Claims and counter-claims around partisanship in the news fraternity have been as old as mainstream media has existed in India. With the growth of social media, these allegations appear in the public eye with more frequency, especially as politicians and journalists themselves to the perception of a highly-polarised media landscape on Twitter.
A 2020 tweet from Deepak Chaurasia responding to an implicit allegation of politically-motivated bribery.
A 2019 tweet from Rahul Gandhi implying polarisation among journalists.
While explicit partisanship is hard to establish, the engagement of politicians with journalists on Twitter may shed insights on the media landscape online. Despite what many users claim, have found retweets to be a fair measure of personal endorsement on Twitter. In our at the University of Michigan, we tracked politicians’ retweets of Indian journalists and media houses to understand what endorsement or amplification from politicians says about the media fraternity on Twitter. We did this by collecting retweets from a over a period of one year, from August 2021 to September 2022, and analysed the extent to which they retweeted tweets from the handles of media organisations and journalists.
The polarisation inferred through this method shows evidence that parties not only have preferred news sources, but that politicians also have clear preferences for the work of individual journalists – consistent on party lines.
Tweets from three media organisations – Zee, Republic and Jagran groups – are disproportionately endorsed by politicians from the BJP disposition while NDTV’s Hindi and English offerings tend to be engaged mainly by opposition (@ndtvindia by Samajwadi Party and @ndtv by the Congress).
Among large-circulation broadsheets, @dainikbhaskar also receives high engagement by non-BJP politicians. The majority of international publications also tend to be engaged by opposition leaders. Interestingly, @CNNNews18 tends to lean heavily towards the BJP, whereas its content partner @CNN in general tends to lean liberal in the US.
Visualised 8148 edges, 2174 nodes of the retweet network of politicians (from NivaDuck). All journalists are purple. Size of the nodes are proportional to their total degree (indegree + outdegree). Edges represent politicians’ retweets.
While the study over-sampled from north Indian journalists on account of the Delhi-centric nature of national politics, we found two main groups of journalists on Twitter – one of which was primarily endorsed by politicians of the governing BJP while the other received endorsements from opposition parties such the Indian National Congress, SP, AAP and DMK. It is interesting to note that while many journalists are engaged by politicians from more than a single opposition party, very few of those heavily engaged by BJP politicians receive endorsements from the opposition. Rana Ayyub, for instance, has no retweet from BJP politicians, but is retweeted by leaders from the INC, AAP and SP in comparable proportions.
The diagram above also shows that opposition parties collectively engage with a much larger number of journalists than politicians from the governing party. Politicians from BJP often engage with “celebrity-journalists” – those with over a million followers on Twitter – much more than their counterparts. @RajatSharmaLive, @RubikaLiyaquat, @DChaurasia2312 and @SushantBSinha each were retweeted over 150 times by BJP leaders in the study period alone. In contrast, only two journalists with a similar following – @ppbajpai and @ajitanjum – received over 100 retweets from any other major opposition party. Journalists who were most retweeted by opposition parties include the likes of @AadeshRawal @Supriya23bh @ranvijaylive @umashankarsingh @pantlp @puneetsinghlive @shakeelNBT. Many of these are mostly political or party beat journalists or political editors with traditional newspapers.
A +/-0.5 polarity on the x-axis means about 75% of the retweets they get from politicians belong to one side on the binary classification (in this case either BJP or non-BJP).
Among the journalists with the highest number of followers on Twitter, we see a high level of partisan engagement. From the accounts with over 1 million followers that had at least 50 engagements from politicians, each journalist had a high degree of political polarisation – more than 67 percent of their endorsements were from politicians of the same party. A similar trend was observed among the most engaged journalists irrespective of their follower counts.
We find that only a small number of politicians from major parties actually engage the press, and save for a few exceptions, the majority of journalist engagement tends to come from lower-ranking politicians or members of IT cells. Of the parties examined, AAP had the highest proportion of politicians engaging the press.
Aam Aadmi Party: The most active political accounts of the AAP tweeting out journalists’ messages were @PulkitS_, @balakv1970 (former Infosys CFO) and @BajpaiDeepak.
@Isudan_Gadhvi, a journalist who joined the AAP and was recently declared its CM candidate for the Gujarat elections, was unsurprisingly found to be the most retweeted by AAP politicians. Another journalist heavily engaged by the party was @anuragdhanda, who also joined the party, similar to @sharmanagendar, who also became an advisor to the Delhi CM office. The moving of these journalists into the party system is important as it adds some mainstream media firepower to the AAP’s outreach.
SP: The most active Samajwadi Party aligned accounts engaging with journalists’ content through retweets were @uddinizharss, @MohdFai05559506 and @ManojSinghKAKA. Manoj Singh Kaka is a party spokesperson. The most engaged journalists in terms of the total volume of engagement are @WasimAkramTyagi followed by @pankajjha_ and @sengarlive.
INC: The politicians who most retweet journalistic content include Bihar politician @Ahmad_Shakeel, MP @kartipc, and the party handle of the youth Congress in Punjab @IYCPunjab. In general, most parties do not have a major member of parliament engage with journalistic content very significantly, but this is somewhat more common in Tamil Nadu. Besides INC’s @kartipc, DMK MP @ptrmadurai is also very active in terms of retweeting journalists.
BJP: The handles belonging to BJP-affiliated politicians that most retweet journalists are @vpalanisamy2010, @balbirpunj and @ManoJJoshiraj. Of these, only Balbir Punj is a former Rajya Sabha MP. As with other parties, very few of the high-ranking party officials retweet journalists.
Using automatic topic-modeling techniques, the study also reports that tweets receiving most engagement from politicians are typically about senior politicians, elections, nationalist sentiments and those supportive of government schemes and policies.
Here’s a tool you can play around with.
You can visualise the level of polarity, based on the scores mentioned in the methodology, for any journalist who was retweeted by a politician during the study period. For best results, visualise a few journalists together to see how they compare.