The Power of Social Media: Emboldened Right-Wing Trolls Who are Attempting an Internet purge

The twitter profile of "SanghArmy"— an unverified account with almost 23,000 followers—that was a part of a harassment campaign carried out against John Dayal, the secretary general of the All India Christian Council, earlier this month.
28 September, 2015

Yesterday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi participated in a “town hall” meeting at the headquarters of Facebook in Menlo Park, California. At the event, Modi answered pre-screened queries from the audience and Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive officer of Facebook. During this conversation, the prime minister heralded the power of social media as a vehicle for democracy and good governence, before adding that it “allows for accountability instantly.” Modi declared, “I ask all world leaders not to avoid social media and to connect to it.” However, in his eulogy to the power of the internet, the prime minister appeared to have forgotten about an aspect of social media that doesn’t lend itself to either a functional democracy or accountability. It is a spectre that has been haunting journalists in India: that of internet trolls.

The internet is no stranger to trolls—users who post inflammatory, threatening or disruptive messages—with Twitter itself having admitted to not having proper policies in place to protect its users from harassment. The Indian Twitter troll, however, is an oddly specific creature. This troll belongs to a motley digital mob comprised of Hindutva converts, misogynists, minorities, Congress baiters and “sickular”—a pejorative portmanteau coined for those percieved as having a secular point of view—haters, all united by their atavistic chest-thumping bhakti—devotion—for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Trolling has become such a problem that many find the daily abuse impossible to stomach and opt to remain offline. For instance, NDTV India’s Ravish Kumar, who anchors Prime Time—one of the most successful  news shows across Hindi news networks that is broadcast at 9 pm—has recently ceased using both his Facebook and Twitter accounts. Previously a frequent tweeter, Kumar’s last tweet was on 22 August. He told me that posts such as the one below had become routine:

Kumar, whose twitter following was close to two and a half lakh as of yesterday, said, “I have been given hell by trolls ever since I did programmes related to Yakub Memon’s hanging. Each time I am told [sic], why is this or that guest not given time to speak; you should have asked this question; why didn’t you do it; why is this particular guest there on your show. I have lost mental peace. My family members are being abused day and night.” The abuse isn’t limited to foulmouthed tweets directed at the anchor; he also received phone calls that threatened his wife and his daughter. Kumar has even been forced to ask his relatives to delete their Facebook accounts so that they are not be harassed by proxy. He described the behaviour as “gundagardi”—thuggish behaviour—“plain  and simple. People suggest I take security, which of course is ridiculous,” Kumar said.

While on one level, trolls are quite simply a digital mob; on another, this kind of trolling is an ideological attack on those who would stand in the way of Modi’s pet project of a “Congress-mukt Bharat”—an India free of the Indian National Congress, or a “Hindu Rashtra,”—a Hindu nation—where anybody who is not a supporter of Modi or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is deemed a “Congressi.”

Kumar is not the only victim of such attacks. Just a few weeks ago, John Dayal, the secretary general of the All India Christian Council, became the target of abuse and slander at the hands of Hindutva trolls after he suggested that the owners of a particular school in Mumbai, where two minors had been molested, had links to the ruling BJP. This, in addition to his support of those opposing the recent meat ban in Maharashtra, earned him the ire of several trolls online. In almost no time, the hashtag “#ShameOnJohnDayal” started trending on Twitter India. On 12 September, “SanghArmy”—an unverified account with almost 23,000 followers—published this tweet:

“We are trending #ShameOnJohnDayal right now. kindly tweet/RT/reply. He is Padri in Kerala and abusing RSS &Hindus on twitter.”

The tweet has since been deleted. The mindlessness of the attack is clear. Dayal is simply identified as “a Padri [sic] in Kerala.” The idea behind this mobilisation seems to be to inundate the hapless Dayal with abuse so that it trends on twitter and makes the news, ultimately resulting in the victim either backing down out of fear or being chased off the internet.

Over the past year, there have been far too many cases of organised harassment against personalities such as Dayal and Kumar, who are perceived to be questioning the party line, to list. But the nature and extremity of the harassment meted out to female journalists can be exceptionally vicious. Take the case of former Zee News anchor and deputy editor, Swati Chaturvedi, who has filed an first information report against a troll. The troll against whom Chaturvedi complained was a part of a larger group that regularly attacked her online—“not less than 15-16 times a day” —with posts alleging she was a “nymphomaniac” who was “sexually stalking Rahul Gandhi.” Chaturvedi has deposed before a judicial magistrate under section 354 (outraging the modesty of a woman), Section 354A (sexual harassment), Section 499 (criminal defamation) of the Indian Penal Code and is convinced that her alleged culprit “is a TV journalist based in Noida”. She said, “I am serious and will pursue the case to the finish [sic].” As vile as the harassment against her has been, she still admitted to me that, “Twitter is a great news source.”

But a police complaint may not amount to very much, according to Sagarika Ghose, another well-known senior journalist and former news anchor. “Even I had filed a police case way back in 2013 after they threatened my daughter with violence. But nothing came out of it,” Ghose told me. She admitted that the police do not seem to be able to do anything to stem the flow of abuse from online trolls. “These are internet trolls with solid Hindutva leanings hiding behind internet anonymity” she stated. Women such as Ghose are particularly targeted. Over the years, Ghose has received the filthiest of abuses and tweets with threats that ranged from “stripping” to “gang rape.”

While their politics are clear, socially these trolls seem to be made up of the “neo middle class”—a class born of liberalisation—described by Modi as comprising those who have risen above the poverty line, but are not yet middle class. In a perceptive piece published in his Times of India column on 11 July, the writer Chetan Bhagat fleshed out the sociology of Modi’s neo-middle class bhakts as possessing the following attributes: exclusively male; having weak communication skills, especially English, leading to an “inferiority complex”; “generally not good at talking to women,” “they do desire women, but can’t get them” and are therefore “sexually frustrated.” Despite being overwhelmingly pro-Hindu, he added, they have an “overriding sense of shame about being Hindu and Hindi speaking.”

But where Bhagat errs is arguing that they have no BJP support. “In fact the PM had to tell them off,” he argued. However, the prime minister told them off in much the same manner in which he “tells off” Hindutva hotheads: not publicly. Most of the journalists I spoke to alluded to Prime Minister Modi’s brazen patronage of Hindutva trolls, though no one actually said that he has set them up against journalists. However, all of them cite a much publicised meeting of the prime minister with 150 active social media users, held at his residence on 1 July, where he reportedly told the trolls to “speak about positive things.”

Kumar was of the opinion that the “attacks are organised” and have “organisational support” of “social media cells.” This was a point echoed by Chaturvedi: “Why did Modi meet 150 social media activists?” She could not fathom why the “PMO follows these guys.”

During my conversation with her, Chaturvedi named some of the trolls who were hosted by the prime minister, and who have made a cottage industry out of abusing journalists online: Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga, a user with almost 86,000 tweets and over a lakh followers was one of the invitees to the event.

Kumar has been a blogger and a voracious user of social networking sites since 2008 and said that the social media environment in India became vitiated “only around 2013”— coincidentally about the time when Modi was anointed as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. “Every time there are elections, trolling peaks. This time also with Bihar polls round [sic] the corner there is a marked increase in abuse and harassment,” he remarked.

The real motivation to mobilise these trolls could very well be the BJP’s battle with the mainstream media, a space in which it lacks any meaningful presence. In his book, The Modi Effect, Lance Price—one of the few journalists to get a one-on-one interview with Modi after he became prime minister—quotes Arvind Gupta, the chief of the information technology cell in the BJP government, as admitting that the Modi camp initially felt “powerless” about getting heard in mainstream media. “Our responses were totally dependent on them [mainstream media] and what they decided to report,” Price quotes Gupta as having said. “Social media changed the entire scenario,” Price goes on to describe how the BJP managed to overcome this hurdle by using social media: “By the clever use of the right tweet at the right time, the party found it could take control of the agenda and all but force TV, radio and the print media to follow behind.”

The use of social networking platforms by the BJP demonstrates their agility in using technology for the cause of “Hindu Rashtra.” Behind the apparently toxic rants of the Hindutva troll, there is a method and design. It is interesting to note that Modi hosted the 150 social networkers at his official residence on the occasion of the launch of the Digital India Campaign in Delhi. The prime minister could have easily taken up a digitally-enabled education or health project to kick-start his campaign; instead, he chose to meet people who have become a byword in online terror, hate and misogyny—a symbolism ignored by most, the press and the victims included. With Modi pushing for deepening of digitisation, the size and virtual power of his abusive online army will only increase in the days ahead in its political-ideological battle for a “Congress-mukt” Bharat, cold comfort for the likes of Ravish Kumar, Sagarika Ghose and the rest.

Sandeep Bhushan was a television journalist for twenty years. He is currently an independent media researcher.