Book review

This book links hate-filled tweets to right-wing political strategy and deep planning

Casual social media users should read Swati Chaturvedi's 'I Am A Troll' and then make up their minds.

Anyone from India who has spent any time at all on Twitter is aware of the overpowering presence of a troll army, mostly representing a set of conservative, right-wing ideas. These warriors violently attack those who tweet news, views or opinion that runs contrary to their world-view. The viciousness, crudity and arguably criminal nature of such attacks – threats to rape and murder, for instance, are routine – is visible to everyone.

What is perhaps less known is the sheer scale on which this army operates. No individual on Twitter can fathom the widespread reach and intensity of this activity. This is where journalist Swati Chaturvedi’s book I Am A Troll: Inside The Secret World Of The BJP’s Digital Army comes in. It’s one thing to come across these tweets in ones and twos and threes, over several days or weeks, but it’s another altogether to turn the pages of a book and see them stacked up continuously. It makes you physically sick, in need of retching.

Little of what Chaturvedi has put together between the covers of her book is actually unknown. What she does, though, is to try to join the dots, and establish that behind this army of abuse lies the planning and strategy of both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

It’s not just tweets, but also those ubiquitous Whatsapp forwards that people now receive as a matter of course and pass on without a second thought, assuming they’re telling the truth. Chaturvedi contends that generating these is also part of the daily operations of the “BJP’s digital army”. She also asks a crucial question: why does Prime Minister Narendra Modi follow so many members of this army of abusers on Twitter, giving many of them the opportunity to flaunt the fact that their tweets make it to the timeline of the prime minister of the country?

In fact, the book shows that the idea of conquering through social media, bypassing the natural resistance of the mainstream media in India, which is more liberal than conservative, originated in the RSS well before any other political party realised the potential of the force.

The troll who came out

Chaturvedi’s piece de resistance, so to speak, in the book is the testimony of Sadhavi Khosla, a technology entrepreneur who spent two years volunteering for the BJP’s social media efforts, but gave up eventually in disgust at what she – and many others like her – were being asked to do, and chose to tell her story to Chaturvedi. Almost predictably, the BJP IT cell, through its former head Arvind Gupta, has denied that Khosla was part of the party’s social media cell.

Khosla, too, reveals, what was already known: for instance, that attacks on certain journalists – among them Barkha Dutt, Sagarika Ghosh, and Rajdeep Sardesai – and the concerted campaigns against Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan were carried out under instructions. Khosla is a case study for a specific reason: she tells Chaturvedi she belongs to a family loyal to the Congress, and embraced the original offer to join the BJP’s campaign – but was gradually disillusioned as she was asked to target individuals.

While this is a somewhat naive, even theatrical, moment of discovery, it also points towards the sheer motivating power of the narrative with which the troll army has been – and continues to be – assembled. Chaturvedi’s book does not close the loop on this point, but it makes the reader think, and worry, about the compelling power of a story that can make people turn into abusive monsters online.

Channelling resentment

This is the real story in the book, though not spelt out in as many words. Chaturvedi conducts interviews with three members of this army, revealing a pattern of low confidence, tentative articulation, and an inferiority complex vis-a-vis an upwardly mobile urban society. The RSS/BJP have been prescient enough to channel these into the creation of engines of resentful energy that manifests itself through the tweets we see.

In doing this, of course, the genie has been let out of the bottle. It may only be a matter of time before the violence building up within this tweeting army spills over into the physical world. It will be too late by then.

The strategy behind the use of torrential abuse is clear: either provoke the subject into retorting in kind, or bully them into silence and, perhaps, even off twitter altogether. Chaturvedi has fallen victim to the first impulse too, as she said in an interview: “When I got serial rape threats in September 2014 I called the hyena pack ‘fuck wits’ which the Oxford dictionary defines as ‘stupid or contemptible.’”

Others have responded to abuse with abuse too, playing into the hands of a strategy to split people into taking hard positions on one side or the other, with hatred and anger, rather than rational thought, as the ammunition of this war. But with individuals arraigned against battalions, there’s no prizes for guessing which side is likely to win.

It would probably be wrong to examine Chaturvedi’s work by the conventional standards of a book. This is a piece of extended journalism, put together with an eye on immediacy, which rules out the possibility of sociological, political and psychological analysis.

There’s no doubt that those books will be written too, once a historical perspective is acquired on what is probably a first-of-its-kind social media war in the world, if the scale, violence and filthy language are anything to go by. For now, this quick package is chilling enough.

I Am A Troll: Inside The Secret World Of The BJP’s Digital Army, Swati Chaturvedi, Juggernaut.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content  BY 

Some of the worst decisions made in history

From the boardroom to the battlefield, bad decisions have been a recipe for disaster

On New Year’s Day, 1962, Dick Rowe, the official talent scout for Decca Records, went to office, little realising that this was to become one of the most notorious days in music history. He and producer Mike Smith had to audition bands and decide if any were good enough to be signed on to the record label. At 11:00 am, either Rowe or Smith, history is not sure who, listened a group of 4 boys who had driven for over 10 hours through a snowstorm from Liverpool, play 15 songs. After a long day spent listening to other bands, the Rowe-Smith duo signed on a local group that would be more cost effective. The band they rejected went on to become one of the greatest acts in musical history – The Beatles. However, in 1962, they were allegedly dismissed with the statement “Guitar groups are on the way out”.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Decca’s decision is a classic example of deciding based on biases and poor information. History is full of examples of poor decisions that have had far reaching and often disastrous consequences.

In the world of business, where decisions are usually made after much analysis, bad decisions have wiped out successful giants. Take the example of Kodak – a company that made a devastating wrong decision despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Everyone knows that Kodak couldn’t survive as digital photography replaced film. What is so ironic that Alanis Morissette could have sung about it, is that the digital camera was first invented by an engineer at Kodak as early as 1975. In 1981, an extensive study commissioned by Kodak showed that digital was likely to replace Kodak’s film camera business in about 10 years. Astonishingly, Kodak did not use this time to capitalise on their invention of digital cameras – rather they focused on making their film cameras even better. In 1996, they released a combined camera – the Advantix, which let users preview their shots digitally to decide which ones to print. Quite understandably, no one wanted to spend on printing when they could view, store and share photos digitally. The Advantix failed, but the company’s unwillingness to shift focus to digital technology continued. Kodak went from a 90% market share in US camera sales in 1976 to less than 10% in 2012, when it filed for bankruptcy. It sold off many of its biggest businesses and patents and is now a shell of its former self.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Few military blunders are as monumental as Napoleon’s decision to invade Russia. The military genius had conquered most of modern day Europe. However, Britain remained out of his grasp and so, he imposed a trade blockade against the island nation. But the Russia’s Czar Alexander I refused to comply due to its effect on Russian trade. To teach the Russians a lesson, Napolean assembled his Grand Armée – one of the largest forces to ever march on war. Estimates put it between 450,000 to 680,000 soldiers. Napoleon had been so successful because his army could live off the land i.e. forage and scavenge extensively to survive. This was successful in agriculture-rich and densely populated central Europe. The vast, barren lands of Russia were a different story altogether. The Russian army kept retreating further and further inland burning crops, cities and other resources in their wake to keep these from falling into French hands. A game of cat and mouse ensued with the French losing soldiers to disease, starvation and exhaustion. The first standoff between armies was the bloody Battle of Borodino which resulted in almost 70,000 casualties. Seven days later Napoleon marched into a Moscow that was a mere shell, burned and stripped of any supplies. No Russian delegation came to formally surrender. Faced with no provisions, diminished troops and a Russian force that refused to play by the rules, Napolean began the long retreat, back to France. His miseries hadn’t ended - his troops were attacked by fresh Russian forces and had to deal with the onset of an early winter. According to some, only 22,000 French troops made it back to France after the disastrous campaign.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to sports, few long time Indian cricket fans can remember the AustralAsia Cup final of 1986 without wincing. The stakes were extremely high – Pakistan had never won a major cricket tournament, the atmosphere at the Sharjah stadium was electric, the India-Pakistan rivalry at its height. Pakistan had one wicket in hand, with four runs required off one ball. And then the unthinkable happened – Chetan Sharma decided to bowl a Yorker. This is an extremely difficult ball to bowl, many of the best bowlers shy away from it especially in high pressure situations. A badly timed Yorker can morph into a full toss ball that can be easily played by the batsman. For Sharma who was then just 18 years old, this was an ambitious plan that went wrong. The ball emerged as a low full toss which Miandad smashed for a six, taking Pakistan to victory. Almost 30 years later, this ball is still the first thing Chetan Sharma is asked about when anyone meets him.

So, what leads to bad decisions? While these examples show the role of personal biases, inertia, imperfect information and overconfidence, bad advice can also lead to bad decisions. One of the worst things you can do when making an important decision is to make it on instinct or merely on someone’s suggestion, without arming yourself with the right information. That’s why Aegon Life puts the power in your hands, so you have all you need when choosing something as important as life insurance. The Aegon Life portal has enough information to help someone unfamiliar with insurance become an expert. So empower yourself with information today and avoid decisions based on bad advice. For more information on the iDecide campaign, see here.

Play

This article was produced on behalf of Aegon Life by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff.