Social-media platforms are often criticised for their susceptibility to toxic dialogue and vicious attacks. It is a problem that India knows well. Just ask External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, whose recent vilification by members and supporters of her own ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a case in point. Swaraj has developed a reputation for responding on Twitter to citizens’ appeals for the Foreign Ministry’s services. What prompted the recent attacks, however, was the punitive transfer of an official who had made bigoted remarks to an interfaith couple when they applied for a passport.
The transfer decision was taken by the ministry’s senior passport officials, while Swaraj was out of the country. But that did not stop BJP members and supporters — who largely share the penalised passport official’s anti-Muslim bigotry — from unleashing a flood of excoriating tweets against her, referring to her disparagingly as “Begum” (a Muslim honorific) and urging her husband to beat her for getting out of line.
Over the last decade, the BJP has cultivated an army of cyber warriors to propagate its message of Hindu chauvinism, contempt for minorities, and hyper-nationalism, including through ferocious attacks on political opponents. This process began when the BJP was in opposition, and its point of view was supposedly being marginalised in the mainstream media. By the time the BJP took power in 2014, social media “trolls” had become vital foot soldiers in its political campaigns.
This cyber army now amounts to a well-oiled machine with a formidable presence on Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp. As Swati Chaturvedi explained in her 2016 expose I Am A Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army, cyber cells of well-paid trolls, each operating multiple accounts, have been established in India and abroad.
These paid political pawns flood social media at all hours with attacks on “sickulars” (secularists), “libtards” (liberals), and “Khangressis” (the Congress Party, with its allegedly pro-Muslim leanings). Anyone or anything deemed inimical to the BJP’s political interests or hostile to its bigoted, anti-Muslim ideology is immediately placed in their crosshairs. Indeed, these cyber hit-squads are so pervasive that it is difficult to express a liberal opinion on Indian social media without being assailed by insults and abuse — a reality that I regularly experience first-hand.
As a leading member of the BJP, Swaraj had never faced the wrath of her party’s troll army until the recent debacle. When confronted by it, she conducted a Twitter poll, in an attempt to secure her followers’ support against the harassment: A startling 43 per cent supported the trolls instead.
With that, Swaraj learnt what the rest of us have long known: Her party has poisoned social media in India with such toxic posts that venturing there is like stepping into the site of a nuclear accident: Unless you actively protect yourself, you will be destroyed. As Dr Victor Frankenstein discovered, once you create a monster, it can quickly grow and escape out of your control.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, women — including journalists and political activists — are favourite targets of the BJP’s trolls, who not only question their morals and disparage their looks, but routinely issue rape threats. One BJP activist recently threatened on Twitter to rape the ten-year-old daughter of a Congress party spokeswoman.
In that case, the threat led to the arrest of its issuer — an outcome that many hope will discourage future such threats from social-media misogynists. But even to hope that the tide has turned may be too optimistic. After all, the internet lends itself to abusive behaviour because users can operate anonymously and at a safe distance from their targets. These factors, together with the self-righteousness of true believers in a political cause, embolden social-media users like the BJP’s trolls to say anything that crosses their minds.
Of course, misuse of social media is not limited to BJP’s supporters, or to harassment. In India, as in many other countries, the platforms are also rife with falsehoods, spread without even the most elementary fact checking.
The consequences of such “fake news” are serious. Rumours forwarded via social media, especially on WhatsApp, have led to mob lynchings of innocent people falsely accused of being cow slaughterers, child kidnappers, or worse. In the last year alone, there have been 15 such lynchings across nine Indian states, resulting in 27 deaths.
Moreover, fake social-media posts in which photos of victims of a Myanmar cyclone were presented as images of Muslims spurred threats to Northeasterners elsewhere in India in retaliation. Before the authorities could assure the public that the social-media posts were false, tens of thousands of northeastern Indians, feeling threatened, fled their homes and jobs in major Indian cities.
Social media, by nature, rewards speed and sensationalism, not verification and caution. Even when the truth does come out, it rarely makes it as far and as fast as the lie did. There is no easy solution: A wave of regulation could open the way for censorship of free expression on other media. But, now that one of the BJP’s own has become a victim of the monster the party created, maybe it will recognise that there is a problem.
— Project Syndicate, 2018
Shashi Tharoor, a former UN undersecretary-general and former Indian minister of state for external affairs and human resource development, is currently chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs and a member of India’s parliament.