A new paper authored by five researchers at Microsoft Research, India, has analysed the role played by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politicians and pro-BJP handles in spreading rumours and conspiracy theories about the Sushant Singh Rajput case on social media.
In their study, researchers Joyojeet Pal, Syeda Zainab Akbar, Ankur Sharma, Himani Negi and Anmol Panda analysed Twitter trends and tweets by politicians, influencers, journalists, and media houses as well as engagement on the YouTube pages of mainstream TV news channels.
Their study involved the analysis of Twitter influencers in the case, which involved looking at tweets from 2,000 journalists and media houses and 1,200 politicians in Bihar and Maharashtra between June 14 and September 12, 2020.
The researchers said the data they studied showed “an important role played by politicians, especially the BJP, in proposing a ’murder’ alternative to the ’suicide’ narrative”.
″...the data strongly suggest that the BJP drove the insinuation of ‘murder’ since it was used more than ‘suicide’ in most weeks since July,” their paper said.
Rajput’s death on 14 June at his Mumbai home was heavily politicised in the months since then, with news channels such as Times Now and Republic running campaigns asking for “justice” in his case.
On Oct 3, the AIIMS’ medical board ruled out murder in the death of actor, terming it “a case of hanging and death by suicide”, the institute’s forensic chief Dr Sudhir Gupta said.
In its conclusive medico-legal opinion to the CBI, the six-member team of forensic doctors dismissed the claims of “poisoning and strangling” made in the case of Singh’s death.
The researchers’ study found that the Mumbai police was trolled heavily in the days after Rajput’s death “by various stakeholders, but particularly BJP politicians”.
“The attack on the police was used as a bridge into attacking the state cabinet, beginning with #AnilDeshmukhSavingSSRKillers (the home minister), #MahaGovtExposed, and eventually Aditya Thackeray, who is already one of the most trolled politicians in India,” it said.
Bihar v Maharashtra politicians
The study found that while it initially seemed as if the news surrounding Sushant Singh Rajput would be a big part of the Bihar elections, discussion of the case by politicians in Bihar reduced after July.
However, the case continued to be “very significant among Maharashtra politicians, and has grown in importance among politicians around the country,” it said.
The study found that the number of tweets on the case by Maharashtra’s politicians increased from 3,645 in the first month to 5,508 in the second and 8,256 in the third. By the third month, the number of tweets from Bihar politicians was at 1,527.
BJP v Congress
According to the study, BJP dominated the overall trends on Twitter in terms of the total number of tweets for most of the period up until the end of August.
“The CBI case declaration has been a major push for the BJP’s Twitter footprint,” it said.
During mid-July, a majority of politician accounts who participated in coordinated effort to ask for a CBI enquiry belonged to BJP politicians. At this point, they were more active in pushing Twitter traffic on the topic than journalists or media houses, the study said.
Between June 14 and September 12, roughly the same number of politicians talked about the case from both Congress and BJP, but the number of tweets by BJP politicians was twice as high as those from Congress.
“INC uses the term ‘suicide’ much more than the BJP. BJP uses ‘Bollywood’ a lot more than the INC. BJP’s general approach is to use the case to discuss Bollywood in negative light,” the study said.
While both parties frequently used the ‘Kangana Ranaut’ hashtag, tweets by BJP politicians were more pro-Kangana with hashtags like #NationStandsWithKangana, while the Congress’s politicians used hashtags like #CastesistKangana.
BJP also used #CBIForSSR to demand a CBI probe into the case and used #BabyPenguin and #MahaGovtExposed to attack the Maharashtra.
One week after the actor’s death, “there was an increased usage of ‘murder’ keyword repeatedly in tweets by BJP politicians” in the following weeks, the study said.
Journalists and media houses
The study’s analysis of tweets by reporters and media houses found that an overwhelming share of those who tweeted about the case got far higher retweets than they got on an average when they tweeted about other topics.
Republic, Times Now, CNN News18, and India Today had a large volume of tweets about Sushant Singh Rajput.
The study’s analysis found that Times Now had tweeted the most about this topic, but Republic TV was a clear outlier in terms of the retweet rates it got for its typical tweets about Sushant Singh Rajput.
“The channel gets a massive boost online from its followers on Twitter when it engages with the subject, several times that of most other channels,” the paper said.
ZEE News editor-in-chief Sudhir Chaudhary and journalist Barkha Dutt got significantly higher retweets than other journalists when they discussed this subject, the study said.
One of the key points made by the study was how audiences rewarded news channels for following this story.
“Viewers’ count rose sharply with key interviews with various people who had been in contact with Rajput, including his trainer, cook, key maker etc,” the study found.
“Speculative material, including the linking of the case with Disha Salian’s death found high viewership online,” it said.
The paper said that there was a peak in viewership around the interview of Kangana Ranaut and a second peak during the arrest of Rhea Chakraborty.
New names trended on Twitter trended roughly every two weeks, “starting with Sonu Nigam and Yash Raj Films, followed by Shekhar Suman, Alia Bhatt, Karan Johar, Rhea Chakraborty, Anupama Pathak, Mahesh Bhatt, Ankita Lokhande, Kangana Ranaut, Disha Salian, Aditya Pancholi etc.”
The study found that the usual pattern was for one name to emerge and then disappear over time.
“The victims of this case have mostly been women – Rhea Chakraborty was slandered and hounded, eventually ending up in jail without bail. As the scandal devolved into allegations about drugs - the Indian Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) summoned four movie actors - Deepika Padukone, Sara Ali Khan, Shraddha Kapoor, and Rakul Preet Singh, all women, and at the time of this writing, all intensely targeted by trolling and mainstream media speculation online.”