Swati Chaturvedi’s recent book, ‘I am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army’ (Juggernaut Press, 2016) throws disturbing new light on the hitherto unexplored but important aspect of the social media strategy adopted by India’s ruling right wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Chaturvedi is a young female journalist who has forced open the doors to the BJP’s secret strategy of using the social media trolls to carry out a campaign to intimidate, frighten and even threaten with serious offences such as rape and murder against the party’s political and social opponents and critics in the mainstream media and politics.
The modernizing ideology of social change and development adopted by the Indian elite and the dominant Congress party since independence seems to sit ill with the ruling BJP, which came ti power in May 2014. Though the party cannot reject that ideology totally, it seeks to undermine it. The BJP and its ideological mentor the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) are the inheritors of the ideology of ‘Hindutva’ propounded by thinkers such as Veer Savarkar. It seeks to prioritize the ultimate creation of a Hindu state in India in place of the existing modern secular, democratic multicultural state. The party would like to get rid of Muslims, Christians and communists!
Aatish Taseer, an eminent writer, after attending the ideological conclave of the BJP at Goa earlier in 2016, observed that the BJP had won a huge electoral victory in 2014 but suffers from a ‘tremendous sense of intellectual inadequacy.’ It needs ideas to implement the concept of ‘Hindutva’ propounded by its founders (International New York Times, November, 29, 2016).
BJP cannot easily write off or cancel the heritage of modernity that came with the British Raj or go back to to the golden age of the Hindus in the past without producing ideas that can reinvent the past
Perhaps a symptom of the BJP’s lack of intellectual self-confidence is that it finds itself resorting to to the use of digital technology and Twitter to push back modernist ideas propounded by India’s mainstream thinkers and the media.
In her book, Chaturvedi in tried to expose the way the BJP is using the twitter technology and using trolls to heap verbal abuse and threats of physical violence including rape and murder to frighten its perceived enemies.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was perhaps the first among top Indian politicians who adopted digital technology including and twitter on a large scale during and after his huge electoral victory in 2014.
The BJP ‘s right-wing political strategy is being pushed vigorously on Twitter and a powerful army of trolls has emerged pushing conservative ideas and violently attacking dominant public figures, journalists and others who espouse news or opinions contrary to the BJP’s ideas and world view.
The vicious and crude nature of the attacks reflect considerable intensity and sweep and seem to dominate twitter in India today.
Swati Chaturvedi, our feisty young author benefited from the inputs provided by Sadhavi Khosla, another young female activist, who gave up a promising management career in the US to join the social media team of the as a volunteer.
The book is a longish journalistic exercise and conveys its message with directness and immediacy. It focuses on the role of the BJP in the social media domain after its assumption of office in New Delhi in 2014.
It is a revealing fact indeed that one of India’s two leading political was the first to use the social media strategy to put out messages and indulge in in the abuse and badmouthing of its perceived enemies and try to discredit liberalism and secularism in an unnerving manner.
Arvind Gupta headed the BJP’s National Digital Operations Center and was part of the social media team, which directed the ‘Mission 272+’, the number of seats BJP needed to win a majority in the 2014 elections to Parliament. The campaign was run from the BJP headquarters at Asoka Road, New Delhi.
Gupta’s digital tracking tools would pick up any ‘unfair’ mention or criticism of the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate and use trolls liberally to abuse its victims.
Gupta’s core team managed over 20 odd WhatsApp groups divided by profession, gender etc.
The social media groups were trained on what to tweet and what hashtag to use and so on.
Chaturvedi explains how the social media trolls worked against against journalists, politicians, film stars and others deemed hostile to the BJP and coordinated from inside the BJP. Often the attacks on public figures spilled into sexual and religious abuse especially against women.
‘Hit lists’ of political opponents included Congress leaders Rahul and Sonia Gandhi, film stars including Aamir Khan who had expressed concerns over growing religious intolerance in the country.
Hundreds of volunteers involved in these activities seem to be still active.
Senior journalists like Barkha Dutt and Rajdeep Sardesai were among the targets for their secular and liberal views.
Sadhavi Khosla who volunteered to work with the social media team in 2013 was attracted by by the anti-corruption promises of the prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. However, she found herself increasingly frustrated by the liberal use of religious hatred and intolerance by the Whats-app groups.
In 2015, ‘Snapdeal’ was compelled by the BJP’s social media group to dump the film star Aamir Khan as a brand ambassadors because of his criticism of emerging religious intolerance in India. His contract was terminated in January 2016.
A new Hindu outfit called Hindu Defense League (HDL) was set up to promote the ‘Hindutva’ cause with the twitter handle @hdlindiaOrg.
Top BJP leaders including Manohar Parrikar took keen interest in the activities of the social media group.
Prominent female journalists have expressed concern over the scale and tone of abuse they face online and the anonymous threats physical violence and rape from trolls, which were sexually charged and fiercely nationalistic.
Sadhavi Khosla was a handler of the party trainees and received direct instructions from senior members of the party’s social media unit. She was gradually fed up with the never ending drip-feed of hate and bigotry against minorities, the Sonia Gandhi family, journalists, liberals and anyone perceived as anti-Modi including vile sexual innuendos, slander, death and rape threats. She felt suffocated as a woman and decided to quit.
PM Narendra Modi, a pioneer in the field tweets regular updates for his 25 million followers. In July 2015, he invited over 150 social media activists to his residence for a meeting and discussions.
Swati was also subjected to hostile trolls and made two complaints to the Delhi police.
Professor Jaishankar of the Center for Cyber Victims Counselling in South India has stated that India’s corrosive online culture was due to the freedom of the internet women enjoy in a conservative society. ‘Social media can be an ugly place for women in politics’.