Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi Image Credit: PTI

Highlights

  • Who are the soldiers in BJP's social media army?
  • The more high profile the victims are, the worse the abuse gets, with women often facing the brunt.
  • Even BJP ministers are not safe from the social media cell as the horrific trolling of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj revealed.

Narendra Modi has made 50 plus international visits during his four-and-a-half-year tenure as India’s prime minister. Clearly, he revels at sitting on the global high table. Then, why is it among all world leaders that he alone follows vicious trolls who routinely make rape and death threats and indulge in incitement? Why does he invite them to his official residence for a selfie meet and greet?

Take the case of dentist Pankaj Narang, who was brutally killed by an angry mob in Delhi in 2016. One handle, who has more than hundred thousand followers and is followed by Prime Minister Modi, tweeted that the doctor was murdered by Muslims and that the media was hiding this.

Before riots could break out, Delhi Police had to issue a quick clarification that this was an outright lie. But they did not act against the handle for incitement or even register a case against the individual.

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I tracked the handle down. He regularly attacks journalists, including me.

Then there’s another notorious abuser, also “blessed to be followed by PM’’. He had been briefly suspended by Twitter. Modi, in fact, follows two handles who have been suspended by Twitter, for vile abuse. A tweet to Navendu Singh, a supporter of the rival Aam Aadmi Party, on August 16, 2016 is so crude and vulgar that it cannot be published.

This was one of the questions I asked in my book, I Am A Troll, where I investigated the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) links to online trolls. I argued that the party had an organised army of paid workers and unpaid volunteers, which they used, along with sophisticated bots, to attack journalists, politicians and anyone who opposed them. They also disseminate false images and facts to heighten communal tension.

Who are these trolls?

Trolls are the goons of the online world. In the case of India, online trolls usually have Hindu Right wing views and are highly nationalist. They tend to attack anyone who appears to be against the government, BJP and the nation. Some have large followings. They usually have Hindu gods as display pictures or the twitter egg. Others have adopted display pictures of beautiful women to increase their follower count. So you will have a picture of Bollywood star Sonam in a bikini, tweeting hate against Muslims.

These trolls are mostly anonymous, though some as shown in the examples aren’t. The latter tend to lead the charge, and as soon as they abuse you, a swarm of anonymous trolls follow in their wake, either repeating the original abuse or adding more to it.

Social media Image Credit: Flickr

The more high profile the victims are, the worse the abuse gets with women often facing the brunt. Apart from rape threats, the anonymous swarm often send sexually explicit messages such as images of pubic hair to women with vulgar messages attached to it. Well known TV journalists such as Barkha Dutt and Rajdeep Sardesai are among some of the most targeted in this country. I, too, am a victim. Our mobile numbers are shared on WhatsApp to get more feral trolls to join in the blood sport. Slurs such as “sickular presstitute” are now par for the course.

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This pattern of trolling has led many to speculate whether there is an organising hand at work. There is. The BJP has a wide network of volunteers and paid workers scattered across the country and in their offices in Delhi’s Ashoka Road, which sends daily instructions on Whatsapp. Each troll has a contact point in the Ashoka Road central cell, who sends them daily instructions.

Soldiers in a social media army

I spoke to a number social media workers for the party—some of whom had attacked me online—for this investigation. None of them was willing to come on record, but a portrait emerged of the typical troll. He is a young man in his 30s, often with anxieties and bitterness about his lack of opportunities. Some of them believe the lies they peddle. They are staunchly anti-Muslim and chauvinistic and resentful of the liberal elites English speaking journalists represent. Some are more pragmatic. It is a job like any other.

Then I met Sadhavi Khosla, an attractive, bright woman in her 30s. She had lived in the US for a number of years and had her own business in Gurugram. She was a passionate Modi supporter and had enthusiastically agreed to be an unpaid volunteer of the social media cell during the 2014 national elections, even putting her own business on hold.

Within a year, her zeal had changed to disenchantment. There were the daily messages against the Gandhi family and attacks on prominent journalists. But she finally cracked when she was ordered to threaten e-commerce company Snapdeal into dropping their brand ambassador – the Bollywood star Aamir Khan, who had made headlines with a statement, which was seen to be anti-government. Snapdeal did drop Khan.

Aamir Khan Image Credit: Megan Hirons Mahon/Gulf News

The Bollywood star had been an icon for Khosla, as he is for countless Indians. Being forced to attack him was the final straw and Khosla soon left the social media cell. She is still distraught by her actions, and terrified of the BJP, constantly breaking down during her interviews with me. And yet she had the courage and the tenacity to stay the course with me, even as I pushed her time and time again—to agree to be on tape, to officially sign off on her testimony to please the lawyers, to meet The Guardian journalist who was going to break the story in the international press.

The book has received widespread attention—both good and bad. And there has been special love of course from the trolls. They downgraded my book on Amazon and have been viciously attacking the book and me on twitter. The BJP’s former social media head, Arvind Gupta, too has come out against the book, calling it “lies and fiction’’. Yet hearteningly, the book has received support from virtually most of India’s senior journalists and politicians from other parties.

But my hope for my Investigation was not just to create a noise. This is not a good time to be a journalist, activist, a woman or a member of a minority in India. Journalists are expected to be cheerleaders or megaphones for the government and if they dare to ask questions are routinely abused as “presstitutes” or told to “Go to Pakistan”.

Modi, after becoming Prime Minister, has referred to the media as “bazaru” (saleable) and shown his contempt for the fourth estate time and time again. Apart from being the only world leader to follow trolls, Modi is now the first prime minister in India’s history never to have held a press conference. In some ways his usage of social media and disdain for the free press is even more problematic than US President Donald Trump.

Is it possible to be a democracy without the media?

And what does it mean to have a government which intimidates and bullies its minorities— especially in a country such as India with its diverse population?

It’s noteworthy that Modi continues to follow the trolls I have called him out on.

- Swati Chaturvedi

In its review of my book, the prominent business paper Business Standard concluded that “Modi needs to stop cuddling up to loathsome trolls and so does his party.’’

Sadly, Modi and his party have done nothing of that sort and with the general elections barely eight months away, the infamous IT cell has grown on steroids. The BJP is the richest party in Asia and channels huge funds to the IT cell.

Amit Shah in an outreach to the “digital yodhas” (warriors), yes that’s what the BJP calls them, openly said: “It does not matter if it’s lies or truth, we can make anything viral.”

So that then is the brief in short to the warriors. Even BJP ministers are not safe from the social media cell as the horrific trolling of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj revealed. Trolls of the IT cell attacked her for her issuing travel documents to an interfaith couple saying her “Islamic kidney” was to be blamed. One wanted her husband to beat her up. These trolls only answer to their General Modi who controls the troll army.

Expect more lies, incitement, hate and abuse. The call centers of hate are well funded and eager to battle. After all, there is an election to win.

Swati Chaturvedi’s book “I am a Troll - Inside the BJP’s secret digital army” has received international acclaim. Her twitter handle is @bainjal.