Clicks and Bait

How a constellation of far-right Hindi YouTubers determine what you see on your TV

A YouTube vox pop channel interviews by-standers at Delhi’s Palika Bazar on 29 November. Small cults form around the speakers at these YouTube channels, whether they are office bearers of the ruling party or minor influencers who jump to fame after a single viral video. CK VIJAYAKUMAR FOR THE CARAVAN
01 December, 2022

IN A YOUTUBE VIDEO titled “Bulldozer Baba ne diya aisa jawab toh bilbila utha vipaksh”—Bulldozer Baba’s replies rattled the opposition—the baba in question looked tired. His fatigue was understandable. The video was released on 22 February, and Ajay Singh Bisht had been campaigning to retain his position as Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister for nearly a month and a half. Bisht had earnt the sobriquet “bulldozer baba” for overseeing his government’s demolition of Muslim homes. The next day would be the fourth phase of polling in the world’s largest provincial elections, a gruelling three-month marathon from announcement to results. Bisht, the singular face of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s state campaign, had an extremely busy schedule.

The country’s biggest media houses had been hounding him for exclusive interviews but had had limited success. One of the primary Uttar Pradesh election reporters of a major English television channel told us that he had tried for over three months but had not been able to get even a ten minute chat with the chief minister. An interview instead went to the YouTube channel Khabar India, who had uploaded their first video—a sales pitch for a motorbike—a mere four years ago. It is easy to underestimate the reach of these interviews. The bulldozer baba interview garnered nearly a quarter million views on YouTube and almost nine hundred thousand on Facebook. Bisht soon gave interviews to several other YouTubers: The Rajdharma channel uploaded an interview titled “Yogi’s interview in 3 questions, which will change this election,” while Headlines India put out an interview titled “Yogi Adityanath’s most firebrand interview, that has sent tremors in criminals.” The interviews by both The Rajdharma and Headlines India had more than half a million views on YouTube each.

These YouTube channels are able to swing their content across platforms with a speed that mainstream media channels might envy, and often enjoy a more loyal audience. An interview of the chief minister by Republic TV’s founder and hawkish star anchor Arnab Goswami had only four hundred thousand views on YouTube. “Those interviews by YouTubers with the chief minister were arranged by his own PR team,” Rishabh Awasthi, a YouTuber from a channel called O News Hindi, which publishes similar content, told us. He sounded sour that he had not gotten the opportunity.

These channels belong to a growing constellation of far-right YouTubers, many recently started by twenty-something college graduates with names that usually indicate upper-caste status. They are rapidly out-performing mainstream news channels in terms of their reach, their ability to set the news agenda and their curation of the most extreme forms of hate speech and Islamophobia. In the relatively unregulated Wild West of Hindi YouTube, these dozen-odd channels, all based around the national capital, have built small empires on the back of meticulously scheduled vox-pop videos and triumphant coverage of Hindu extremist meetings.