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.
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.