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Story Publication logo May 15, 2024

Inside the BJP’s WhatsApp Machine



WhatsApp has become a battlefield for contemporary Indian elections.


An analysis of thousands of messages reveals how India’s ruling party uses the app to campaign free from public scrutiny.

On January 22, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, inaugurated the Ram Mandir, a Hindu temple in the northern city of Ayodhya. Dressed head to toe in cream and gold, Modi led prayers and rituals at an event that dominated national news and effectively kicked off his 2024 reelection campaign.

The inauguration held great significance for many Hindus, but it also invited controversy. The temple is built on the ruins of a razed Mughal-era mosque and has become a flashpoint of tension between Hindus and Muslims, exacerbated by the Hindu nationalist views promoted by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Three days after the event, Kanav Sharma, an electrician who lives in the Himalayan town of Mandi, saw a video on Facebook that showed police in riot gear violently detaining several young men, dragging them away as sirens blared in the background. Hindi captions claimed the men had attacked a religious procession in Mumbai following the inauguration.

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Sharma went to share the video, dropping it in a WhatsApp group designed for residents to seek and offer assistance with odd jobs. The video spread around other Mandi WhatsApp groups. Within 10 minutes, it had reached groups containing over 1,700 Mandi residents. Group members reacted with a thumbs-up.

There was one problem: The viral video was neither shot in January nor was it related to the Ram Temple inauguration. It was an old video of police detaining people following a 2022 protest in Hyderabad, hundreds of miles away from Mumbai. Abhishek Kumar, a senior fact-checker at the Indian nonprofit Alt News, told Rest of World that “the information spread with this particular video is not only false, but it also glorifies police brutality and is being shared praising it.” 

Asked by Rest of World, Sharma said he hadn’t realized the video was old, or inaccurate. “We thought it might be from there [Mumbai],” he said.

A portion of a viral video shared on WhatsApp showing police detaining people at a protest in Hyderabad in 2022. Video courtesy of Rest of World. India.

India’s ongoing elections are the world’s largest in history, with almost 1 billion people eligible to vote. They are so big that voting is being conducted in waves from April 19 to June 1. The BJP, which has been in power for 10 years, is widely expected to win. But in the process, both Modi’s administration and his electoral campaign have been criticized for stirring hate against Muslims and increasing polarization.

As millions of Indians vote, many of them will turn to WhatsApp for information. India is the Meta-owned app’s largest market, with 400 million active users — more than a quarter of the country’s population. India’s last general elections, in 2019, were labeled the “WhatsApp elections” because of the platform’s prevalence and influence. In 2024, politicians are redoubling their focus on the app. 

Kiran Garimella, an assistant professor at Rutgers University who researches WhatsApp in India, told Rest of World the app reaches people that other platforms don’t, including remote communities. “There are a number of people in India who only use WhatsApp,” he said.

400 million

The number of active WhatsApp users in India.

The scale of the BJP’s WhatsApp operations is incomparable to that of any other political party in the country. Over the past decade, the BJP has grown a vast network of WhatsApp groups that attempts to influence voters by spreading campaign messaging and propaganda. According to a report in the Deccan Herald, there are now at least 5 million WhatsApp groups operated by the BJP in India. Unnamed party leaders told the Herald the BJP’s WhatsApp infrastructure is so powerful that it can disseminate information from Delhi to any location in the country within 12 minutes. 

Just in Mandi, a town in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh — with a population of 26,000, according to the last census in 2011 — administrators affiliated with the BJP run a network of more than 400 WhatsApp groups. That includes the local assistance group, where Sharma first posted his video.

Shivam Shankar Singh, a political consultant who previously worked with the BJP, told Rest of World the party’s dominance on WhatsApp gives it an electoral advantage. “Distribution matters more than narrative,” he said. “WhatsApp provides India’s largest distribution platform [for political messaging].”

Garimella, the Rutgers researcher, said the BJP’s “extreme coordination” and prowess on WhatsApp could benefit them. The closed nature of WhatsApp — only people in a group can see the content shared there — is also a concern. Unlike social media platforms such as X or Facebook, conversation in WhatsApp groups is usually hidden from public view, and largely goes unmoderated and unscrutinized. “It is concerning that such a huge ‘hidden’ infrastructure plays a huge role in how the public consumes information,” Garimella said. “Only the creators of these groups know the extent to which the tentacles of this WhatsApp infrastructure are spread.”

WhatsApp provides India’s largest distribution platform [for political messaging].

Over the past five months, Rest of World, in collaboration with Digital Witness Lab — a research group at Princeton University that builds tools to investigate social media platforms — analyzed activity across BJP-affiliated WhatsApp groups in Mandi in order to understand the app’s role in the BJP’s 2024 election campaign. 

Rest of World joined five WhatsApp “communities” — groups of groups that act more like announcement channels. Admins can add both groups and individuals into communities and share messages with them en masse. These communities were created by the BJP, and included more than 142 groups — of which Rest of World joined 18 groups. 

In addition, Rest of World joined five local groups operated by religious institutions, one group set up by Mandi’s governance bodies, and three community-led groups to see how election-related messaging spreads in “non-political” groups. In two of these groups, a BJP member was an admin but the groups were not identified as BJP groups. All groups observed had more than six members, and were created for the purpose of broadcasting messages to a community or discussing public events.

Based on our analysis of activity in the groups, as well as interviews with BJP workers, volunteers, and voters, Rest of World was able to map out the BJP’s extensive WhatsApp campaigning machine in one small town. That machine depends on an army of volunteers who run groups targeting voters based on their location, profession, age, religion, gender, caste, and tribe.

Our findings show how a cast of hundreds of BJP members has set the narrative on WhatsApp about what gets discussed in the elections, and how. We also documented how the closed nature of WhatsApp and the ease with which messages can travel from group to group results in a blurring of lines between political and personal speech, making it hard for voters to know which messages have come directly from the BJP and which have emerged organically. BJP workers appear to take advantage of this ambiguity to push the party’s messaging.

The meticulous operation shows just how far ahead of the opposition the BJP is in understanding how WhatsApp works and using the platform to promote its campaigning. The party has built a distribution mechanism on WhatsApp that is so large in scale, it creates a clear imbalance as the elections approach.

The town of Mandi sits in the Himalayan mountains in northern India. Image courtesy of Rest of World. India.

THE TOWN OF Mandi is located in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, amid the Himalayan mountains. Like many Indian towns, it has a majority Hindu population with Sikh and Muslim minorities. Mandi goes to the polls in the last wave of voting, on June 1. As that date nears, local BJP leaders have gone all-in on WhatsApp campaigning. The BJP is fielding Bollywood celebrity Kangana Ranaut as its candidate, while the Indian National Congress — the main opposition party — is putting forward Vikramaditya Singh, a royal from Himachal.

In Mandi, the BJP has a WhatsApp group for everyone. There is a hierarchy of groups organized from the national level down to state, district, sub-district, and so on — all the way to individual “booths,” which represent the community of people who vote at the same polling booth. Then there are groups targeted to different demographics and interests: In Mandi, farmers can join at least two farming-focused WhatsApp groups. There are also groups for youth, doctors, ex-servicemen, traders, and intellectuals. Women have the option to join the group “Mahila Morcha,” Hindi for “women’s wing.” There are groups for official caste classifications and tribe classifications. Some groups are intended only for BJP workers or members; others are open to the general public.

There are also BJP-linked groups that aren’t explicitly political. One such group is dedicated to keeping Mandi clean and tidy — but a BJP member is still an admin.

A video satirizing Congress leader Rahul Gandhi circulated in Mandi WhatsApp groups at the start of 2024. The video depicted Gandhi as Ravana, the demon king with 10 heads who was defeated by Hindu lord Ram.

Rest of World first saw the video forwarded by someone in one of the official BJP WhatsApp groups for Mandi on January 11. The message had a Forwarded tag.

The next day, the same message was shared in a different local WhatsApp group — a fan club for Anil Sharma, Mandi’s member of the Himachal Pradesh Legislative Assembly. This time, it had a Forwarded many times tag.

One hour later, the same message was once again forwarded in the same group, by another member.

On February 9, nearly a month later, the video resurfaced and was shared yet again in the same fan-club group — suggesting it had likely been spreading elsewhere before making it back into the Mandi WhatsApp ecosystem.

“This shows how easily and quickly disinformation spreads throughout India using WhatsApp,” said Abhishek Kumar, a senior fact-checker at the Indian nonprofit Alt News.

All of this requires a dedicated workforce: A BJP worker told Rest of World he had a volunteer team of 500 members running social media operations in Mandi, including overseeing around 400 WhatsApp groups and preparing to oversee around 600 groups by the time of the elections. As polling day in Mandi nears, Rest of World has seen new groups being added to the network. 

BJP workers said this WhatsApp arrangement is not unique to Mandi, and that almost all districts in India follow a similar model. Chetan Singh Bragta, who is in charge of the BJP’s social media and information technology operations in the state of Himachal Pradesh, told Rest of World the party started building its WhatsApp presence there in 2014; ahead of state elections in 2017, the WhatsApp group infrastructure was complete. It has been growing ever since. There are now around 8,000 groups across the state — at least one for each polling booth.

In Mandi, BJP volunteers began augmenting their WhatsApp campaigning strategy in the fall of 2023, nearly six months before the election dates were announced. One of the people involved in the process was an unpaid BJP leader who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, as he was concerned about backlash from the community. Rest of World met him in his office, a room under construction in a building next to the river Beas, which flows through the town. A certificate of appreciation from the BJP hung on the wall. Two young volunteers were also working in the office.

Using a desktop computer and a phone, the leader showed Rest of World five BJP communities he had created on WhatsApp, containing hundreds of groups. He said he used three WhatsApp accounts to avoid spam detection. He explained that he works alongside 12 other volunteers in the local BJP IT department, where his job includes creating WhatsApp groups and adding members to them. His other colleagues in the social media department, also volunteers, are then tasked with sharing content in those WhatsApp groups.

A campaign poster featuring prominent Congress leaders on display in Mandi in May 2024. Image courtesy of Rest of World. India.

There is a strict hierarchy to the BJP’s operations. Every day, the party’s offices in New Delhi send messages to be shared across groups at regional and local levels. Bragta, who is based in Himachal Pradesh's capital city, Shimla, said he religiously looks at updates from Delhi in the morning to understand what narrative-building is supposed to be done for the day. He also hosts daily half-hour meetings with workers across the state. “We discuss issues and get feedback,” he said. “While sitting in Shimla, I will not get to know about Himachal. They will tell me.”

Bragta said the BJP’s content strategy is carefully planned out. “We plan for months,” he said. “Eighty percent of things are planned. It doesn’t happen in a jiffy.” 

For example, in March, the BJP launched a political campaign called “Modi Ka Parivar,” meaning “Modi’s family.” The BJP’s national IT and social media head, Amit Malviya, shared a minute-long video on X stating that all of the estimated 1.4 billion population of India was Modi’s family. Soon, BJP members started adding “Modi Ka Parivar” to their social media usernames. In an internal Himachal Pradesh social media group, everyone was encouraged to add “Modi Ka Parivar” to their social media profile.

Eighty percent of things are planned. It doesn’t happen in a jiffy.


Further down the chain are volunteers who collect the names and phone numbers of local residents. In the Mandi office, the BJP leader showed a spreadsheet of phone numbers, names, and WhatsApp groups. He manually adds the people to the relevant WhatsApp groups. “I put in three to four hours of work everyday,” he said. On WhatsApp, Rest of World witnessed the volunteer adding more than a hundred phone numbers at a time into a group he runs.

Some content comes from the bottom up, capitalizing on lower-level volunteers’ local knowledge. The Mandi BJP leader told Rest of World that volunteers may dig up dirt on opposition leaders or identify information that could come back to harm their leaders. 

One group of workers monitors the engagement and comments on posts. Another group looks for people enthusiastically leaving pro-BJP comments — such as the slogan “Jai Shri Ram,” an expression praising Lord Ram that has also become a BJP rallying cry — so that they can slide into their DMs and try to recruit them.

People sit on the steps at Seri Manch, a cultural space, in the center of Mandi in May 2024. Image by Rest of World. India.

CONCERNS OVER WHATSAPP'S possible influence on elections center around the platform’s potential to spread misinformation and hate speech. This threat isn’t just theoretical: In 2018, viral misinformation about child kidnappings disseminated on the platform, leading to mob violence and lynching. In response, WhatsApp put limits on the amount of times users can forward a message.

But it’s easy to get around message-sharing limitations. Rest of World found that users simply copied a message rather than using the forwarding function. In an open letter published in early April, the Mozilla Foundation specifically called out WhatsApp’s communities feature as a potential threat to election integrity, owing to the number of people it allows a single message to reach.

Many of the messages circulating in the groups Rest of World reviewed praised Modi, the BJP, and Hinduism, but there were also examples of fake news, conspiracy theories, political attack ads, and hate speech. Some messages appeared to violate WhatsApp’s terms of service, which, among other things, prohibit publishing falsehoods and using the app in ways that are “illegal, obscene, defamatory, threatening, intimidating, harassing, hateful, [and] racially or ethnically offensive.”

Rest of World also found examples of a BJP worker sending messages in a BJP-affiliated group while using a WhatsApp Business account. According to WhatsApp’s rules, political candidates and campaigns are not allowed to use the WhatsApp Business platform.

“WhatsApp engages with political entities ahead of major elections to emphasize our approach to safety,” the company’s spokesperson, Christina LoNigro, told Rest of World over email. “We encourage people to use WhatsApp responsibly and ban accounts for violating our terms of service.” WhatsApp did not respond to questions about whether it had engaged the BJP specifically ahead of the Indian elections.

To understand how the BJP’s WhatsApp infrastructure reacts during prime political events, Digital Witness Lab studied messages from 20 of the Mandi WhatsApp groups from January 8 to February 3, roughly two weeks on either side of the Ram Temple inauguration on January 22. There was a surge in messaging around the event, reflecting the party’s on-the-ground campaigning: On January 22, more than 940 messages were posted across the 20 groups, almost triple the daily average of the previous week. 

In its analysis, Digital Witness Lab focused on messages that had been forwarded two or more times by the time they entered one of the 20 groups. For the size of the groups we studied, these messages would reach at least dozens of people, and could therefore be considered public in nature according to Digital Witness Lab’s criteria. Of the 8,169 messages posted in the time analyzed, 751 were forwarded two or more times, 713 of which Digital Witness Lab was able to label. By manually evaluating and labeling the content of these messages, Digital Witness Lab was able to track trends between messages related to the Ram Temple against those that weren’t. 

To assess the content of messages, two researchers manually categorized individual messages based on a series of predefined labels. For example, they labeled if a message included information relating to either Hinduism or Islam, and additionally, if the message expressed positive or negative views toward Hindus or Muslims. A third researcher resolved any cases in which the two researchers disagreed or requested further review. There is a detailed methodology of the labeling and analysis process here. 

According to the researchers’ assessments, 36% of the highly forwarded messages related to the Ram Temple, with the volume of such messages spiking in the days surrounding the event. The most notable differences between these and other highly forwarded messages is that these were far more likely to relate to Hinduism (84% versus 15%) and to be pro-Hindu (33% versus 6%). This may be unsurprising given the event was a Hindu temple inauguration, but Singh, the former BJP political consultant, told Rest of World the party would have designed the event precisely for that effect. Ahead of the elections, the BJP’s strategy has been to promote itself as a pro-Hindu party. “Why do you think the inauguration happened at such a grand scale?” Singh said. “Because they wanted pro-Hindu conversations to increase.”

There was little room for dissenting views. Across the groups, Digital Witness Lab identified more anti-Muslim messages among highly forwarded messages related to the inauguration (14%) compared to content unrelated to the inauguration (5%). Anti-BJP content was incredibly rare across all messages analyzed; the researchers didn’t find any such content in the Ram Temple-related messages. Anti-Congress messages held steady at around 8%, and the highly forwarded Ram Temple messages contained no pro-Congress content, which accounted for roughly 2% of the highly forwarded non-Ram Temple messages. None of the highly forwarded messages in the data set were pro-Muslim.

Garimella, the Rutgers University researcher, told Rest of World the lack of pro-Congress or anti-BJP WhatsApp messages was consistent with his findings from previous research on WhatsApp in a village in the state of Jharkhand, which is known for frequent incidents of communal violence. “We have also seen in our database that pro-Congress or anti-BJP content does not exist. It is less than 1%,” he said. “These guys [the BJP] are so well-coordinated that the opposition doesn’t have any comparable infrastructure.” 

The BJP didn’t just ramp up its campaigning in official groups around the inauguration of the Ram Temple. Rest of World also observed increased activity in what party leaders called “third-party” groups — groups that may appear to be organic but are still run by BJP volunteers. 

These guys [the BJP] are so well-coordinated that the opposition doesn’t have any comparable infrastructure.

Kiran Garimella, Rutgers University Researcher

Digital Witness Lab found that the surge in total messages around the time of the Ram Temple inauguration was almost entirely driven by official and third-party BJP groups, not organic groups — suggesting that the activity was part of an organized campaign. The daily message average for political groups and surrogate groups almost doubled during the inauguration period compared to the week before, while that for organic groups remained relatively unchanged.

Rest of World found that the most inflammatory messages tend to be shared in third-party groups, which are open to anyone and attract more activity.

One such group in Mandi is a fan club for local BJP politician Anil Sharma, which had 538 members at the time of the inauguration. In March, an anonymous account with the username Bijnece forwarded a photo of Delhi’s chief minister and Modi’s rival, Arvind Kejriwal — who was arrested and jailed by the BJP — to the group. The image showed Kejriwal wearing a skull cap and taking part in an Islamic prayer. Kejriwal is Hindu; the photograph, presented out of context, was taken when he participated in a Muslim celebration in 2016. The caption drew on conspiracy theories, claiming Kejriwal was an “asset” created by the CIA and George Soros. “The truth is that Kejriwal is the most dangerous terrorist in india right now…😎🤬,” it finished.

A photo shared in a Mandi WhatsApp group by an anonymous account, showing Delhi’s chief minister and Modi’s rival, Arvind Kejriwal, with a caption accusing him of being a CIA asset. Image courtesy of Rest of World.

Bijnece forwarded other disinformation about Kejriwal in the group, linking him with Muslims, Sikh separatist groups, and terrorists. Some messages included manipulated videos, or other out-of-context images and videos.

When Rest of World reached out to Bijnece over a phone call, they refused to identify themselves. Speaking with a strong local accent, they initially said they did not use WhatsApp, then made further excuses as to why they could not give information about their work. They later accepted that they share disinformation, which they said they get from other WhatsApp groups, fully aware that most of it is untrue.

The BJP leader in Mandi told Rest of World that content that isn’t deemed appropriate for official BJP forums is often published in these groups instead. This includes cartoons, jokes, satire targeting the opposition and critics, dis- and misinformation, and hate speech. Sometimes, BJP admins use third-party accounts to share such posts. 

The volunteer said there is a specific “third-party” team at the national, state, and district levels. He showed Rest of World an email from March 4, which he claimed was from the national lead for third-party content, with posts and photos targeting critics and opposition candidates. 

“I get all third-party content [for all India] through mail every day,” the volunteer said. It was so much, he said, that he felt overwhelmed. “All that content comes to me.” He added, “My mail inbox gets full and I get tired from deleting them.” 

A poster for politician Vikramaditya Singh, located near Indira Market in downtown Mandi in May 2024. Image courtesy of Rest of World. India.

OTHER BJP WORKERS Rest of World spoke to confided a sense of WhatsApp fatigue. Hardeep Singh Raja, a 52-year-old BJP member who also serves in Mandi’s local governing body, told Rest of World he is part of at least 40 WhatsApp groups. “There are at least 500 unread messages on my phone, which has increased my workload and mental pressure,” he said. 

It is the sheer scale of the BJP’s volunteer workforce that makes this level of WhatsApp activity possible. “The BJP's biggest strength is its cadre … We do not have any paid employees in Himachal,” said Bragta, the Himachal Pradesh BJP leader. “Using social media’s structure, we make things viral. It is our driven workers who are driving the content … Not even a single rupee is paid, we use our own mobile, our own laptops.”

Other BJP workers also confirmed they are not paid in cash, but the Mandi BJP leader said that transactions often take place in kind. He claimed that the party gives the volunteers jobs, government resources, and contracts. He added, however, that 30% to 40% of booth-level volunteers leave and need to be replaced because the party cannot reward everyone. As a result, the BJP is always looking to recruit new members, especially at the lower levels.

An “I love Mandi” sign at Indira Market in downtown Mandi in May 2024. Image courtesy of Rest of World. India.

The Mandi BJP leader told Rest of World that volunteers were essential for boosting Modi’s own popularity on social media. “What do you think, Modi’s followers are increasing on their own?” he said. “We get orders from the top, the new workers joining BJP are told to make accounts on [X] and follow Modi. This is how his followers are increasing.”

The volunteer said he had made over a thousand people follow Modi on X. “We take people’s phones in our hands and like pages,” he said. “We ask people to open Facebook and like and follow pages in front of them.”

Meanwhile, a Congress leader told Rest of World the party does not believe in taking such a regimented approach to WhatsApp communications. Manu Jain, the national chairman of the Indian Youth Congress’ social media wing, said the party took a more decentralized approach. “My job is to share my content, my narrative, my communication line to my state team, then it’s their duty to further talk about those things or talk about the state issues,” said Jain.

The result is an imbalance in WhatsApp messaging around the elections that reflects the BJP’s sophisticated understanding of messaging distribution and a firm control over traditional communications channels. 

Singh, the former BJP consultant, told Rest of World that by dominating WhatsApp, the BJP had effectively completed its capture of mass media in India. “It is concerning, because it distorts the level playing field,” he said. “The narrative of other parties is not reaching the public because they do not have distribution in place. Better narrative does not ensure a win, better distribution does.” 


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