A tsunami of vitriol is being spewed in cyber space. Like battery acid it burns and scars. And sometimes, like acid, it dissolves everything.
The threat of online abuse and bullying, or trolling, and real-world violence has casts a dark shadow over reporters on the ground in India. Journalists wear almost-tangible bullseyes on their backs.
For those who choose to raise issues pertinent to the citizens of the country but unpopular with the government in power, the job comes with a steep cost. If you raise an issue, you are trolled. Your mother, father, children are abused in the vilest language.
The harassment snowballs. Within minutes, hundreds and thousands descend on your social media timeline threatening you with the most severe consequences. The abuse becomes crude, reeking of the depravity that has gripped this diabolical tribe, who live on social media just to abuse those who raise matters of concern.
Senior journalist Swati Chaturvedi's 2016 book, I Am A Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP's Digital Army, dissects the strategy of the aggressors.
She says: “In India if you take a view contrary to what the government is saying or if you try to kind of do an expose on the government, which is our job [as journalists], you get attacked very fiercely.”
And there’s no way to tell if the rapier’s jab comes from humans or from automations. “Because I investigated I know that it’s paid; [there are] a lot of bots and paid handles,” Chaturvedi explains in a matter-of-fact tone.
I get about a dozen death threats a day; if I got scared I would be doing absolutely zero work. I think if we are a real democracy you are allowed to have a contrary view, that’s the essence of a democracy.
- Swati Chaturvedi
In 2013, when the award-winning journalist joined social media, she was taken aback at the hate speak – and very, very curious. “I was very intrigued by this [phenomenon]. I wanted to find out what’s really going on. Because I really couldn’t believe that there are enough people in this world who have nothing better to do but abuse for a living. I found out that most of my premises were true. It [the abuse] was paid-for, it was a particular group and it was a political party and [often] it was literally the same abuses; it was so banal, literally cut-copy-paste.”
Coping with vile comments became easier. “You know these people are virtually paid to hate,” she shrugs it off.
Unfortunately, it’s not just about words; mob mentality trickles from the internet arena into everyday life. Social media, including WhatsApp, are used to incite violence against people and groups (remember the cow lynchings/so-called child-abductor beatings?).
Is it so far-fetched to think that it would also affect the lives of press members? So far this year, reports American non-profit group Committee to Protect Journalists, there have already been three such murders in India (Navin Nischal, Dainik Bhaskar; Sandeep Sharma;News World; Shujaat Bukhari;Rising Kashmir).
“Increasingly, in India telling the truth means risking your life,” says senior journalist Sagarika Ghose, Consulting Editor, Times of India, in an interview with Gulf News.
“There’s one particularly shocking case,” recalls Ghose, “where one Twitter handle celebrated the murder of [editor] Gauri Lankesh and … he [says] in his bio that he is proud to be followed by Narendra Modi [the PM of India]”.
Lankesh, who ran a newspaper from her home in Bengaluru, was gunned down last year as she returned home.
While the world read dumbfounded about the hit, Ghose was spurred into action. “I filed FIRs because I was scared.” she recalls. “She [Gauri] was a friend of mine and she used to tell me, ‘oh! I’m being trolled on social media; they are saying they are going to murder me or rape me’. And said, ‘don’t take it seriously, people who talk like this never actually do it. But SHE DID DIE - and I face exactly the same thing.”
Bravery is the infrastructure of journalism.
- Sagarika Ghose
Ghose, the author of four books including 2017’s Indira: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister, dipped her toes into the twitter verse in 2009 – and it turned out to be a mud pit. For some reason, it gets worse for women. “The biggest problem they [trolls] have is with journalists, then liberal journalists, and liberal women journalists are target number one.”
“In [the] case of women journalists they get very personal, very slanderous. With men journalists they keep talking about corruption,” explains Chaturvedi.
The flaming doesn’t stop at words; it takes aim at the personal – character and family. Ghose’s son, for instance, was at the centre of a particularly nasty rumour when he graduated with a medical degree. Accusations of a buy-out were floated and the proud-mother-of-two had to contend with the rage – and awkwardness – that comes with such a charge.
It’s made worse by trolls who feel ennobled by their followers – often ministers with a prominent place in governance. Ghose and fellow senior journalist Rajdeep Sardesai (pictured) trace the change in media pressure to the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat, where history was drawn using buckets full of blood. Sparked by the Godhra train burning, which saw the deaths of 58 Hindu pilgrims, the violence that lasted about a week saw the deaths of more than 1,044 people, the majority of whom were Muslims.
At the end of the day a journalist can only hold up his/her work as his/her clarification.
- Rajdeep Sardesai
“I have no doubt that 2002 was the turning point. It was the first communal riots in the age of television. And the man who was at the centre of it is now the prime minister of the country. I think that has polarised public opinion. Mr Modi is a polarising figure- either you love him or you hate him,” says Sardesai.
Sardesai, who covered the massacre sixteen years ago in his home town of Ahmedabad and has since written the book The Truth Hurts: Gujarat and the Role of the Media, says he’s still being judged by how he reported the event all those years ago. Was he perhaps not patriotic enough? Not pro-government enough? “If a journalist cannot cover a communal riot and has to be an apologist for the government of the day, then that is not journalism,” says Ghose.
But it’s not just people who report who are targeted. Both Ghose and Chaturvedi talk of the trolling of the BJP member and External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, who defended the right of an interfaith couple to be together without having to give up their respective beliefs.
“Even ministers [from the same party] who deviate from their bigoted lines are not spared,” says Chaturvedi.
In a democracy difference of opinion is but natural. Pls do criticise but not in foul language. Criticism in decent language is always more effective.— Sushma Swaraj (@SushmaSwaraj) July 1, 2018
Talking of over-the-web abuse, Sardesai wonders why the scope is limited to his country. So-called troll armies are not an India-made concept. “There’s a global crisis that journalism is facing; it’s for an external and internal reasons – which includes the business model, which includes the rise of instant opinion on Twitter or Facebook.
It involves [the] nature of relationships between government and journalist, between citizen and journalist, between the way in which television has become increasingly about sensation and not…., driven by TRP, the way internet is driven by algorithms – there are multiple challenges. Self-censorship of a journalist is I think one of the many challenges that persists today,” says Sardesai.
This is one example of the online trolling directed at journalists. There are thousands of such tweets, but are too filthy to reproduce as examples
In America, Donald Trump fights allegation after allegation on the public forum of Twitter, yelling ‘fake news’; in India, Modi uses his hour-long radio stint, Man Ki Baat, and social media to disseminate his views.
What’s so different about the two? Not much. The world is headed into George Orwell’s 1984 territory. The Modi-led leadership “a very authoritarian, very very intolerant regime”, says Ghose.
She recalls a better time for the questioners: “In the [time of the] Vajpayee government [1998-2004]….it was also a BJP government but it was open to all interrogation. This is the first time we’ve experienced this kind of hostility from the government. Journalists have actually lost their jobs because they were perceived to be too independent. I had to give in my resignation from CNN-IBN because I was seen to be too independent.”
When you can’t question the powers-that-be for fear of your life, the spine of democracy is already bent. Is this the end of a free press? “I would not write off journalism in India,” says Ghose. “The thing is, journalists have shown that they are ready to fight and lot of journalists are out there fighting and fighting for our voice and the fact that the trolls are getting so abusive and so very threatened – they seem to be threatened by the fact that there is pushback.”
“I think if you have a story to tell, there will be somebody out there wanting to read it,” says Sardesai.
Perhaps even in the new digital age, the wave of bile will ebb; the boat of democracy will float. There is a spoke of light at the end of the tunnel: Maharashtra has passed a law against trolling; many hope the rest of India will follow suit.