NEW DELHI – Trolls are the goons of the online world. This story played out live during the recent U.S. presidential election, when Donald Trump supporters went on a rampage against Hillary Clinton and journalists who had anything critical to say about the president-elect. But in India, some similar trolls are actually paid by the prime minister’s own party.
The Bharatiya Janata Party – the ruling Hindu nationalist party that Prime Minister Narendra Modi belongs to – uses an online army of workers and volunteers, along with sophisticated social media bots, to attack anyone who criticizes the government, and to disseminate false images and facts to heighten communal tension.
These online trolls spout right-wing, nationalist, Islamophobic views. Some have very large social media followings. The BJP’s network of trolls is scattered across the country as well as in the party headquarters on Delhi’s Ashoka Road. Each troll has a contact point in the Ashoka Road central cell who sends them daily instructions via WhatsApp. For my recent book on the topic, I spoke to a number of these trolls working for Modi’s party – some of whom had attacked me online.
No current trolls were willing to come on record but a portrait emerged of a typical one. He is male, usually in his 30s, often with anxieties and bitterness about his lack of opportunities. Some believe the lies they peddle and are staunchly anti-Muslim, chauvinistic and resentful of liberal, elite, English-speaking journalists. Some are more pragmatic, treating it as a job like any other.
Our mobile numbers are shared on WhatsApp to get more feral trolls to join in the blood sport.
Then I met Sadhavi Khosla. Khosla, an attractive bright woman in her 30s, had lived for a number of years in the U.S. and had her own business in Gurugram. She was a passionate Modi supporter and had enthusiastically agreed to be an unpaid volunteer on social media during the 2014 national elections, even putting her own business on hold.
Within a year, her zeal had changed to disenchantment. She was dismayed by the daily messages against the Gandhi family and prominent journalists. She finally cracked when she was ordered to threaten e-commerce company Snapdeal into dropping its brand ambassador, the Bollywood star Aamir Khan. Khan had made headlines earlier when he made a statement that was seen as critical of the government. Snapdeal did drop Khan.
The Bollywood star had been an icon for Sadhavi, as he is for countless Indians. Being forced to attack him was the final straw, and Sadhavi soon quit. She is still distraught by her actions and terrified of Modi’s party, regularly tearful in our interviews. And yet, she had the courage and the tenacity to stay the course with me, even as I pushed her time and time again to agree to being on tape and to officially sign off on her testimony to please the lawyers.
This is a dangerous time to be a journalist, activist, woman, Muslim or member of a minority in India.
The BJP’s trolls are mostly anonymous, though some aren’t. They often have Hindu gods as their Twitter display pictures ― or pictures of beautiful women to increase their Twitter following. Those with real identities tend to lead the charge, and as soon as they abuse you, a swarm of anonymous trolls follow in their wake, either repeating the original abuse or adding more to it.
Take the case of dentist Pankaj Narang, who was brutally killed by an angry mob in Delhi in 2016. A Twitter user under the name @bhak_sala – with 77.9k followers, including Modi – tweeted that the doctor was murdered by Muslims and that the media was covering it up. An Islamophobic Twitter storm ensued. Before real riots might have broken out, the Delhi police issued a quick clarification that this was an outright lie. But they did not take action toward the man behind the incitement, who I tracked down. His name is Rahul Raj, and he is a manager based in Bangalore with the pharmaceutical company Novartis. He runs a right-wing propaganda website called Opindia.
Then there’s the notorious abuser @MahaveerM_, who says in his Twitter bio that he is “Blessed 2 Be Followed by PM @NarendraModi.” He was suspended by Twitter in late 2016 until government ministers campaigned to overturn his suspension. Here’s a sample of one of his tweets to Navendu Singh, a supporter of the rival Aam Aadmi Party, on Aug. 16 [WARNING: GRAPHIC]: “Haha moron @NavenduSingh_ don’t fret. I can understand ur Mother’s hole has become so Big, not worth opening too. Use some lotion.’’ In fact, Modi follows two accounts that have been suspended by Twitter for vile abuse.
The more high-profile the victims are, the worse the abuse gets, with women bearing the brunt. The anonymous swarm often sends rape threats and other sexually explicit messages, such as images of pubic hair, to women with vulgar messages attached to it. Well-known Indian TV journalists, such as Barkha Dutt and Rajdeep Sardesai, are among some of the most targeted in this country. I, too, am a victim. Our mobile numbers are shared on WhatsApp to get more feral trolls to join in the blood sport. Slurs such as “sickular presstitute” are now par for the course.
Lies and violent words can have deadly consequences in the real world.
In response, the trolls have given my book special attention. They downgraded it on Amazon and have been viciously attacking the book and me on Twitter. Arvind Gupta, the BJP’s IT and technology head and the party’s former head of social media, called my book “lies and fiction.’’ Yet hearteningly, the book has received support from countless Indian senior journalists and politicians from other parties, many of whom are all too familiar with this abuse.
This is a dangerous time to be a journalist, activist, woman or member of a minority in India. Journalists are expected to be cheerleaders or megaphones for the government, and when they ask questions, they are often abused as “presstitutes” or told to “Go to Pakistan.” Modi has referred to the media as “Bazaru” (sellable) and has shown his contempt for the fourth estate time and time again.
But it’s not possible to have democracy without the media. It’s time for the leader of the world’s largest democracy to stop following and facilitating trolls. Lies and violent words can have deadly consequences in the real world. A political party that peddles such dangerous vitriol must be held accountable.