Lifting the veil over BJP’s digital army (Book Review)

Title: I am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of BJP’s Digital Army; Author: Swati Chaturvedi; Publisher: Juggernaut; Pages: 171; Price: Rs 250

“Why does the PM of India alone among world leaders follow some of his country’s worst online abusers?” Journalist Swati Chaturvedi asks this damning question and goes to answer it in an explosive expose of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) secret digital world where everyone who disagrees becomes an enemy.

After being abused and hounded on social media for six months, a fed up Swati became the first Indian journalist to file a police complaint. Under intense pressure, Twitter suspended the handle and gave Delhi Police the IP and email addresses of the anonymous slanderer. But no arrest was ever made because the culprits had “powerful backers in the government”.

This triggered Swati’s two-year investigation into the BJP digital army. She spoke to BJP and RSS leaders, senior government officials, even BJP trolls who met her furtively. The best catch was Sadhavi Khosla, who admitted to being part of the BJP digital cell and sending hate messages until she got disgusted and her original admiration for Narendra Modi thinned out.

The book says that several journalists, especially women, who have liberal political opinions and question government policies are at the receiving end of “violent, often sexually loaded, abuse from rightwing trolls”. One routine abuse is “sickular presstitute”. Swati calls them “goons” of the online world.

According to the book, among the handles followed by Modi are 26 accounts that sexually harass, make death threats and abuse politicians from other parties as well as journalists. Many make communal statements. Footage taken from Pakistan and Bangladesh is passed off as Indian, with the audio suppressed. Swati wonders why should any leader or party crave a support base making violent threats against women, issuing death threats and spreading communal poison?

The BJP’s social media cell, the book says, is a superbly organised centre, highly effective in spreading messages. The BJP had with foresight created a bank of thousands of dormant Twitter accounts when the verification process was less stringent. These are used when the BJP goes for synchronised tweeting. “They also have bots controlled by the party’s central IT cell which tweet out identical messages simultaneously. These are algorithms acting in social media networks which to the outside world look like a real user.”

Swati is certain, after her extensive interview with former insider Khosla, that there is a clear link between online rightwing trolls and the BJP and that the BJP IT cell controls much of the online trolling.

At one time, the book says, an agency was being paid to tweet against Arvind Kejriwal at the rate of Rs 40 for seven tweets. But it wasn’t clear who was making the payments.

“The BJP’s social media cell has the potential to morph into a bigger monster as it attacks citizens for not conforming to the party’s world view on issues like diet, religion, Kashmir and tribal rights. It is time we opened our eyes to the dangers ahead.” This is an explosive book.

(M.R. Narayan Swamy can be reached on narayan.swamy@ians.in <mailto:narayan.swamy@ians.in>)

–IANS

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