Spending in the U.S. 2020 election was already on track to break a record. Now according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, the spending is estimated to reach $14 billion. So far, the largest beneficiaries are mostly U.S.-based media outlets and internet companies. But that seems to be changing. Small tech companies in Asia, especially India, are also getting a piece of the pie.
According to a Zenger News investigation reported by Newsweek, U.S. politicians are now paying Indian troll companies to buy social media followers on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. For example, Newsweek reported that Biden’s Twitter account got a sizable boost beginning in August from tens of thousands of fake followers purchased on the open market from troll farms in rural India.
Within two weeks of Biden selecting Kamala Harris as his running mate on August 12, his Twitter following jumped by 738,595 new followers—a 9.1 percent leap. The number hit 11 million by the third week of October.
Some of the India-based operators who worked on the campaign provided detail about how propaganda agencies in New Delhi and Mumbai activated a widely distributed troll network to amplify Biden’s campaign impact on Twitter. In discussions over the Telegram app, Harshit Patel, who runs a small cybercafé near the railway station at Umbergaon, and Yajpal Yadav, told Newsweek that they control several hundred—they schedule tweets, check engagement stats and, at the close of their shifts, fill up a spreadsheet with their analytics from the previous day.
“Each one of us controls two to three hundred profiles across different platforms,” Yajpal said in Hindi, his only language. “We get daily targets from agencies in Delhi and Mumbai, and we simply engage with the target as we’re told. Political parties are our main clients, but even brands and celebrities who need promotion come our way,” Yajpal said. This is a business like any other. We don’t pick and choose. Joe Biden the person is irrelevant to us. We got a target in August to follow him and engage with his tweets, and we did. The agencies in Delhi who we work with don’t tell us any details, and we don’t ask,” he said.
A Zenger News investigation reveals that Biden’s increasing social media footprint in India came from the country’s infamous troll farms boosting his candidacy. Zenger News data-dumped a large sample of Joe Biden’s new Twitter followers from August 19 to August 28: seven days of 15,000 data points per day, the maximum allowed by Twitter’s rate-limits.
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