Something smells rotten on Twitter, and if you go by the faceless eggs – you know it’s the trolls.
Trolls. This is a term that has come to signify anyone who goes trigger/keypad happy when faced by an opposing viewpoint. Lacking logic and perhaps even decency, these most often nameless, faceless but sometimes wholly visible people attack those they don’t agree with. From famous journalists to vocal feminists, to those of opposing political parties – trolls spare none. From death threats to rape threats (reserved for women) they pack much garbage in their cannon.
In her book “I Am A Troll” that’s caused a fair storm which has now begun to subside as is the case with most ‘explosive’ revelations these days, Swati Chaturvedi goes after these trolls, allegedly in employment of the ruling party – the BJP. Her investigation as she calls it, is ‘inspired’ by her own experiences and those of her ‘fellow citizens’ who have been on the wrong side of trolling.
Because on the right-side, if you go by the book, are the bhakts and the Sanghis.
A veteran journalist, Chaturvedi, in this quick-read (roughly 150 pages), maps out how some of the most vitriolic handles on Twitter are those that are ‘“Blessed to be followed by PM Modi”. The PM follows them, they follow him, and they also follow those who speak against him – attacking them at any given opportunity in what looks like a fully organised, coordinated game plan. Heading it is none other than the BJP’s IT cell chief – Arvind Gupta – from the social cell located at 11 Ashoka road. Through her conversations with “over thirty BJP social media volunteers” and Sadhavi Khosla (a former BJP social media cell member, and the only one we get to know by name), the author takes us through how social media attacks are planned (the most famous being the ones on Aamir Khan and Snapdeal), executed and propagated by the BJP social media cell. In it, she quotes a few of the unnamed trolls she met, RSS techies, does interviews with BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav and even the man leading the AAP’s social media cell – Ankit Lal.
For anyone on Twitter, the examples of toxic hate spewed by the Twitter handles she quotes, many of them carrying the legit blue tick, are not shocking or surprising. Nauseating, yes.
Even more nauseating is the fact that when this Mahaveer’s handle was suspended by Twitter, the trolls campaigned to have it overturned with the hashtag #IStandWithMahaveer – and were joined by BJP ’s Union Minster for MSME, who also follows him. Twitter soon reinstated Mahaveer. Victory.
So not only are the trolls let loose on dissenters, they are also abetted and aided by BJP’s leaders, shows Chaturvedi. How else does one justify that many of these abusive handles are followed by the PM himself, who has consistently remained silent on why he continues to follow such people.
There is also evidence cited for how Twitter trends are coordinated, and the most peculiar example of how Thailand surfaces as place of origin for many tweets that make positive news about PM Modi trend. Ankit Lal from AAP, who Chaturvedi says “tracks the ruling party’s social media as part of his work”, presents information on the same, casting doubts about how either the “BJP social media control centres have started using virtual private networks (VPNs) to hide their location and identity… The other possible explanation is that the BJP has hired a marketing agency in Thailand to do their online work.”
Complete with an appendix that comprises a list of trolls followed by the PM, interview with Lal and suggested readings, you finish the book that confirms things you already suspected.
But. But. But.
As much as one would like to applaud this book for its courage to take the names it takes and questions it raises, the whole thing rests on a flimsy premise. Information that is public knowledge – how active the BJP ’s social media cell is, the IT shakhas of the RSS in Bangalore and now Gurgaon – is presented as new information, when it isn’t actually. And that the whole thing is masterminded by BJP top bosses rests on the testimony of unknown, ‘volunteer’ sources and one Sadhavi Khosla.
That Chaturvedi lets Khosla carry the sole burden of veracity is surprising. Khosla’s claims in the book are not above suspicion. Coming from a family of known Congress supporters, her switch to BJP and then disillusionment after volunteering with it at great personal cost, and her reason to reveal all so as to “atone for the sin” that she believes she has committed is a slightly, as we say, filmy explanation to digest. In the 2 years that she volunteered with the BJP and tweeted and shared and spread the information she was asked to, never resorting to abuse and threats though as she says, it is only when actors like Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan too came under attack, that the cover seemed to lift from Khosla’s eyes. There is even a tale of how seeing her say ‘anti-Muslim’ things, her husband reminds her of how their first nanny in the US who took care of their baby boy was Pakistani. And that does it for her and she quits the BJP.
Pardon me if I sound like a cynic, but even though as a social observer I am inclined to believe the claims Khosla and Chaturvedi make in this book, because I see evidence all around me, I am disheartened at how the book fails to stand up to journalistic scrutiny, thereby doing more damage than good. In the current scenario of fake news and post-truth, from a book such as this one that sought to expose the huge ‘digital army’ of the ruling dispensation via an intense ‘investigation’, you expect better research and definitely better objectivity. That you can poke so many holes in the narrative defeats the purpose of it being held up as evidence of how the BJP operates. For really, how can you cite the AAP social media chief and one other analyst as authorities on the BJP’s dirty game? Political bias much? And of course, other parties and people are let go scot-free, even when we know that everyone plays a dirty game – on Twitter and off it.
We live in suspect times. News is suspect, evidence is suspect. What we need are solid, uncompromised, objective facts to help us wade through this information flux that we are currently in the midst of. Journalists, above all others, have increased responsibility to not fall prey to this ping-pong of claims and counter claims. There is just way too much rhetoric clouding the truth today, and no matter how good your intentions to expose something, without substantiation, your heart being in the right place doesn’t cut it anymore.
Because if it did, you’d have no right to blame the trolls or their nationalist hearts.
“I Am A Troll” by Swati Chaturvedi – published by Juggernaut Books and available on the Juggernaut app.