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Social media crackdown: Decoding the digital footprints of farmers’ protest

  • February 13, 2024

As thousands of farmers embark on their ‘Delhi Chalo’ march beginning February 13, a massive social media campaign is unfolding alongside. Central to this drive is the farmers’ call for legislation that guarantees a minimum support price (MSP) for crops, providing a critical buffer against market fluctuations.

In 2020, thousands of farmers camped at the borders of Delhi for months protesting against the now-repealed agricultural laws. The year-long protest – in which dozens died – was called off after the government rolled back the three laws and announced that a committee will be set up to look into their demands, including legal guarantee to MSPs. But four years on, farmer groups state that their demands have not been met.

As farmers clashed with policemen on the Punjab-Haryana border on Shambhu, the digital arena witnessed its own intensification. India Today’s OSINT (Open-Source Intelligence) team delineates the evolution of the social media campaign, highlighting how key actors began mobilising efforts online a day prior to the events.

Coordinated campaign by farmer protest supporters on X.

On the eve of the scheduled march, the hashtag #Farmersprotest2024 experienced a viral surge on X (formerly Twitter), amassing over 2.4 lakhs tweets.

The digital mobilisation peaked around 9 pm on February 12 and around 12 pm on February 13, showcasing rapid dissemination across the social network. Key figures such as Ramandeep Singh Mann — who had previously participated in the 2021 protests — and Surjeet Singh Phul, played significant roles in amplifying the campaign’s reach.

Utilising SOCINT (Social media intelligence) methodologies, it’s observed that hashtags such as #Kisanandolan, #KisanMajdoorEktaZindabad, #Kisanvirodhikhattarmodi, and #13àäëàä°àäµàä°àå€_àäæàä¿àä²àåàä²àå€_àä•àå‚àäš were strategically deployed in high volumes to catalyze significant public discourse.

Mann, a pivotal activist in the farmers’ protest with a history of mobilising efforts in Punjab and Haryana, has significantly impacted the digital sphere. His posts on X gained nearly 15,000 engagements – reposts, likes, and replies – with a potential reach extending to 3 lakhs, underscoring his key role in amplifying the protest’s message and mobilising support.

On January 2, he took the lead in announcing the resurgence of the farmers’ protest on social media. He highlighted that the Modi government’s approach to concealing the issue through the formation of a government committee did not fulfil the promise of MSP.

On social media, Mann frequently posts photographs posing with Congress leaders like Pawan Khera, Deepender Hooda, and Digvijay Singh.

At approximately 9:30 pm on February 12, his X account was withheld for an audience based in India. “@ramanmann1974 has been withheld in India in response to a legal demand,” reads the notice on his profile.

X accounts of farmer protest supporters were withheld.

The X profile of another notable farmer leader, Surjeet Singh Phool, was also restricted. In conjunction with his account, the profiles of other protesters and organisations, such as Sarvan Singh Pandher (714), Tejveer Singh (3.4K), Bhartiya Kisan Union (600), Progressive Farmers Front (537), Kisan Ekta Morcha (646.4K), and Tractor2twittr (52.3 K), were also withheld.

The name of the popular handle ‘Twitter to Tractor’ was changed following suspension.

Tractor To Twitter is a popular Twitter account which registers itself as a “campaign to support farmers who are protesting against Farm Bills”. It was restricted on two accounts in 2020 based on instructions from the Union government to ban “farm agitation related provocative accounts”

Run by a diverse group of young activists from various professions, the account played an instrumental role in elevating the farmers’ protest against the trio of farm laws to a global stage. Subsequently, the account has experienced a ‘shadow ban,’ significantly hindering its visibility and the ability to attract new followers on Twitter.

In response to these challenges, the activists behind the account devised a strategy to maintain their online presence by creating auxiliary accounts, namely Tractor2twitter_p and Tractor2twitter_i. Despite these efforts to sustain engagement and visibility, the government recently imposed a restriction on Tractor2twitter_p, further curbing their digital footprint. However, they are still active on Telegram and WhatsApp groups.

AI generated image of Red Fort hoisting Nishan Sahib flag.

Supporters have exploited artificial intelligence to propagate their message. For example, an AI-generated image shows Nishan Sahib unfurling on the ramparts of Red Fort – reminiscing the hoisting of the flag by protestors from Punjab in 2021 on the UNESCO heritage site during the first round of the protests. The circulation of AI images coincided with the sudden sealing of the site late Monday night, “for security reasons”.

Security in Delhi has been intensified with multi-layer barricades, concrete blocks, iron nails and container walls at border points to stop a ‘Delhi Chalo’ march of farmers from entering the national capital after talks between farm leaders and the Centre remained inconclusive.

Published By:

chingkheinganbi mayengbam

Published On:

Feb 13, 2024

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