by Ben Baichmann-Kass and Sharbani Chattoraj

The world’s oldest democracy and the world’s biggest democracy both escaped the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the virus spread to Italy and then on to the rest of the Eurozone, governments in both the USA and India kept downplaying the threat, insisting that there was no cause for concern. Then the crisis hit home.

We looked at tweets by US President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi over one-week periods of upheaval in their countries. For the US, this was the seven days from March 10 to March 16. A national emergency was declared right in the middle of this period, on March 13. For India, the chosen period is March 22 to March 28, during which the nationwide lockdown was announced, on March 24. In this report, we bring you an analysis of these tweets. What were they about? What messages did these leaders choose to portray? Do we see a change in communication style in times of crisis?

What’s eating Donald Trump?

Trump’s personal Twitter account has 77.3 million followers. For them, it has been nearly business as usual, even as the president’s pronouncements went from calling the COVID-19 crisis a hoax to declaring a national emergency on March 13. Irrespective of the subject matter at hand, the overarching feature of Trump’s tweets was, unsurprisingly, self-congratulation.

An analysis of the posts by Trump during the period from three days before the national emergency was announced until three days after the announcement reveals his continuing preoccupation with the 2020 presidential campaign of the Democratic Party and his general preference for opponent-bashing and self-congratulation over announcements of policy details to tackle the crisis. 

On the one hand, the president at times took an unusually collaborative tone. He tweeted several times over the period praising bipartisan work being done in Congress to address the COVID-19 crisis, especially after the US’s first economic relief bill was passed by both houses of Congress. He also commended the hard work and cooperation of Democratic governors in the hardest-hit states, spotlighting the collaboration between New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and federal agencies, as well as with his own administration. Indeed, national unity and the resilience of the American people in the face of the crisis were recurring themes in his communications over the course of this week. He also took the time to communicate about the importance of social distancing, even retweeting CDC guidelines for staying safe during the crisis. 

However, this was accompanied by other communications which seemed to be aimed at deflecting blame from himself and attention from the crisis. For example, Trump attacked Congressional Democratic leaders, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, for not supporting his response to the crisis. He also criticised federal agencies such as the Federal Reserve for not responding quickly enough to the economic fallout of the pandemic. In several tweets, he condemned the Obama administration for its response to the 2014 Ebola crisis, a line of attack that was also used to put a spotlight on the then Vice President and presumptive Democratic Presidential Nominee Joe Biden. He also chastised the press for exaggerating the scope of the pandemic and questioning the administration’s sluggish response, invoking his trademark ‘Fake News’ declarations on several occasions while predicting the swift demise of Vanity Fair magazine. Finally, on March 15, he retweeted a tweet from Judicial Watch about a petition it had filed to gain access to a deposition by former Secretary of State and Trump’s 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton about Benghazi, employing a well-tried tactic of clinging to old, disproven conspiracy theories to distract from his administration’s perceived incompetence.

Given the scope and nature of the crisis at hand, it is interesting to see how the president has adapted his communication strategy to the circumstances. A public health crisis should be a relatively non-partisan issue, due both to its non-political origins and to the urgency of a swift and unified response. Trump did, in fact, communicate an uncharacteristically supportive message of Democratic leaders, at least when their responses to the pandemic also had a bipartisan quality. Notably, during the period covered by this analysis, Governor Cuomo (D-NY) had also made public statements commending the administration’s help in dealing with shortages of crucial equipment in his state, which earned a positive tweet from the president. However, Trump was also swift to attack politicians who were not immediately supportive of the actions he felt were needed to combat the pandemic. Despite uncommonly quick bipartisan action in Congress to create an economic relief bill, the president attacked Democratic leaders for insisting on provisions in the bill that Republicans were reluctant to accept. The president seemed keen to use his Twitter account to inflict political pressure on opponents, using his communications as a carrot-and-stick mechanism to extract positive feedback and political concessions across the political spectrum.

The president also used his communications to deflect criticism from the press and political opponents over his initial resistance to a heavy-handed response to the crisis. He antagonised the press for any negative coverage his administration received and castigated politicians who did not support his administration’s response. However, he also went a step further by assailing former politicians such as former President Barack Obama, in an attempt to bolster his own perceived competence. Comparing his own management of the COVID-19 crisis to the Obama administration’s handling of the swine flu epidemic wasn’t completely irrelevant, as some of this rhetoric was directed at former Vice President Joe Biden. The Democratic presidential contender has not minced words in his critique of President Trump as they prepare to face off in this autumn’s presidential election. However, his tweet about Secretary Clinton’s involvement in the 2012 Benghazi affair seemed especially irrelevant to the week’s pressing issues. Considering that this information had nothing to do with the work one would have expected the president to be doing that week, the tweet seemed aimed at creating a distraction from a news cycle that should have focused on what the administration was doing in response to the pandemic.

What Modi is (or isn’t) telling you

Prime Minister of India since 2014, Narendra Modi has one of the most unique political communication styles of our times. In his six years at the helm of the world’s largest democracy, Modi has held exactly one press conference. It was part of the election campaign in the run-up to the national elections last year, and even then, he did not answer any questions. He has never agreed to an unscripted interview. In fact, in 2015, the French newspaper Le Monde refused to publish an interview with Modi because they were asked to “publish written answers, not to interact with him.” He prefers to bypass the media and get his messages to citizens directly, as through the radio programme Mann ki Baat (roughly translated as ‘inner thoughts’), or the NaMo app. The flow of communication is strictly one-way: from Modi to citizens. 

During the period we examined, the official policy in India changed from ‘no cause for alarm’ to a 21-day complete lockdown. The transition began with the announcement of a ten-hour ‘Janta Curfew’ on Sunday, March 22. This was a PR event; a request to citizens to voluntarily stay home from 9 am to 7 pm, and to show their support for medical personnel by clapping and banging utensils at 5 pm. Once this was accomplished, life went back to normal in India the next day. But on Tuesday the March 24 at 8 pm, Modi announced a complete lockdown across India for the next three weeks, to begin four hours from the announcement, at midnight. This is amongst the strictest measures worldwide in response to the COVID-19 crisis, according to the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker. March 25 was the first day of a near-complete shutdown of borders, industries, offices, educational institutions, commercial centres, and even public transport. On March 28, the government announced the launch of a new fund to collect donations from the public to fight the crisis – the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations (PM-CARES) Fund.

Modi has 56 million followers on Twitter. To these followers, his messages during this transition have been overwhelmingly about morale-boosting, managing public perceptions and shaping public discourse. We will use the term ‘public relations (PR)’ to refer to tweets in which Modi promotes the Janta curfew, the lockdown and the PM-CARES Fund. These tweets are short on details about the measures, treating them as self-explanatory; and focus more on portraying these measures as sufficient and socially desirable to act upon. Many of the remaining tweets could be described as ‘morale-boosting’. These are responses by Modi to his followers, congratulating and occasionally thanking them for following the Janta Curfew or making contributions to the PM-CARES Fund.  Of the 92 tweets related to COVID-19, nearly 61% can be categorised as PR and 38% as morale-boosting. This categorisation is not mutually exclusive. 

On March 22 (the day of the Janta Curfew) and March 28 (the announcement of PM-CARES Fund), there is a sharp spike in the number of replies to tweets by private citizens about how they are following the curfew or making donations to the fund. Overall, nearly 40% of Modi’s tweets are responses to other tweets. While the idea is clearly to encourage compliance with his recommendations, the fact that such responses are limited only to measures announced by Modi – the Janta Curfew and PM-CARES Fund –  makes the element of PR obvious. This becomes clearer when we consider that there is no tweet commending the work being done by administrators and innumerable NGOs and civil society organizations to feed the poor and help the elderly across the country. Only 5% of the tweets refer to the bureaucracy and the public sector, mostly in relation to donations made by these institutions to the PM-CARES Fund. Appeals to the public to donate to the PM-CARES Fund and maintain social distancing make up 23% of the tweets.

Only 12% of the tweets relate to administrative measures (other than the announcement of the lockdown or the launch of the PM-CARES Fund) being taken by the government to help citizens during the crisis. 19% of tweets are not related to COVID-19; most of these express Modi’s good wishes to the citizens on the occasion of festivals. 

Communication in the times of COVID-19

Communication is crucial in times of crisis. The ways in which leaders communicate and the information they choose to provide to their constituents can have a substantial and consequential impact on how crises play out, especially one like the present pandemic where public behaviour is so important to effective policy implementation.

Trump’s message around the declaration of a national emergency seemed inconsistent. At times, he displayed the cooperative attitude one would expect from a leader in a time of crisis, even deferring to experts on some occasions, while other times the president fell back on his familiar aggressive demeanour and diversion tactics.

Modi, on the other hand, remained highly consistent. He continued with his quasi-paternal leadership approach, which can perhaps best be summed up by his own tweet on March 28, which stated, ‘These are times when we need to increase positivity and decrease anxiety in people’. His father-figure-like presence on social media was calming and authoritative, encouraging and exhorting; and at the same time, very clearly focused on PR matters and dismissive of anything outside his own agenda.

Both Trump and Modi seem to have a clear preference for a highly personalised communication style, even though the specifics differ greatly. This style seems to be paying dividends, too, as neither leader seems to have, as yet, faced any significant loss in public support due to his handling of the COVID-19 crisis. On the contrary, there is a clear surge in both leaders’ popularity.

Stay tuned for further analysis in our next report.