POLITICS

Important Lessons From Journalist Tavleen Singh's Run In With Twitter's Troll Patrol

When Twitter acts judge, jury and executioner.

19/06/2017 2:05 PM IST | Updated 19/06/2017 2:06 PM IST
SAJJAD HUSSAIN via Getty Images

Love can turn on a tweet.

Journalist Tavleen Singh, long beloved of the right for sticking her neck out and supporting Narendra Modi when few in her Lutyens circles did, is now discovering what it means to be on the other side.

The problem is, even a veteran like Singh fell for fake news, and tweeted out a Photoshopped picture of Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath apparently drinking cow urine from the cow. The real picture had him drinking from a hand pump. Singh was trigger happy in her rush to tweet. A furore erupted on social media. At one point, the Uttar Pradesh police even officially acknowledged the angry tweets.

Now she's had to do a full column mea culpa writing that "to all those Hindus who have taken offence, I offer my sincerest apologies".

Singh has discovered what many already knew. Taking offence is our national pass-time and it yields rich political dividends. We live to take offence whether it's at Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses or morphed pictures of Yogi Adityanath. We do not just take offence, we are the offence-seekers.

In the old days we needed an MF Husain to paint a picture or a Rushdie to write a book. Nowadays it's much easier. Offence is the low hanging fruit of social media. But Singh has discovered something else. It's the fact that the room for disagreement and debate has shrunk dramatically in a social media overrun by trolls. And the troll brigade is happy to turn on its own at the drop of an errant tweet.

Singh writes "Many of the handles from which the hate tweets originated had Hindu gods and religious symbols in them and although some listed secular interests in cricket, golf and travel, most said they were 'proud Hindus' interested only in nationalism.

Many admitted that they had nothing but contempt and hatred for Muslims." She says she now understands a little better the phenomenon of angry Hindus on "social media, television and on our highways."

In the old days we needed an M F Husain to paint a picture or a Rushdie to write a book. Nowadays it's much easier. Offence is the low hanging fruit of social media.

The angry buzzing beehive has been there for awhile. It's just that when you are stung you notice it more. Some of these angry accounts are followed by the prime minister himself. In the Rajya Sabha, Trinamool's Derek O'Brien caused a firestorm by claiming that 26 Twitter handles that give out rape threats and communal threats are followed by the Prime Minister of India. Raghu Karnad writes in The Wire, "Before 2014, the mobilisation of right-wing partisans helped the BJP to undercut and undermine the professional news industry, especially any part of it critical of Modi. On Twitter, Modi's party could tack strategically between aggressive Hindutva and a more inclusive platform".

The main takeaway from this storm faced by Singh is two-fold.

What Singh discovered through her Twitter faux pas is that same machine that undercut the professional news industry will happily turn on its own.

One, what Singh discovered through her Twitter faux pas is that same machine that undercut the professional news industry will happily turn on its own. For instance take one look at the comments section of Swarajya, a portal that self-identifies as right of centre, whenever it offers criticism of the government, no matter how tempered the criticism is. Recent articles there lambasting the cattle slaughter rules as heavy-handed big government and lamenting the impact of demonetization on rural India were immediately met by a volley of criticism accusing the writer of being a turncoat.

There is no deviation from party line allowed when the troll machine is on patrol. And if that makes it sound like the Communist Party in the old Soviet Union or today's China, the irony is well-deserved. A troll machine has no appetite for nuance. It's always black and white and any deviation from the mantra means off with her head.

A troll machine has no appetite for nuance. It's always black and white and any deviation from the mantra means off with her head.

Singh has rightly railed against a lazy Lutyens media, grown fat on government patronage, in bed with the powerful. But its replacement by a Twitter mob that acts as judge, jury and executioner is hardly good news. Objectivity itself can now be regarded as unpatriotic if it goes against the party line.

Two, it is possible for all of us, even the most seasoned to fall for fake news, especially fake news that conforms to our belief systems. Singh said in her defence that as a non-Hindu who had been told that gaumutra was drunk as a tonic and used at religious ceremonies, the image had seemed plausible, "intriguing rather than offensive." But it is also a fact that Singh has publicly been strident in her distaste for a religious figure like Yogi Aditynath being made the CM of Uttar Pradesh. Thus it was that much easier for her to fall for the Photoshop prank which was meant to show the CM, well-known for his cow seva, in a ridiculous light.

It's not just Singh. The BJP itself has fallen prey to fake news just because it fit their world view. Sambit Patra, fresh from his run-in at NDTV, tweeted out a Times of Islamabad story about Make in India being a flop show which it attributed to NDTV. It was really from a P Chidambaram piece in the Indian Express. The Times had already published a fake interview with Arundhati Roy which many on the right had seized upon with ferocity even though it was quickly discovered it fake just because it sounded like something Roy could have said.

Even that did not give Patra pause before using it as a source. When called on it, Patra tweeted indignantly about his freedom of expression. Of course the same Patra once famously showed an image of Indian soldiers in Kargil photoshopped from a Pulitzer-winning image from Iwo Jima during World War II to score debating points on TV.

Whether wilful or inadvertent, we live in a minefield of fake news and those who rail at Singh for spreading fake news need to mind their own timelines. If nothing else this fracas shows how we are all vulnerable in these times, when we tweet in haste and repent at leisure and the Twitter mob is always poised to cry havoc and let slip the trolls of war.

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