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Twitter Use and Negative Campaigning: A Case Study from the World’s Largest Election

Nikhil Moro

That Twitter could catalyze political change became evident in summer 2009 when Iranians tweet-protested election results. Their so-called Green Revolution, dubbed by foreign journalists as a Twitter Revolution, was live tweeted in a style of breaking-news journalism, making it also the first crowd-sourced Web broadcast of a world event. 

Since then, the use of Twitter has evolved from political activism to campaigning, with politicians around the world using it to mediate political change through self-promotion, education, agenda-setting, content discovery, and interpersonal communication. 

Twitter’s campaign use came to the fore in the U.S. presidential election of 2012, and more recently, for the first time in Asia, in the other great aspiring democracy, India. Prominent Indian politicians were tweeting feverishly to influence voters in summer 2014 in the largest election the world had ever seen, the Indian parliamentary election.

The quinquennial election, with 814 million voters of unparalleled cultural and economic diversity, saw some 8,000 candidates vying for 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, in all 28 states and seven Union territories. Indians staggered-voted on nine dates between April 7 and May 12, 2014. Politicians campaigned in open-air public rallies often in raucous, dusty and scorching conditions. In stump speeches, they invoked age-old themes of economic resurgence, national identity, and public accountability through hot-button issues: unemployment, secularism and corruption. 

For many politicians, it was also their first campaign mediated by Twitter, with loud outdoor rallies supplemented by air-conditioned indoor tweeting. Twitter, an efficient tool to reach tech-savvy urban voters, would be their site of vernacular written practice marked by stylistic heterogeneity and nonstandard use of English. 

This case study examined all tweets and retweets posted by the six most-followed Indian politicians over a 30-day campaign period beginning April 16, 2014. Together, the posts accounted for virtually all of the mainstream-media coverage of political tweets in the month preceding May 16, the day when the election results were declared. 

The six politicians stood out for sophistication of range, earnestness and strategy. They displayed a Twitter-focused mindset, expertly mobilizing supporters by using data to personalize as much as to localize. They seemed to have found a winning formula, if one ever existed in Twitter-mediated politics.  They were, in order of Twitter popularity: Narendra Modi (Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP; 5.19 million Twitter followers); Shashi Tharoor (Congress Party; 2.25 million followers); Arvind Kejriwal (Aam Aadmi Party; 2.07 million followers); Subramanian Swamy (BJP; 681,000 followers); Arun Jaitley (BJP; 470,000 followers); and Digvijay Singh (Congress Party; 202,000 followers).  

All except Swamy and Singh were also candidates in the election. All were male, aged 45 (Kejriwal) to 74 (Swamy), and they represented five states: Gujarat, Kerala, Delhi, Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh respectively. They also represented the three prominent party options: Modi, Swamy and Jaitley were of the BJP, a 34-year-old party that had appropriated a platform of efficient governance and cultural nationalism. Tharoor and Singh were of the ruling 128-year-old Congress Party, which claimed a platform of secularism that it sought to contrast with the BJP’s nationalism. Kejriwal was from the 1-year-old Aam Aadmi Party which, after aggressively negative campaigning, had soared in popularity in the northern state of Delhi. 

The six politicians were expected to show strong purpose, strategy and focus to sell their respective party positions, but to also use ad hominem attacks, sarcasm, crotchety, or just a snarky tone to attack opponents. They were hypothesized to significantly use Twitter for negative campaigning. This case study examined their tweets for negative content over the 30-day period, ending May 15, when campaigning was at its most strident.   It examined in all 996 tweets and retweets, operationalizing negativity as ad-hominem criticism, labeling, and other forms of attack targeting an individual or party.

The use of negative campaign communication is native but not unique to Indian electoral politics. In the United States, proliferation of attack advertisements and negative appeals in commercials has accelerated since the early 1980s,  but negativity in major-party presidential campaigns has not increased significantly.  Candidates for public office in India and the United States have routinely used media opportunities, including broadcast commercials, cable interviews, media releases, and stump speeches as part of strategic campaign communication. Twitter is only the latest platform of negative campaigning. 

When Twitter turned eight years old in March 2014, it had 33 million monthly active users in India of the more than 242 million worldwide.  With crumbling barriers of cost, technology and computer skill, a growing number of urban Indians were using the English-language platform but also, with aid of Quillpad and similar apps, non-English platforms. In July 2014, tweeters could type in ten of the 23 official Indian languages.  Since its launch in 2011 in Hindi, the most spoken Indian language,  Twitter access had greatly eased via its Translation Section.  Continuing impediments to diffusion of Twitter use had to do primarily with a digital divide: India persistently had the lowest Internet penetration rate (13.7 percent according to the consulting firm eMarketer) and mean Internet speed (1.7 MBps, according to the Akamai State of the Internet Report; the global mean: 3.9 MBps) of the top ten Internet nations in July 2014. The number of Indian Internet users, however, grew 14 percent in the previous year, three-and-a-half times faster than Chinese and twice as fast as American users.  At that rate, it could reach 340 million in 2015 to grow India from the third to the second largest Internet nation (after China.)  

The findings of the study were as follows. The most-followed politicians as a group were surprisingly non-negative. The most frequently negative tweeter was Digvijay Singh; more than a third of his tweets were negative. He was also the most intensely negative. Of Singh’s 72 tweets in the examined month, 26, or a full 36 percent, were of an attacking nature. Singh used more ad hominem criticisms than the other five politicians put together. His labels “communal,” “fascist,” “Hitler” and “desparadoes” most frequently targeted Modi. The least negative tweeter was Narendra Modi, of whose 343 tweets, 20, or 5.8 percent, were negative. He took one name in criticism, that of the Abdullah family of Jammu and Kashmir. 

Of the others, Shashi Tharoor posted 67 tweets, of which 13, or 19.4 percent, were negative. Tharoor’s eloquent criticism targeted none but Modi. Subramanian Swamy posted 280 tweets, of which 28, or 10 percent, were negative. Swamy used mocking monikers for the Nehru family and nick-named another opponent “rascal.” Of the politicians examined, Swamy used the most tweets for interpersonal communication, engaging frequently, and often curtly, with his followers. Arun Jaitley posted 47 tweets, of which 4, or 8.5 percent, were negative. Jaitley took no names in criticism. Finally, Arvind Kejriwal posted 187 tweets, of which 13, or 7 percent, were negative. Kejriwal’s tweets belied his television reputation of making sweeping and acrid attacks on opponents’ honesty.  

Later, the election results held a lesson for elevating the Twitter-mediated discourse. Modi and his party won handsomely and Singh’s party lost miserably, suggesting that if the Twitter campaign was significant at all, then Indian voters did not appreciate negative tweeting.


Buell, Emmett H., and Sigelman Lee. 2008. Attack Politics: Negativity in Presidential Campaigns Since 1960. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas.

Lau, Richard R., and Ivy Brown Rowner. 2009. “Negative campaigning.” Annual Review of Political Science 12: 285-306.

Lee, Kyumin, James Caverlee, Zhiyuan Cheng, and Daniel Z. Sui. 2013. “Campaign extraction from social media,” ACM Transactions on Intelligent Systems and Technology 5 (1): 1-28.

Thejll-Moller, Steffen. 2013. “Social media in traditional political party campaigns: is there a winning formula?” European View 12 (1): 33-39.

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