“I am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army” by Swati Chaturvedi

troll

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, “the leader of the world’s largest democracy follows and felicitates trolls.” Shocked? Well no, not really. Everyone knows he’s the most Twitter-friendly person on the planet. I’ve no idea whether journalist Swati Chaturvedi is lying or telling the truth, but what she has to say in this book is definitely worth serious consideration. At least some of the information she passes on can be easily verified by a tech savvy person. While many of us do suspect that trolling is not a random harmless activity of stray individuals but a targeted intervention by well organized groups having a definite (often political) agenda, we rarely have evidence to back our beliefs. This book makes an attempt to bring out certain home-truths about trolling, fake news and false propaganda.

Describing internet trolls as “the goons of the online world,” the author goes on to share her own experiences of online stalking and sexual harassment and her disappointment at the inaction of the Delhi Police (which incidentally is controlled by the BJP-led Central Government). Referring to the “use of lies by verified Twitter users to generate communal hatred” she states that, “It’s akin to giving them the equivalent of a megaphone and a primetime TV slot.”

The book is full of revelations. “In a Right to Information petition, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) said that the PM’s handles, @Narendramodi and @PMO, are run by the PM himself.” Modi follows 1375 people on Twitter, and his own followers number 21.6 million. (The numbers have since risen to 1640 and 26.3 million. I checked!) Of the people he follows, “twenty-six accounts routinely sexually harass, make death threats and abuse politicians from other parties and journalists, with special attention being given to women, minorities and Dalits.” The author names many of them and provides screen-shots of some of their most offensive tweets. Honestly, I wonder how Twitter puts up with the stuff!

Pictures of Burhan Wani’s funeral procession in Kashmir were tweeted by @ggiittiikkaa with the crude comment, “20k attended funeral of terrorist Burhan. Should have dropped a bomb and given permanent Azadi to these 20k pigs.” The author points out that this was retweeted 1184 times and liked 1086 times. Priti Gandhi (@MrsGandhi), self proclaimed ‘huge fan of Nathuram Godse’, who was “thrown out of the BJP when she tweeted a fake endorsement of Mr. Modi by Julian Assange of Wikileaks before the 2014 general election,” is currently a national executive member of the BJP Mahila Morcha. Tinu Jain, who is ‘followed by the PM’, was arrested in Gwalior in September 2106 for running a sex racket.

Every day the BJP’s IT cell sets the tweet agenda for the day. Synchronized tweeting, trending hastags, bots (algorithms acting in social networks to appear as real users), the ‘hit list’ of leading journos – all activities are controlled and coordinated by 11 Ashoka Road, New Delhi. Sadhavi Khosla’s account of the modus operandi is very interesting. The book also profiles a few trolls whom the author met and interviewed. Tweeting and trolling are becoming paid occupations, the evidence suggests. And online hate often results in offline violence.

Ankit Lal, social media chief of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) informed the author that Twitter handles in remote locations in Thailand are regularly tweeting BJP-created Modi hastags. Has the BJP hired a marketing agency in Thailand to do their trolling? Or are they using virtual private networks (VPN) to hide their location and identity? Is their online support base diminishing? Ankit Lal’s report which forms part of the Appendix is worth scrutinizing.

The book attributes Modi’s spectacular 2014 election victory to the effectiveness of his social media campaign. Further, the author notes that the PM, in his 2016 Independence Day speech, lied about the electrification of a village in Uttar Pradesh and used the PMO twitter handle to tweet the speech. Power Minister Piyush Goyal tweeted pictures of Nagla Fatela villagers watching the PM’s speech on TV. The gram panchayat immediately contradicted the claim and maintained that they still had no electricity. The tweets were hastily withdrawn.

The author here is taking a major risk, considering the outpouring of hate messages and violent threats that customarily follow any attempts to malign any of the sacred cows in our political firmament. At the same time, one realizes that what she has exposed is barely the tip of the iceberg. The rest is yet to come – for not all voices can be silenced by online intimidation.

(I did some quick reality checks before publishing this review and found that some of named Twitter handles are definitely interconnected. Their tweets are vitriolic, hate-filled, and illogical, they encapsulate lies and half-truths rather than verified facts, and furiously tweeting and retweeting seems to be the main occupation of the persons involved. And yes, NaMo does follow them!)

Overall Assessment: The author has opened a Pandora’s box.

I am a Troll- Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army
AUTHOR: Swati Chaturvedi
PUBLISHER: Juggernaut Books, New Delhi, India
DATE OF PUBLICATION: December 2016

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

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