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New book on BJP Twitter trolls highlights growing intolerance but falters on research

Swati Chaturvedi’s I am a Troll focuses on the concerted political campaigns of illiberalism on the social media but is crippled by limited sources and zero data

books Updated: Jan 02, 2017 17:47 IST
Prashant Jha
Swati Chaturvedi

BJP workers being detained as they protest against Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal during the special session of Vidhan Sabha on black money in New Delhi.(Mohd Zakir/HT PHOTO)

In the run-up to the Bihar assembly elections of 2015, I filed a report from Patna, saying the winds seem to be blowing in the Mahagatbandhan’s favour.

Within minutes, there was a ferocious backlash – interspersed with abuses – on Twitter by BJP supporters. Some dug out a year-and-a-half old tweet (where I thought, inaccurately, that Lalu would do well in 2014) to show how my political judgment was poor and off the mark. I was intrigued about who would have done such quick research on my timeline. But of course, the reactions I received were mild compared to the vitriol some of India’s most prominent journalists are subjected to.

A year later, I was reporting from eastern UP on the public response to demonetisation. Across districts around the Banaras belt, there was a paradox of inconvenience, coupled with overwhelming support. I shot videos where old women, men standing in bank queues, and taxi drivers narrated their reasons for supporting Modi’s move. Many of these videos went viral on social media, some being retweeted close to 2,000 times. The social media traction was, in all likelihood, not all spontaneous. There was perhaps a concerted push by BJP followers out to prove support for the move.

The anger of a partisan set when an opinion does not fit in with the party line, and support and cheer when it does, is not new. But social media has amplified it in an unprecedented manner. And the BJP support base is particularly active on the medium.

The book confirms what is known: that there is an organised vicious campaign on the digital media against those who disagree with a point of view

PM Narendra Modi himself was ahead of the curve and used the medium to build an audience, and directly communicate with citizens –cutting through intermediaries in the mainstream media, which he did not trust. The Anna Hazare movement was built on the power of the social media, and AAP offset some of its disadvantages as a new entrant in politics by using it to the hilt. The Congress was a late and reluctant entrant, but has now taken to the game.

Social media has democratised India’s public discourse. Leaders can talk to citizens; citizens can directly express an opinion, put forward questions to those in authority (whether it will be answered or not is a different issue); it has led to the instant flow of information; there is also plurality and diversity in opinions expressed on the media and you can quickly get a sense of various viewpoints on an issue if you follow a cross section of people.

But the democratisation of the discourse has, somewhat paradoxically, contributed to a Balkanisation of the discourse. You follow accounts of those you agree with; this reinforces your own conceptions and opinions; different worlds and ecosystems are created with a divergent understanding of both basic facts and conflicting interpretations of those facts. It has also been accompanied with a crudeness which shocks sensibilities and throws out all common decencies that one expects in conversations. It has also led to concerted campaigns of intolerance.

This is the element of social media discourse that Swati Chaturvedi’s slim book, I Am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army, focuses on.

Chaturvedi offers the following propositions: The BJP was the first to recognise the potential of the social media, many of its supporters – who are followed by PM Modi on Twitter – are at the forefront of sexist, communal, intolerant attacks on critics, and liberal journalists (especially women) are at the receiving end of this viciousness. This much is known.

Where she goes a step ahead is to suggest that such campaigns have the explicit sanction of the BJP leadership and are encouraged by its social media cell. To substantiate her case, Chaturvedi relies on the testimony of Sadhavi Khosla, who claims to have worked as a volunteer in the Modi 2014 campaign. Khosla says that the party directed campaigns against film actors like Aamir Khan when they expressed a sense of helplessness at the climate of intolerance in the country, they went after brands which used Khan as a sponsor, that messages targeting rivals and journalists were dictated from the top and forwarded to the workers to push across the medium to set the agenda, and that the man orchestrating it all was Arvind Gupta – head of the BJP IT cell during the 2014 polls. Gupta has denied the allegations.

BJP leader Nitin Gadkari shakes hands with Aamir Khan at a screening of Dangal. The book says BJP directed campaigns against Khan when he expressed helplessness at the intolerance in the country, and went after brands which used Khan as a sponsor. The actor later retracted his statement. (PTI)

The book confirms what is known: there is an organised vicious campaign on the digital media against those who disagree with a point of view. It serves the useful function of compiling the workings of a segment of the hate machine – only a segment, for the right wing does not have a monopoly over crudeness – that has made the Indian Twitter sphere nasty and vicious. It is also useful in showing us the seriousness with which party leaders are investing in the social media component of campaigns.

But the book has obvious weaknesses. For one, it is thinly – almost shoddily – researched. Chaturvedi claims she spent two-and-a-half years investigating the story, but that does not quite show. The writing is hurried. More importantly, the sources are very limited. Besides Khosla, there are three anonymous ‘trolls’ who work in the social media cell of the party. Khosla, however, is the only one to claim on record that instructions from the top drive hate campaigns.

A single-source story can just about suffice for a newspaper report; throw in a few anonymous sources and it may do for a magazine piece. But to sustain a book on a single source is a bit of stretch. This is not to say that the BJP leadership does not drive illiberal campaigns on the Internet. It is to suggest that this contention would have been far more credible with stronger research. Khosla’s close association with Congress does not help.

There is also a tendency to pass off information out in the public domain as explosive. Chaturvedi interviews the influential BJP general secretary Ram Madhav, who helped RSS adapt to new technology early on. He tells her about IT shakhas, which the author claims in a blog were ‘secret’. For several years now, the media has reported on RSS’ outreach to younger professionals and the existence of such shakhas. There is nothing secret about it. The book needed a stronger editorial filter.

Two, one understands the book is on the digital hate machine. But by focusing only on the vicious elements of the social media strategy of the party, the book runs the danger of missing out on other important questions. How are bonds of solidarity created among the supporters who have never met each other, except through these virtual networks? How are these collectives then used to create and push an ideologically coherent message? How does a Mission 272 – which centred around a positive aim in the run up to Modi’s election – work on a social media marked by negativity? How do different social media platforms compare? For instance, what is the value of Twitter as opposed to Facebook or WhatsApp? This is almost a data-free book, though data is such an integral component of the social media strategies of the parties.

Three, by focusing only on the BJP, Chaturvedi ignores the contested nature of the medium. She fleetingly mentions that while AAP has volunteers, many in the BJP social media cell are paid. This element could have been further explored. Is it merely a professional assignment or is there greater motivation? The Congress, too, for instance, has a social media cell operating out of a central Delhi office. How does that operate? How have regional parties adapted to the medium? Those who mocked it at one point – from Nitish Kumar to Lalu – are today active on it. The demonetisation aftermath itself is proof that the medium can be used to challenge narratives of those who had pioneered its political use in India.

BJP may be the most active and as the ruling party, it deserves most scrutiny. But if Chaturvedi’s argument is that the BJP’s social media messaging is controlled by the top, this is now true for others too. Kejriwal himself – which the author documents – can get vicious with journalists on Twitter; the Congress social media cell reports to Deepender Hooda. Concerted campaigns are not rare to push out a piece which conforms to the party line, and attack those which don’t.

Chaturvedi’s book is useful because it is an attempt to uncover the dark side of political social media campaigns. It is also a worrying reminder of the growing streak of illiberalism, pushed by political parties meant to protect our liberties.

She should, however, have taken more time, cast her net around for a wider set of sources, investigated social media’s influence and working more comprehensively, and used a comparative lens – within India and outside. But perhaps the lack of rigour is apt, for that is the one thing no one will accuse her subject – social media – of possessing either.

I Am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army
By Swati Chaturvedi
Publisher: Juggernaut Books
Pages: 192
Price: Rs 250

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