Centre for Internet & Society

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) employs an army of trolls to harass and intimidate critics through social media, a new book claims.

The article by Samanth Subramanian was published in the National on December 31, 2016. Pranesh Prakash was quoted.

I Am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army, by the journalist Swati Chaturvedi, alleges that the party’s social media warriors carry out organised harassment, threatening critics of the BJP with assault, sexual violence and even murder.

Although other parties also have social media units, the BJP’s is particularly well organised and vociferous, Chaturvedi wrote.

The BJP social media cell is active on Twitter and Facebook, as well as in the comments sections of articles on news websites, Chaturvedi found. Some of the abusive PRO-BJP Twitter handles are still followed by Mr Modi’s official Twitter account.

I Am a Troll is based largely upon the account of Sadhavi Khosla, now an activist but formerly a volunteer for two years in the BJP’s social media cell, which went into top gear during the parliamentary elections in 2014 when Mr Modi beat the incumbent Congress party led by Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul.

Mr Modi campaigned on a platform of fervent nationalism, drawing upon the BJP’s Hindu chauvinist credentials to attract votes. His party’s social media cell responded accordingly.

"It was a never-ending drip feed of hate and bigotry against the minorities, the Gandhi family, journalists on the hit list, liberals, anyone perceived as anti-Modi," Ms Khosla told Chaturvedi.

The BJP has responded to the claims made in the book by accusing Ms Khosla of political bias, saying she "supports the Congress [and] has all reasons to publish unsubstantiated claims". -In fact, she has never revealed her own political leanings, or even whether she has any.

Arvind Gupta, the head of the BJP’s information technology cell, denies the party encouraged trolling or that Ms Khosla had been a member of any BJP unit.

By way of evidence, Ms Khosla shared with Chaturvedi screenshots of instructions that were purportedly sent by Mr Gupta to the operators of the social media cell. "If there was even an unfavourable mention of [Modi] anywhere, Gupta’s digital tracking tools would pick it up and the pack of hyena-like trolls would descend," Ms Khosla said.

One specific campaign cited in I Am a Troll took place in November last year, after the actor Aamir Khan, speaking as the chief guest at a journalism awards ceremony, remarked upon the growing intolerance in India. "There is a growing sense of disquiet and despondency," he said.

Ms Khosla said the BJP’s social media cell was instructed to launch an all-out attack on Khan. She and her colleagues were also asked to spread a petition calling upon SnapDeal, a shopping website, to drop Khan as its brand ambassador.

"I realised that my hero had become a ‘Muslim’," Ms Khosla said in the book. "For me he had just been an Indian actor. I felt like my country was changing."

SnapDeal cut its ties with Khan in February. Ms Khosla, who said she had been growing increasingly uncomfortable with the social media cell’s tactics, quit not long after.

"I simply could not follow directions anymore when I saw rape threats made against female journalists," she said. "Every day some new person was a target and they would attack like a swarm of bees with vile sexual innuendoes, slander, rape and death threats."

Chaturvedi’s book calls for social media companies and police agencies to take such threats more seriously.

"In the United States, which is a beacon for free speech laws, thousands are arrested each year — and the courts uphold these allegations as ‘actionable’ — based on complaints from people who have received violent threats on social media," she wrote.

"Hate speech, targeted harassment, threats of rape with graphic details of assault, incitement to violence — all this is ‘actionable’ too but our police does not act."

Pranesh Prakash, the policy director at the Centre for internet and Society, a Bengaluru-based non-profit organisation, noted that although there are no Indian laws specifically against abusive online behaviour, the general laws that deal with verbal assault cover online cases as well.

"But I’m not sure how much these cases can be taken forward, given jurisdictional problems," Mr Prakash told The National.

When a person complains to police about online abuse, "the first step would be to establish against whom the case is being made, and doing that is difficult", he said.

Since most social media companies are based in the US, police agencies would have to approach India’s foreign ministry which could then invoke a bilateral treaty to gain this information.

"This can take several months if not longer," Mr Prakash said. "And most police stations are not equipped to handle such treaty-based cases."

"Even if the police takes such complaints seriously — and it’s not always clear that they do — there’s no easy way to proceed."