TECH
11/11/2019 7:36 AM IST | Updated 11/11/2019 6:13 PM IST

How Was The Online Troll Factory Reined In After Ayodhya Verdict?

While social media giants are still slow to take action against online abuse and trolling, self-censorship and threats from government departments led to a bizarre atmosphere of fear ahead of the judgement.

BENGALURU, Karnataka—Hours before the Supreme Court of India read out its Ayodhya verdict on Saturday, the official Twitter handle of the Amethi police replied to a tweet by journalist Rana Ayyub, telling her to “delete it immediately” because she had posted a ‘political comment’. After facing backlash, the police was forced to delete its own tweet, but the incident encapsulated the strange atmosphere of fear and censorship that took over the online life of Indians immediately before and after the monumental judgement was delivered.

The incident was by no means isolated—as the judgement was read out, the Delhi police tweeted that social media platforms were under observation. The Faizabad police deployed 16,000 volunteers to keep an eye on social media, PTI reported. The Internet was blocked in many parts of the country. The Indian Express reported that UP police took action on more than 3,700 social media posts, including getting posts deleted and profiles suspended. WhatsApp messages were circulated, warning people of arrests if they wrote or forwarded any incendiary posts on the issue. Many people who posted “political” tweets on the judgement had to deal with other users tagging different police departments in the comments, asking them to take action.  And bafflingly, the official Twitter handle of India’s public broadcaster, Prasar Bharati News Services, tried to dictate terms to The Guardian for a story it wrote on the tense atmosphere in the country.

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But it seemed to have the intended effect. There were fewer hate messages and less trolling on social media platforms, and even trends related to the topic had relatively low number of posts, indicating to some that even the BJP’s notorious “IT cell” seemed to have toned down its activities around this. However, the silence, which almost seemed like an over-correction, seems to have been achieved through self-censorship and threats from law enforcement agencies. When HuffPost India asked major social media companies what they were doing to ensure peace on their platforms, they refused to comment, though sources said no special preparations had been made to prepare for the aftermath of the verdict.  

The lack of accurate information was so pervasive that Jency Jacob, Managing Editor of fact-checking firm Boom Live tweeted

How was trolling kept in check?

Ahead of the verdict, many people had already started began planning for an adverse reaction, and taking measures to ensure that peace would be kept. Political leaders from both sides told followers to keep calm, and police departments made it clear that they would be closely monitoring the situation as well. 

Aside from that, messages were also sent out asking WhatsApp group admins to keep a close eye on what was being posted in the groups they manage. One WhatsApp group admin in Jharkhand, who runs a group that discusses medical treatment and care for cancer patients, shared a message on the group stating: “Dear All, As per instructions from the government, to maintain law and order we are changing the group setting of our WhatsApp group to admin mode till 11th November. Please bear with us, Thank you.”

When asked about the message, the admin — who asked not to be named — said the message had been circulated locally in Jharkhand in public spaces, although they did not have the original message anymore. “It was a local city circular, for safety purpose we are doing this on the group,” they added.

At the same time, Muslim and Hindu organisations in Gurgaon and Noida (and presumably other areas too) circulated messages appealing for peace around the Ayodhya verdict. HuffPost India has seen some of these messages.

So what didFacebook and Twitter do?

While various community groups and individuals were calling for calm, social media platforms which reach millions of users wouldn’t say if they were doing anything to help keep the peace.

When HuffPost India reached out to some of the biggest social networks in India — Facebook, ShareChat, TikTok and Twitter — to ask whether they have made any preparations to ensure that there is no hate speech being spread on their platforms, all of them refused to comment.

But different sources from the companies told HuffPost India essentially the same thing — that while content moderation teams are on alert, no special steps are being taken to prevent the use of these platforms to spread hate in India.

One social media executive, speaking to HuffPost India off the record, expressed surprise at being asked about Ayodhya, and said, “This is such a sensitive topic, no one can talk about this. We will of course take steps to make sure there is no hate speech, but it’s not something we can do preemptively, or talk about in advance, that would only make things worse.”

In the midst of a wave of users migrating away from Twitter due to its allegedly biased moderation policies, the company also drew criticism for temporarily blocking accounts of reporters who were sharing details of the judgement from the Supreme Court, even as users saying things like “ab Mathura, ab Kashi”—implicitly promising to destroy more mosques in places that are also of religious significance to Hindus—remained unaffected.

What if the verdict was different?

On the whole though, the excessive response by the government and others on WhatsApp and other platforms to clamp down on speech may still not have been as effective if the verdict had gone the other way.

“The post volume has been less — I am seeing a little bit of restraint, it is definitely not over-the-top violent right now,” said Bilal Zaidi, founder of OurDemocracy.in, an online funding platform used by politicians across the political spectrum. “Maybe that’s because it doesn’t outrage the right, and the other side has been peaceful. I also issued an appeal to people to not give outrageous comments, reached out to people to not put posts when enraged.”

“Unlike Kashmir—all of that happened suddenly—we knew it (Ayodhya verdict) was going to happen, so a political position of restraint had been reached, and people realized the sensitivity of the issue. It has been a violent issue in the past, and there have been a few learnings, and all the appeals by people did help. And the senior leaders have been making the right noises, I think the government did a good job to pre-empt the response, both online and offline,” he added.

And that shows the importance of the Prime Minister taking a position on sensitive issues, and that is why over the years, people have been asking the PM to take responsible positions on issuesBilal Zaidi, founder of OurDemocracy.in

When HuffPost India asked about it, Zaidi also engaged in some speculation about what would have happened if the verdict had gone differently — if it had, in fact, not set the stage for the temple to be built.

“There would have been outrage. Over the years, we have seen that people on other sides of the divide have also tried to have their IT cells, but you quickly realize that other political parties don’t have the ability to mobilize on issues like Kashmir or Ayodhya,” Zaidi said. “But you can expect the BJP IT cell to be aggressively talking about this issue—so the ruling also meant there was no need to take it to the next level.”

Zaidi also pointed out that this time, unlike with other sensitive issues, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke on time.

“PM tweeted a day before the judgement, and came out with a video after the verdict, so there was no need for the IT cell to build a narrative. I think it was handled very well, and the IT cell had no role to play, there was no gap to fill,” he added. “And that shows the importance of the Prime Minister taking a position on sensitive issues, and that is why over the years, people have been asking the PM to take responsible positions on issues.”