The death of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput has emerged as one of the biggest news stories in the country over the last couple of months. Despite the Mumbai Police initially suggesting that Sushant Singh Rajput died by suicide, some media outlets and politicians from the ruling BJP kept demanding justice for the late actor, claiming that he was murdered.
The All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) recently put to rest all rumours that claimed that the late actor, who was found hanging at his Mumbai flat on June 14, was murdered and said that it was a case of suicide.
Now, a study conducted by the University of Michigan has indicated that several parties including certain media channels and BJP politicians were responsible for spreading conspiracy theories that suggested that Sushant Singh Rajput was murdered.
The study, titled ‘Anatomy of a Rumour: Social media and the suicide of Sushant Singh Rajput‘, used data from Twitter, YouTube and archives of debunked misinformation stories to arrive at a conclusion.
It found two key patterns.
First, the retweet rates clearly suggested that “commentators benefited from talking about the case” and that is why it got higher engagement than other important issues.
The second pattern that was observed and noted in the study is that politicians were “instrumental” in changing the course of the discourse by referring to the case as “murder rather than suicide”.
BJP POLITICIANS’ ROLE IN ‘MURDER’ THEORY
After conducting holistic research involving Twitter trends, influencers, media channel content and social media hashtags, the study found that politicians, media houses and journalists “framed their own narrative” in relation to the SSR death case.
During the period of the study, around 7,818 politicians from across political parties mentioned text or used hashtags in a total of over a lakh tweets in connection with the case. The study highlighted that a majority of the Twitter traffic on the matter came from BJP politicians.
“There was one point when politicians were more active in pushing the Twitter traffic. This happened during mid-July when politicians started a coordinated effort to ask for a CBI enquiry. The majority of accounts active belonged to BJP politicians. Interestingly, journalists also pushed a strong anti-Maharashtra government narrative in early August 2020,” the study noted.
A party-wise comparison also revealed how some BJP politicians pushed the narrative that Sushant Singh Rajput was murdered. They also peddled several other conspiracy theories related to the case.
While the study found that an equal number of politicians from Congress (3,037) and BJP (3,478) discussed the subject on Twitter, leaders from the BJP tweeted much more than their political opponents. The study noted that BJP politicians had 61,196 tweets about the subject while Congress workers and politicians had nearly half the amount at 32,406.
“INC uses the term ‘suicide’ much more than the BJP. BJP uses ‘Bollywood’ a lot more than the INC. BJP’s general approach is to use the case to discuss Bollywood in a negative light,” the study further noted.
“The top hashtags of BJP are around invoking the CBI such as #CBIForSSR, but also a significant number are direct attacks at the Maharashtra government such as #BabyPenguin and #MahaGovtExposed,” it added.
The study noted that BJP dominated overall trends on Twitter in terms of the total number of tweets on the subject for most of the period up until the end of August.
It was only towards the end of the study period, around early September 2020, that the Congress party started the same volume of social media engagement as the BJP, driven partly by the #JusticeForRhea campaign, following the arrest the late actor’s girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty.
Rhea Chakraborty and her brother Showik continue to remain in jail without bail after being arrested in a drug probe, which later became a key point of focus in the SSR death case.
BJP POLITICIANS DROVE MURDER THEORY IN SSR CASE
The study also noted how BJP politicians preferred the term ‘murder’ over suicide when commenting on the SSR death case.
“We find that the usage of ‘suicide’ keyword dropped sharply right after one week following the actor’s death. Over the weeks that followed, there was increased usage of ‘murder’ keyword repeatedly in tweets by BJP politicians, while the opposition INC consistently used the term ‘suicide’ more than ‘murder’, despite a small rise in the use of ‘murder’ in mid-August,” the study stated.
“Overall, the data strongly suggest that the BJP drove the insinuation of ‘murder’ since it was used more than ‘suicide’ in most weeks since July. Politicians in Bihar were on average much more likely to refer to the case in terms of ‘murder’ than ‘suicide’, in comparison to politicians in Maharashtra,” it added.
The study finally showed how the actor’s death offered a diversion to people, a majority of whom were stuck at home due to job losses and other factors. “The timing of the suicide, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis and lockdown with many urban middle-class Indians, stuck at home, probably had a role in driving up purchase for the story,” it said.
In conclusion, the study outlined two key parties which were responsible for the misinformation and theories around the death of the actor – some media channels and politicians (mostly from the ruling BJP).
“The trajectories of news coverage and misinformation around the death of Sushant Singh Rajput offer insight into the media environment in India, but also into the fractured nature of what the audience cares to consume,” the study said.
The study also explained how burning issues like the plight of farmers, economic crisis and other important subjects were overshadowed by the attention that the SSR death case got.
“The data show an important role played by politicians, especially the BJP, in proposing a ‘murder’ alternative to the ‘suicide’ narrative. There was a real opportunity to address mental health and depression early in the news cycle, but the stories quickly devolved to allusive concoctions,” the study added.
It also said that the political parties that engaged in the story “arguably benefited from being in the spotlight” and used it as a means to attack their opponents.
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