DisFact #26: Inside BJP's secretive in-house political consulting firm, and two other stories

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Hello all! I have been missing from your inbox for the last two weeks. Yes, I have excuses: I was busy with final edits of my freelance assignments (all three were published last week), and was transitioning into a new organisation for a short-term assignment to cover the 2019 elections. DisFact will resume this Sunday.

Today, I am writing to share my latest work. Three stories:

  1. The first one, for HuffPost India, is an investigation into the Association of Billion Minds, BJP’s secretive in-house political consulting unit, that does everything from recommending election candidates to spreading digital propaganda.

  2. Second, for Mint, I explore the games people play in Facebook comment threads. What works, what doesn’t, how the comment section is a publishing platform in itself, and what it means for digital politics.

  3. Third, for the Atlantic, is an overview of India’s misinformation crisis. It was written for an international audience, and puts together most of my reporting on the “fake news” ecosystem in one place.

Happy reading, and as always, feedback is most welcome.

How Modi, Shah Turned A Women’s NGO Into A Secret Election Propaganda Machine (HuffPost India)

We take you inside the Association of Billion Minds, or ABM, BJP party president Amit Shah’s personal election consulting unit, that's working secretly with India's ruling party since the 2017 Uttar Pradesh elections.

The story, based on a two-month-long investigation with HuffPost India reporters, dives deep into the history of the company as well as its online and offline operations. It's a long story: please read, share and think.

ABM is a big reason why most of Modi’s tenure has felt like one eternal election campaign. India’s ruling party has tasked this secretive quorum of nerds with running sophisticated misinformation campaigns to spread fake news and false claims on social media and WhatsApp and in staged conversations in public gatherings. 

ABM’s team of at least 161 full-time employees in 12 regional offices across India provides the BJP with feedback on its key political moves, helps shortlist candidates for vital elections, and manages a phalanx of paid field workers who introduce themselves to party cadre as “Amit Shah’s team”. It is not the only such firm employed by the BJP, but it is the most secretive and has the deepest relationship with Shah, the party president. But publicly, BJP denies links with this company. 

Read: https://www.huffingtonpost.in/entry/how-modi-shah-turned-a-women-s-rights-ngo-into-a-secret-election-propaganda-machine_in_5ca5962ce4b05acba4dc1819

MediaVigil has a Hindi translation of the key points of our piece.

Games People Play on Facebook Comment Threads (Mint)

From Pakistani propaganda to countering politicians, top comments on top Facebook pages are resetting the narrative.

I dived into the fascinating world of Facebook comments to find out what's going on in the space. Purely based on traction & audience footprint, Facebook comment thread is a publishing platform on its own.

The right Facebook comment at the right time on the right page is the new gateway to mass attention on the internet. But to cut through the thousands of comments and feature as “most relevant", the content needs to be contrarian; share a powerful personal anecdote; be witty or sarcastic; crack a joke; argue with shayari; use hashtags; post a meme. There is no fixed formula.

The story has more on the differences in English and Hindi media pages, the types of comments people write and how citizens are countering politicians.

Read: https://www.livemint.com/elections/lok-sabha-elections/games-people-play-on-facebook-comment-threads-1554228802281.html

Misinformation and India’s Election (The Atlantic)

India is facing information wars of an unprecedented nature and scale: the fake news problem is not limited to one platform, one medium, or one political party. Snigdha Poonam and I mapped out the entire ecosystem, providing a big-picture view of India's misinformation crisis, as we head to the general elections.

Read: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2019/04/india-misinformation-election-fake-news/586123/

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