Swati Chaturvedi’s book I am a Troll, released a few days back, blows the lid off BJP’s systematic trolling of its opponents. We have always known that the trolling on the internet we see on a daily basis was an organised effort of the BJP. We now learn that there is a team, directly controlled by the RSS and BJP leadership that is at the centre of this trolling. This was the team that fed the lies, the “drip of hate”, vicious attacks on women including threats of rape, to a larger troll army. All these efforts were directly led by Arvind Gupta, the head of the 50-member IT Cell or the National Digital Operations Centre (NDOC) of BJP, located in 11 Ashoka Road, the BJP headquarters.
This systematic trolling campaign is carried out every day through 20-21 WhatsApp groups that Arvind Gupta controls, sending messages to a core team of 200 members, who in turn channel these to BJP’s larger on-line troll army. These messages are detailed: they identify who is to be trolled, what is the content to be used, and even the timing of the campaign. Arvind Gupta has direct access to the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, the BJP President Amit Shah and Ram Madhav, the powerful General Secretary of the BJP, who is on “deputation” from the RSS.
Swati Charuvedi, with the twitter handle of @Bainjal, is a journalist, who has spent a considerable part of the last two years researching BJP’s troll army. In 2015, she had filed a police case against a Twitter handle @LutyensInsider who was barraging her with obscene tweets, impugning her character and attacking her morals. It met all the legal definition of online sexual harassment, if not worse, and punishable under Indian Penal Code. While the tweets stopped after she filed her FIR, the police have conveniently “failed” to trace to whom the handle belonged, claiming Twitter’s inability to furnish information.
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Swati’s book highlights a lists 26 trolls that Modi’s official handle follows, and who are on record with vicious, and filthy abuses of any critic of BJP and Modi. She provides samples of such tweets, and presents evidence that the PM’s tweeter handle indeed follows such abusive trolls.
Lest we think the PM’s handle following such handles is an oversight, a number of them were called to a function organised by the PM at his residence and felicitated as internet “yodhas”. They proudly displayed their pictures with the PM, while showering unprintable abuses on anybody they disagreed with. When Twitter suspended their handles for “inappropriate language”, various BJP ministers “stood” with such handles and pressurised Twitter to withdraw their suspension.
Sadhavi Khosla’s disclosures makes Swati’s book particularly explosive. Sadhavi was a part of Arvind Gupta’s core team. Every day, the team members were given detailed instructions of their online tasks through WhatsApp. Every day, they were expected to carry out his instructions in toto. Swati’s book has screen-grabs of some of Gupta’s WhatApp directives. They were explicit: attack Amir Khan, the Gandhi’s, Rajdeep Sardesai, Barkha Dutt, the list goes on. Force SnapDeal to snap its relations with Amir. Attack Shah Rukh Khan as he has dared to make some critical noises on intolerance. It was a non-stop war on all who BJP saw as its enemies. And this was indeed a very large list.
Arvind Gupta has denied Sadhavi’s accusations, claiming that she is a Congress agent. This, of course, is very much BJP’s knee jerk reaction to any critic. Any criticism of demonetisation is supporting black money; asking for peace with our neighbours is treason; any sympathy with Kashmiri people is anti-national. If you are not with us, you are not only against us, but also the enemy who needs to be ground down; with vitriolic abuse, and threats of violence. If any women dares to criticise the BJP or the Great Leader, she must be threatened with sexual violence. And called a prostitute.
Chetan Bhagat has – almost charitably – talked about the Hindutva’s troll brigade’s deep sense of insecurity about women, lack of English skills, and therefore the need to assert their “manhood” on the Internet with violent language. In other words, they are the upwardly mobile “mofussil” young men coming out of engineering colleges. Sadhavi does not fit this bill. Instead, she comes from a completely different social background and was enamoured of Modi’s development slogan. It also tells us that insecurity alone is not the basis of Modi’s appeal. He is also appealing to a section of the middle class, who believes that India’s future lies in a combination of right-wing economic policies and an assertive Hindu identity.
Sadhavi’s disillusionment came from the deeply misogynist campaigns that the BJP’s troll brigade carried out. The last straw was the campaign against Amir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan, when overnight, from Bollywood heroes loved by all Indians, the Khans became merely Muslims and enemies.
Amir Khan, in an Indian Express event, had said that his wife Kiran was worried whether her son would be safe in such a deeply divided India. This was in the background’s Akhlaq’s lynching, which had created shockwaves in the country and led to the littérateurs and artists returning their awards. Sadhavi gives us details of how the Arvind Gupta team swung into operation immediately. The screen-grabs of Arvind Gupta’s WhatsApp messages on how Amir was to be attacked, are available in the book. SnapDeal, who used Amir in their advertisements, was trolled to snap its relations with Amir. This campaign was inspired from the very top, straight out of BJP’s 11 Ashoka Road headquarters. In a speech in July 2016 Manohar Parrikar could not control his glee. He declared, “Some of our people are very smart. I know. There was a team working on this. They were telling the people you order and return. The company should learn a lesson; they had to pull his advertisement.” Yes, Parrikar knew that this was an organised campaign of his party. Now, with this book and Sadhavi’s expose, we all know.
Any criticism of BJP or Modi on the internet – either on a popular news website or on social media – is responded almost immediately with replies or comments in abusive language. Stock replies, freely adorned with “sickular”, “presstitute”, and various other choice epithets are given, without bothering to engage with either the content of the tweet or the article. They use what are called boilerplate responses: responses that can be used to launch blanket attack on the writer, his or her character, past, role in 1984, etc., irrespective of what he or she has written. All this is in a few minutes.
Swati’s book makes clear what we had guessed: the army of trolls, who descend like a “pack of hyenas” on any such critic of Modi or BJP, do not do so spontaneously. A team within BJP’s IT Cell, searches the internet using tools for key words such as Modi, Rahul Gandhi, or specific handles/names. They flag such tweets or articles to a team. The task of the team is to populate the comment section or the tweet trail immediately with abuses. This makes it appear that there is a huge online support that BJP and Modi enjoy, and therefore critics are getting a spontaneous adverse response. Anybody then looking at the tweets and comment sections would think that the bulk of public opinion is in favour of the RSS-BJP. That this is totally manufactured by a small, organised group doing it professionally, may not be clear to the people.
This books tears the veil on how BJP has engineered its so-called huge social media support. Swati shows that a large number of these so-called BJP volunteers are professionally paid, and are employed by various government organisations; or are getting social media contracts from the government. One such example is Shilipi Tewari, who was employed by Smriti Irani, the then HRD minister. She is the one who circulated Kanhiya Kumar’s doctored videos to TV channels and in the social media. With forensic reports becoming public that she had circulated doctored videos, she was removed for a few moths from Smriti Irani’s entourage. Reports indicate that now that the heat is off, she is back with the Minister. Similarly, Swati also shows evidence that various poisonous tweets of BJP’s troll army are regularly retweeted by the official handles of Startup India, Digital India, etc., all of which are government, or quasi government organisations.
The long-term impact of such vicious trolling of people who have critical views, is to drive out any discussion of serious issues from the social media. Anybody even slightly critical of BJP, or those arguing for a secular India, are to be silenced. The more visible and influential they are, the more vicious the attacks.
Women, particularly articulate women, find the social media space increasingly hostile. A BJP supporter threatened a science movement woman activist with rape when she questioned associating religious practices with scientific or technical events. If a woman is the target, this is the preferred line of attack for BJP trolls. For most women, it is difficult to face vicious, sexual attacks in social media on a daily basis. They either quit or reduce their tweets to “safe” topics. Only a few like @bainjal, still keep tweeting.
We need to see that trolling on social media as the counterpart of mob censorship that has become the hallmark of various Senas affiliated to the RSS. It is part of a much larger agenda: physically attack institutions such as Bhandarkar Institute, attack individuals such as MF Hussain, stop films on flimsy grounds, file cases in different parts of the country under various sections of CrPC. It is “using” even law as a part of the attack on critical and creative voices.
Recently, the media in the west has been talking about a post-truth society, in which the right’s fake news campaign led to Trump’s victory in the US, and to Brexit in the UK. With their usual western bias, the media there have overlooked India. Well before the post-truth of Trump and Brexit, Modi had assured Indians that Ganesh’s head was replaced through cosmetic surgery, and that there were magical flying machines thousands of years back. BJP’s trolling team were given hundreds of similar “facts” on their targets, most of them from an alternate universe. This is the “truth” that they created — through repeated tweets, WhatsApp and other posts. No, it is not the US, or the UK, but India, under the able guidance our PM, which can justifiably claim on being the leader of this post-truth world.