The BJP Social Media Team is nothing more than a propaganda unit which spreads lies and rumours. It has mastered the art of cheating the people of the country by giving fake news and then defending it. The messaging is devoid of rationality and thought and it violently abuses any one opposed to the narrow-minded and regressive ideology of the Sangh Parivar. Since they do not have any substance in their messaging they resort to trolls.
On September 5th, outspoken BJP/RSS critic and veteran journalist Gauri Lankesh was assassinated by professional hitmen. She had been handpicked from a large pool of publishers to be sued for defamation for reporting the cheating of a businessman by BJP workers allegedly protected by MP Prahlad Joshi. BJP National Social Media Convener Amit Malviya chose to make an example of Gauri Lankesh for what was essentially a local matter. Malviya tweeted about her conviction, simultaneously issuing a warning to journalists taking on the BJP that they too would meet the same fate.
When that failed to gag Gauri, the violent trolling found expression and escalation in real life. She was killed 9 months later by the same make of pistol used to assassinate other noteworthy critics of the saffron brigade, including MM Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar. Not only did the Prime Minister fail to speak out to reassure the shaken media fraternity, he continued to follow Nikhil Dadhich, a “hindu nationalist” who tweeted, ‘In the aftermath of the dog’s death of a female dog, all her puppies now cry as one.” Dadhich’s vulgarity seemed forged in the same furnace as the Prime Minister’s who likened the killing of 2000 Muslims in the 2002 riots to puppies crushed by a car in which he, the Chief Minister at the time, happened to be in the backseat.
When questioned for his refusal to unfollow abusive trolls, the Prime Minister chose to remain silent, opting instead to have Malviya issue a strawman of a statement attributing the Prime Minister’s infamous echo chamber of abuse as an outcome of his commitment to free speech and personal outreach. Refuting that being followed by the Prime Minister was any sort of character certificate, troll controller Amit Malviya went on to character assassinate key figures in the Opposition who are also followed by the account. Meanwhile, BJP MLA Jeevaraj drove the ominous warning home, telling BJP workers that Lankesh would still be alive if not for her anti-RSS writings. This is the modus operandi of the BJP and its violent troll army.
The Prime Minister’s Twitter account gives him a front row seat to an eclectic mix of abusers. He follows body shamers, misogynists, stalkers, accounts calling for mass murder, creators of communal canards, Islamophobes, assaulters and convicted sex racketeers. But for their countries’ respect for India’s sovereignty, Mr. Modi would be treated like a pariah by other world leaders. Many trolls have come out of hiding to parade pictures with the Prime Minister, who invites them over as influencers as part of Digital Samparks at his official residence and even wishes them on their birthdays.
We live in times where freedom of expression is subverted, not by laws or declared emergencies, but by a digital insurgency by BJP’s troll army. This troll army has been carefully cultivated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his extensive party machinery for the purpose of cultivating a theatre of perception that there are more takers than there are for the RSS’ noxious communalism in order to normalise and mainstream hate and to project the Prime Minister’s imagined achievements which are not borne out in statistical outcomes. Trolls simultaneously create a theatre of fear to gag India’s silent majority.
Trolls are recruited via the party’s website, where they list details of their social media accounts, their availability and their numbers and emails on which their handlers send them the abusive hashtag du jour, succinct briefs and a smorgasbord of journalists, activists and politicians to target. Their tweets are simultaneously amplified and replicated vis-a-vis anonymous accounts which use VPNs which allow them to outfox anti-bot algorithms. This allows the BJP to gerrymander social media trends and vet public discourse. Often BJP’s digital mercenaries are incentivised to tweet a barrage of abuse and trend hashtags against Opposition parties, as in the case of former Social Media Chairperson Arvind Gupta’s remuneration package of Rs. 40 for every 7 tweets targeting AAP National convener Arvind Kejriwal. The BJP should be required to make the database of their digital volunteers available to the election commission and the cybercrime police units to enable them to crosscheck whether anonymous accounts accused of misanthropic activities claiming to sympathise with the BJP are actually conscripted into its cyber lobby. Cyber-bullying should be censured by in-house disciplinary committees and criminal offences dealt with by the law and justice system. The BJP’s extravagant social media budget must be subjected to election funding caps, as recommended by former Chief Election Commissioner S.Y. Qureshi.
While Ram Madhav claims to be the originator of the BJP’s social media legions by setting up RSS IT shakas in his capacity as pracharak in 2001, these were solely to manage propaganda websites and to feed the narrative of the Sangh as sophisticated capacity builders instead of so many skorts on the ground. Narendra Modi is to be credited for recognising the potential of Twitter as a means to combat the mainstream media’s condemnation of him as the Chief Minister who presided over the Gujarat riots of 2002. The medium enabled a much-needed makeover for the leader who cut his political teeth in LK Advani’s rath yatra and the movement which demolished the Babri masjid. It allowed him a new lease of political life enabled by direct outreach to India’s millennials.
Like real life insurgents who wage war without military fatigues in contravention of international law, Modi’s trolls wage their battles of ideology and intimidation from thousands of anonymous accounts. These anonymous accounts allow them to pick from an arsenal of assault otherwise prohibited by the law like calls for rape, stalking, death threats and character assassination, tailored to browbeat BJP’s critics. Anonymity affords both safety and disinhibition, while interacting with digital personae instead of human beings helps dehumanise their targets and trivialise the atrocities they commit against them. Trolling, like other forms of war, is politics by other means for the likes of PM Modi. It thrives on the anarchy created by India’s outdated internet laws and law and enforcement’s refusal to prosecute online harassment, character assassination, hate speech, and outraging the modesty of women using existing laws. BJP’s sockpuppet troll army’s purpose is to disrupt debate, spread misinformation and to manipulate public opinion by provoking ugly reactions from those Mr. Modi sees as threats. Provocation is used to delegitimise ideological opponents in the eyes of others. It is therefore important never to respond in anger. Our counter-insurgency must consist in cultivating a culture of fact-based and collaborative, not competitive, communication.
Apart from paying some trolls for their tweets, the Prime Minister also patronises them with ministry social media contracts and positions with high ranking ministers. Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi was browbeaten into cancelling her contract with Dilip Cherian’s Perfect Relations, which was the outcome of a tendering process, due to the social media outrage of Modi’s Digibhakts. Shilpa Tewari, who doctored video footage to put Kanhaiya Kumar in jail, was also hired as a consultant by the then HRD Minister Smriti Irani at the behest of BJP high command.
Systematically embedding trolls into ministries has led to some embarrassing outcomes for the Modi Sarkar. A year ago Digital India tweeted a poem calling for mass murder of Kashmiris as the height of patriotism. Start Up India followed suit, retweeting an account calling for the Army to massacre “presstitutes.” Tax-funded accounts like All India Radio were hijacked to attack Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi. The Culture Ministry made itself the butt of China’s media mouthpiece Xinhua’s jokes by photoshopping the Indian flag onto Pakistan’s JF-17 Thunder jets. The Prime Minister has developed a thick skin to his trolls’ many gaffes. After all, they leverage the accounts of ministers like Power Minister Piyush Goyal to credit Modi with accomplishments he need not even achieve in real life, like the electrification of Nagla Fatela in UP, complete with photoshopped images.
It is true that strong laws for freedom of speech are required to protect individuals from the might of corporations, bureaucracies and the government. However, there is a pressing need for a new body of laws to protect dissenters in India from being targeted by the BJP and RSS’ sophisticated social media capabilities, which nefariously collect big data about activists and journalists and use it to intimidate them and attack their livelihoods, as in the case of Aamir Khan who Snapdeal was forced to drop as a brand ambassador due to BJP’s coordinated campaign to downgrade the app and return purchases en masse.
In many ways, trolling is a survival strategy for Prime Minister Modi and the misfits he has conscripted into his online personality cult. The growth of BJP’s social media militia allows its communal MPs to evade looking Indian voters in the eye after reneging on their development promises to promote the politics of hate. Social media enables them to restrict their interaction to targeted audiences and acts like a low cost, high-value adding means of advertisement to amplify their messages, crowd-source their dwindling campaign funds and gerrymander their support. As for the trolls, the Prime Minister’s social media strategy has given them a virtual community where they can reinforce each other’s prejudices. Their fragile egos and mediocrity is transcended by thousands of retweets owing to the shock value of their posts. Social media enables these political pygmies to feel like star performers in BJP’s carnival of the absurd.