BJP ordered online abuse of opponents: Says former volunteer of BJP’s social media unit, Sadhavi Khosla

Sadhavi Khosla who claims India’s ruling party directly co-ordinated social media campaigns against leading journalists and actors. Photograph: Ahmer Khan for the Guardian

New Delhi,Dec27: According to the Guardian , Sadhavi Khosla, a  former Indian social media troll had alleged that the 2014 prime ministerial campaign of Narendra Modi used social media volunteers to push critical messages about public figures perceived to be opposed to the views of Bharatiya Janata party (BJP). She had also claimed that in, ‘I am a Troll’  book ,released by journalist Swati Chaturvedi, that she was part of a team of social media online campaigners who specifically targeted celebrities ,political personalities, public figures and media journalists, who has views opposed to the BJP.

Whether intended by the BJP or not, the social media campaigns would often spill  into religious and sexual trolling of the target, especially if it was a woman, said Sadhavi Khosla, the 37-year-old former party volunteer, social and political analyst.

According to the Guardian report, the trolls’ “hit list” included political opponents, such as the Congress party vice president, Rahul Gandhi, and Bollywood star Aamir Khan, to name some prominent ones , who were among those singled out.The  social media unit was responsible for directing her and hundreds of other volunteers who  continued to operate, even after she left their service.

When contacted the BJP did not respond to the Guardian’s request for comment in this issue,but the former head of the party’s social media unit, Arvind Gupta, told the Indian Express that Khosla’s claims were unsubstantiated and that she was a supporter of the opposition Congress party.

He also said the BJP had published social media guidelines on its website and never “encouraged trolling”.

Khosla’s account is contained in a new book by the journalist Swati Chaturvedi, published in India on Tuesday, I Am a Troll, which investigates the ties between abusive social media accounts and the BJP.

Prominent Indian women, particularly journalists, have been raising concerns for more than three years about the scale and tone of the abuse they face online, with much of it anonymous, sexually charged and fiercely nationalist.

In the excerpts of the book,she says  that she started  late in 2013, and for nearly two years after, she was one ofscores of BJP supporters receiving direct instructions on messages to push online from senior members of the party’s social media unit.She claims she not only received explicit orders through WhatsApp, but also met with senior members of the digital unit.

A fervent Modi supporter at the time, Khosla enthusiastically participated and diligently did her work, using her Twitter account to criticize Rahul Gandhi and his mother Sonia, both senior members of the Congress party which has ruled India for much of the 70 years since independence. She claims she felt uneasy and  uncomfortable when she was  ordered to tweet criticisms of prominent Indian journalists, such as Rajdeep Sardesai and Barkha Dutt, which featured “slanderous claims”.

“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,” she is quoted in the book as saying.The targets of the unit would end up being swarmed by critical messages that occasionally veered into criminal threats, Khosla said.

“I simply could not follow [the] directions anymore when I saw rape threats made against female journalists like Barkha Dutt,” 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 … It made me feel suffocated as a woman.”

Khosla left the unit after she was asked to spread a petition calling for SnapDeal, a shopping website, to cut its ties with Bollywood actor Aamir Khan.Khan, a Muslim, had attracted the ire of Hindu nationalists in November 2015 after remarking on the “growing intolerance” he felt was taking root in India.

SnapDeal released a statement at the time distancing itself from the 51-year-old’s comments and did not renew his contract in February this year. Another Khan endorsement contract, for the Incredible India! tourism campaign, was also allowed to lapse ,though the government has denied this was linked to the actor’s remarks.

She talks about the actor Aamir,her  hero had become a ‘Muslim’,” Khosla said. “For me he had just been an Indian actor. I felt like my country was changing.”

According to Swati Khosla,  who has 26K followers on Twitter, of which PM Narendra Modi is one, she had send him tweets ask him to take action against drug smugglers in Punjab. But there was no response.

The BJP was among the first major Indian parties to establish a website, and the head of its technology unit, Arvind Gupta, has rhapsodised about the potential for social media to bypass mainstream TV news and press.

PM Modi who is 66, is a pioneer of social media among Indian politicians, posting regular updates to his 25 million followers.

In July 2015 Modi drew criticism for inviting 150 social media supporters to his residence for a meet-and-greet, among them Twitter users who had used sexual slurs and levelled other abuse at women online.

Chaturvedi, the author of the new book, has herself been the target of social media trolling, filing a police complaint last year against an anonymous Twitter account that had deluged her with malicious posts.

Prof K Jaishankar, the executive director of the Tamil Nadu-based Centre for Cyber Victim Counselling, said India’s corrosive online culture was partly due to the freedom the internet granted women in a conservative society.“The problem is that India is typically patriarchal, and women in public space are not easily accepted,” he said. “When it comes to cyberspace ,the patriarchy pervades there too.

“Trolls show dissidence  and never tolerate  the presence of women,or their open comment on issues or are very vocal and articulate,” he said.

“Many of the women who are coming online are elites, like the editor of a magazine or an actor. Whereas the trollers are typically men from a rural or rural-urban continuum, and the internet is the only way they can access these women.

It was recently that India’s minister for women, Maneka Gandhi, has acknowledged that “viciousness against women on the net” is a problem and set up a hashtag for people to report abuse.