO Madhya Pradesh. Yet see how many retweets their regular tweets get and then see ours,” he says, earnestly pointing towards his computer screen. It’s true—the MP CEO’s engagement is almost triple.
The reason for their success in this regard is their creativity. When it comes to pushing the online audience to vote, the MP CEO’s social media falls back on the most trusted driver of online high culture: memes. These memes are usually the brainchild of either Verma or Pandey, and both insist that we take a small break from the election work and simply enjoy them.
Here are some samples:
The cell’s social media content is not just limited to memes. There are animations explaining the voting process and information about polling booth that citizens should be aware of.
These videos are prepared by a 31-year-old Rahul Saini. “I’ve been doing video editing before anything else. I started my career with video editing. It’s been 10 years now,” he beams. Saini worked as a freelancer for many years, and Verma had known his work. “He got in touch and asked me to come work here,” Saini says.
With a conspicuous red teeka adorning his forehead, a jovial Saini says he enjoys his work: “Maza aata hai, I have immense love for what I do.” And like others in the cell, he too likes to stay away from political matters. “I don’t go near it. I can’t apply my brains to politics,” he giggles.
“I watch music videos and other creative content when I get the time. That gives me an idea about how to go do my work, which involves mostly post-production stuff—creating packages and making animations. It’s a job that requires attention to detail. For example, if you have a video of cows and goats, you’ll always make sure that there are sounds of clinking bells in the background.”
Once the election ends, Saini looks forward to returning to freelancing. “There’s nothing like it.”
Rahul Saini, 31, is the video editor at the social media cell.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha Elections, social media has been anticipated as a territory for electoral nautanki. “The social media cell is not supposed to control online campaigning, but merely monitor it. We just watch candidates and their social media activity and act when we receive a complaint. At other times, the work involves pushing content on our EC page and taking note of grievance that we receive online,” Joint CEO Agarwal tells Newslaundry.
He adds: “Political campaigning online in itself is not banned, but content that is inflammatory against another community or threatens peace in society, that needs to be checked out. When we see something fishy, we send it upwards in the EC.”
The social media cell follows a standard procedure to register complaints. They’ve been provided online forms by Google and Twitter to register grievances. In other cases, like Facebook, the cell head has to email a letter to a designated representative. All emails are looped through three nodal officers of the EC in Madhya Pradesh.
The social media cell under the CEO is sanctioned to register FIRs against miscreants under six sections of the Indian Penal Code: 171C (under influence at elections), 171G (false statement in connection with an election), 295A (malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings), 464 (making a false document), 471 (using as genuine a forged document or electronic record), and 505 (statements conducing to public mischief).
In addition, action can be taken under five sections of the Representation of the People Act, 1951: 123(2) (undue influence through direct or indirect interference), 123(3) (promotion of feelings of enmity between different classes of people, 125 (promoting enmity between classes in connection with election, 126 (prohibition of public meetings during the period of 48 hours before conclusion of poll) and 126A (restriction of publication and dissemination of results of exit polls, etc.) and Section 3 of the State Emblem of India (Prohibition of Improper Use) Act, 2005 (prohibition of improper use of emblem).
The difference between the social media cell of a political party and the social media cell of the EC is not just the difference between a scoundrel and a patrol officer, or a mischievous pupil and a professor. It’s also what separates an expert from an amateur—and the EC is not an expert. The crucial factor, of course, is practice. With an IT Cell out on a crusade to conquer public opinion, the BJP has all the tricks up its sleeve. This was as clear in 2014 and it is in the current election season. The Congress too has imbibed the art from its rival and is putting up a fight in many sectors of the online space.
Now compare this to the EC, with a social media cell in its infancy facing the sobering task of disciplining and pacifying warring tribes.
Keeping this in mind, Verma and company appear impressively dynamic, organised and efficient. Verma’s own experience in the state’s public relations department is a major factor in the cell’s extraordinary performance, where a dozen individuals keep tabs on more than 100 candidates assisted by hundreds more in the art of social media electioneering.
Verma’s team hasn’t yet come across a brazen violation of the Model Code of Conduct during online campaigning this election season. However, with major Madhya Pradesh constituencies like Bhopal inching closer to polls on May 12, he believes that villains are on their way. “But don’t worry, we’ll end up stopping them,” he beams confidently.