ANN ARBOR — When social media savvy Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited China, he took a selfie with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. Half jokingly, media reports called the snapshot of the two grinning leaders the most powerful selfie in history.
With 12.3 million followers on Twitter, Modi is the world’s No. 2 most popular politician in the Twittersphere after Barack Obama. The way the Indian leader uses Twitter and his shifting social strategy was the focus of a new study by Joyojeet Pal, assistant professor at University of Michigan’s School of Information.
“Modi has used social media successfully to shape his public image as a tech savvy leader, aligning himself with the aspirations of a younger generation in India,” said Pal, whose paper was published in the Television and New Media journal.
When Modi was elected last year in a landslide victory, he created the most retweeted and favorited post in India’s Twitter history when his @narendramodi account tweeted: “India has won.”
During his campaign, Modi’s account was more about his political vision. He mentioned national events and festivals and asked celebrities to support causes that appeared larger than his own, Pal said. In the months leading up to the general elections, he tweeted to a list of some of the most widely followed celebrities, including film stars, cricketers and spiritual figures, urging them to get young voters to register.
“On Sept. 13, 2013, his birthday, his account suddenly followed a number of his most active followers. This remains the only time when Modi followed a number of people,” Pal said, adding that it was seen as a call to action. Those he followed immediately changed their profiles to Modi’s face and pushed his campaign forward.
Modi has also been quick to adopt the latest tech updates. “For instance, he took advantage of the video feature on Twitter almost as soon as it was available,” Pal said.
During his tenure as prime minister, Modi’s tweets have changed. He posts fewer political statements and more casual messages, such as greetings, condolences and updates of his addresses.
“Modi uses Twitter as a personal signal than for issues, per se. For instance, he goes between ‘karyakarta’ to a ‘mai baap style’ (worker to a benign ruler). This is different from say Obama who has kept up with agenda-based tweeting,” Pal said.
When comparing Modi’s popularity with other Indian politicians, Pal said, the one who comes closest is Shashi Tharoor, a diplomat turned politician who has 3 million followers. Tharoor’s tweets are different because they’re mostly about himself, his daily activities and views on issues.
“This is not very different from how most people, including celebrities, use Twitter,” Pal said.
The researcher said that Modi’s use of social media is part of a broader policy of using technology very visibly. Modi maintains a Facebook page which has 28 million likes, and he also has a “Chai pe Charcha,” or “discussion over tea,” campaign in which he chats about national issues over tea with citizens via online video.
“The tea metaphor was used symbolically to highlight Modi’s history of having worked at a tea shop, but the conversations were mediated through technology,” Pal said.
If he keeps it up, Modi will overtake Kim Kardashian on Twitter. “And we won’t be able to say that we didn’t see that coming,” Pal said.
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